As It Happens

Canadian newspapers have a lot to learn from the Saskatchewan Roughriders: report

Public Policy Forum says the journalism industry should adopt philanthropic funding model similar to that of the Regina football team.

Public Policy Forum says the journalism industry should adopt philanthropic funding model

The Canadian newspaper industry could learn a thing or two from the Saskatchwan Roughriders, suggests a new report. (Matt Smith/Canadian Press)
Listen6:39

The Canadian journalism industry may be able to learn a thing or two from the Saskatchewan Roughriders, according to a new report.

The report is one of two released on Tuesday by the Public Policy Forum. The other adds to concerns about the decline of the industry and says the number of articles published in newspapers across 20 small and mid-sized Canadian communities declined by 50 per cent between 2008 and 2017.

Edward Greenspon, the president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum and former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, spoke to As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about why he thinks it's time for journalism organizations to adopt creative funding models similar to those used by a Regina football team.

What is it about the Saskatchewan Roughriders that the Canadian media industry should be taking note of?

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are in the land of the co-operative society. They are in the land where when the market didn't work for you, you found other sorts of solutions, and that happened with the Roughriders themselves in the early 2000s.

They were losing money and private enterprise wasn't really interested in backing them anymore. [They're] beloved to the community, important connection to the community, and so the community got behind the team and it set up an ownership structure, which is almost unique in North America on professional sports teams. Only the Roughriders and the Green Bay Packers are owned by the community.

Individuals put in different amounts and have shares, but nobody can control the team. Then the shareholders who put the money into the team appoint a board of directors. So it's a kind of co-operative, but not everybody is necessarily equal.

And how is it working out for those companies that are kind of leaning this way or being more aggressive in implementing a policy like this?

I don't think anybody has figured out a business model that works. I think that's the first thing to say. I think everybody is in decline.

Indeed, revenues for the newspaper industry ... they keep crashing. It's downward spiral — and an accelerating downward spiral.

Having said that, the people who are experimenting are giving themselves a fighting chance to try different things. Private enterprise might be in that mix too.

I think the key to the Saskatchewan Roughriders model, Helen, is it's close to the community. If news organizations are going to succeed, they can't be seen as being from away. They can't be doing centrally produced news that's not terribly relevant to that community. But they have to begin to plant roots again within the communities, and this model would allow that.

As newspapers struggle to stay afloat with competing digital formats, Edward Greenspon suggests adopting a not-for-profit funding model. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Is there not a risk, though, that when you're talking about these kind of not-for-profit models that rely on donors, that rely on philanthropy, that newspapers can't plan for the long-term? They can't make a commitment to staff and the kind of coverage that they can establish.

I don't think there is any model that's out there now that looks sustainable. Nobody is making commitments to their staff other than, you know, you're probably going to get laid off in the next five to 10 years. So I think this has the opportunity to have a more sustainable basis.

There's a charitable publication in the United States, an investigative journalism publication, called ProPublica. They've won Pulitzer Prizes. They've done terrific work. It all comes out of donations from several philanthropists who have supported it. And that would not be possible in Canada because the tax laws would probably not support that.

You see in a lot of communities across the country where people living in those communities try to pick up the slack with community message boards, Facebook, self-reporting — that kind of group activity. Can that take the place for some people of the kind of reporting you're talking about?

I think the opportunities the digital world offers are extraordinary.

The opportunity of people in Ottawa last week during the tornado, or this past weekend, to be able to talk to each other within small neighbourhoods and find out what's going on, who might have water supply, and who needs shelter because they've lost electricity — those are terrific things.

But also what's required is professional journalists who do a kind of iterative job, day by day, they eek out and learn more about a situation. That is foundational to the scrutiny of democracy, to the informing of democracy, as well.

So I don't think that can be lost, but I think we've had this added layer of vibrancy on top and that's a great addition. If we can work out the financing of journalism, we will have the best system ever.

Written by Katie Geleff and John McGill. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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