Day 6

Why government bailouts won't save Canadian newspapers

Reporter and editor Selena Ross loves newspapers, but she says she'd rather let them go bankrupt than see them take government funding.
The Toronto Star's Vaughan Printing Plant is pictured on Friday, January 15, 2016. The newspaper has said that 220 full-time employees and 65 part-time workers will be affected by a plan to sell it's Toronto area plant and outsource the work. (Canadian Press)
Listen7:25

This country's largest circulation newspaper, the Toronto Star, is "very, very close to the end."

That's according to Torstar board chair John Honderich, whose company owns the daily paper.

Newspapers around the world have struggled in recent years, but Honderich's announcement this week is setting off alarms in the news industry. As the federal government prepares to announce its budget next month, publishers are hoping it will include government support.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that his government is "modernizing" the Canada Periodicals Fund and will work with "valued friends and partners" in the media.

But at least one journalist hopes that doesn't mean a bailout for floundering newspapers. Selena Ross, a writer for Maisonneuve Magazine, wrote a series of tweets against the idea. She spoke with Day 6 host Brent Bambury about why.

  

Brent Bambury: You took to Twitter to beg the federal government not to intervene to save the Toronto Star. Why?

Selena Ross: My begging came after everyone else's begging had already sort of started after those those two pieces ran. I think that most people who work in this industry, and who are not running these papers, are pretty much against the idea of the bailout.

I spent most of my career, so far ,working at papers and everyone I know who's my age and who does work in those newsrooms — pretty much everybody — is against the idea. I happen to not be working at a paper right now and I just wanted to make sure people knew that this is a subject of debate.

What are the consequences of a paper like the Toronto Star taking a subsidy. How could that be bad for the paper and for journalism?

I think it compromises their credibility. Newspapers are watchdogs. They know how to do that. They have the institutional knowledge. There's no other media that really does that quite so well.

So I think it's really important for papers to maintain kind of a complete independence from government.

PM Justin Trudeau responds to recent layoffs at the Toronto Star, and the governments approach to helping to save media organizations. 1:10

It's the suggestion that if they took government money they would no longer be able to hold government accountable?

Yes, or even if internally it all is working out pretty well, and the arm's length relationship does work, the public's [perception] has very little to do with that. If people stop trusting papers then that's a huge loss.

I'm not convinced that we're at that point where this is necessary and that we've done everything we can do — both in terms of running those papers and trying everything possible to keep them solvent. And even for the government, I mean there are there are steps that could be taken that don't have quite the same downside as this bailout would have.

John Honderich seems to think that if he doesn't get the money the Toronto Star will not survive. What business model are you imagining that he is not sharing with us right now that could that could work without this money?

It's true that it may be too late to do the things that should have been done before. That still doesn't change my mind that this is not the right way out. It's inevitable that the Star and other papers will have to find their way out of their problems and figure out a model that is sustainable for them. We cannot just switch over to public funding.

It's a marathon that will take years and years of trial and error. And what will work in one place and for one type of journalism ... it probably won't work in another city, for example. It's just going to take tons of small experiments and really careful spending to survive this.

    

Do you think it might be too late for the Canadian journalism model? In the last seven years, more than 200 weekly papers and more than two dozen dailies have either closed or merged operations. Does this suggest to you that maybe there isn't a future for print newspapers in a lot of places in Canada?

I think it's too late for that model definitely, but we've known that it's too late for that model for a long, long time now. It's as terrifying to me as anybody to imagine a future where those places all fold. I think we just have to go through that before we come out on the other side, and this public funding will just prolong the misery that we're on right now.

But if it's either public funding or bankruptcy for the Toronto Star, would you be willing to let it go bankrupt?

I can't stomach this really more than ... anyone [else] can. And I have good friends who work there. But yes, I would actually pick bankruptcy. I think that that's awful and they've been trying and I know that it's very easy for me to sit here and opine about it.

It's very, very hard to run that business, but they should have been desperately trying to fix this and being really, really smart about it years ago and they haven't been.

   

You're taking a very hard line. If you're saying no public money for newspapers should that also mean no public money for the CBC?

That's different. But I do strongly feel that the CBC — I think I agree with Honderich here — is that they do need to review the mandate of the CBC, and they should have done that first before thinking about bailing out papers.

For example, the CBC not only runs so much news online these days it does compete directly with, but it's now [also] selling online ads. Last year it made $36 million, I think, in online ads. And [that's] not to say that that money would all go to papers, or to other digital media, if it weren't going to CBC, but a lot of people in the newspaper industry feel that that's outrageous.

Is it difficult for you to talk about this publicly?

That remains to be seen. I didn't really think that hard before tweeting about it. And I don't have that much to lose right now. I'm not working for any of those papers.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear our full interview with Selena Ross, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.