The Current

How to save local news without massive government bailouts

The new $50 million being allocated to fund local journalism is described as a "down payment" on a broken system by industry experts. What other measures should the government take?
The new Liberal government has allocated $50 million dollars for local news over five years, but experts says that won't address the funding model. What will? (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
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In the last decade more than 16,000 Canadian journalists have lost their jobs. And twenty-seven daily newspapers and 222 weekly have either closed or merged operations.

But things might be looking up: according to reports, the new federal Liberal budget will include $50 million to spend on local journalism over the next five years.

The question is: will that be enough to save local news?

'Drop in the bucket'

"It's a drop in the bucket," said David Beers, the founding editor of the independent Vancouver newsmagazine the Tyee and adjunct journalism professor at UBC.

"I mean it's one per cent of the budget that the CBC says it needs. It's two per cent of Post Media's projected print and online ad revenues this year — and that's not even mentioning subscriptions," Beers told The Current.  

Collectively newspapers have dropped $200 million of revenue between 2016 and 2017, incurring about 10 to 20 per cent losses every year. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Edward Greenspon, former journalist and president of the Public Policy Forum, agrees the funding will not protect larger media organizations from collapse, but it may serve as a boon to regional journalism.

"It can afford to hire 120 to 150 local journalists ... That's 10 - 12 journalist per province and territory. And that would make a difference."

But broadly, Greenspon thinks the move is a "down payment" on a broken system.

"There is something in the economic model: there is little value in advertising and people don't want to pay for news when there is so much free news — including the CBC — around," he said.

"Therefore you need new sources of revenue … we need to have reporters on the ground who are digging up stories, who are patrolling the beat of other democratic institutions in the country. How do we finance that? It's time to figure out solutions."

Break up consolidation

​One such suggestion is to break up the consolidation of independent newspapers across the country into large corporations and diversify the media landscape.

"Regulators have allowed these companies to merge over and over again," said Beers.

"Part of the reason that they're going out of business is that … nobody wants to pay for their huge debt."

In the 1990s and early 2000s when local newspapers were bought up by national media organizations, part of the logic was to share content between platforms. Local coverage took a backseat, and national stories filled the pages of small-town papers.

In November, Postmedia and Torstar swapped more 40 local community newspapers with each other, and shut down most of them. The move resulted in 291 job losses. (Russell Boyce/Reuters)

Beers believes this editorial shift contributed to declining subscribers in local papers.

"You'll be reading your local newspaper and you wouldn't really see your own concerns reflected in it. The reason the Tyee is able to get so much of its readers' support in financial hard cash contributions is [because] every day we wake up and we just figure out how to defend and hold accountable our local region."

Local ownership

Beers thinks renewed financial investment from the local community will follow their renewed stake in the content. 

He said he's "hopeful" about reports the government will explore new funding models that enable donation and subscriber-based projects as part of the new budget. 

We're about to see the unraveling of these old corporate chains … now we need to return to local ownership.- David Beers

"[We need] a new framework allowing money to flow more easily into non-profit or trust structured local journalism outfits. We're about to see the unraveling of these old corporate chains … now we need to return to local ownership."

Greenspon agrees that a return to local ownership is key, and that government's current philanthropic policies need to be updated in turn — but it's not enough.

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

New Money

"Google will rake in —  just from Canadian online advertisers this year —  $2.6 billion … we do need new sources of money,' Greenspon told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

He thinks the government reconsider how they allocate funds to platform companies that do not reinvest in Canadian journalism, like Facebook and Google.

But he also thinks the government is going to have to loosen its purse strings if they are really committed to saving local journalism.
Ed Greenson says journalism is in the midst of an "existential crisis." (ppforum.ca)

Greenspon points to the CBC as an example of the type of substantial funding that is needed. As a crown corporation, it is paid for by tax payers dollars, and is promised $675 million in the new budget. 

"The CBC is a policy." 

Beers agrees the CBC is an important part of the conversation. As a public service, how can CBC better serve to protect local journalism?

"If the CBC is going to receive a billion dollars in funding compared to $10 million to supposedly fix all the rest of the problems that are local reporting, then the CBC really needs to see itself as a catalyst ... rather than see itself as just another siloed corporation competing with other large corporations," Beers said.

"The landscape will not look like that in a few years."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.


This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and Geoff Turner.

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