Crying For Attention

Now that the deal with Google is all but done, what does the future hold for the Canadian news media, do you think? The newspaper chains and the local broadcast newsrooms. Have their prospects brightened? Is this an industry newly buoyant, a hot ticket among investors?

Alas, no. As we close out the year 2023, here’s how things stand. A few venerable properties with national scope and an emphasis on business coverage, such as Thomson-Reuters and the Globe and Mail, still prosper. But most of what remains of the 20th century newspaper industry continues its agonizing, shrieking, slow-motion death scene. Will the Google settlement be enough to bring that to a halt? Probably not. If the reaction from Torstar owner Jordan Bitove is anything to go by, it won’t even stop the shrieking.

Meanwhile, the telcos that own the commercial broadcasters see local TV newsrooms as money-losing encumbrances they would very much like to be rid of. The Leader of the Opposition contemptuously rejects the impartiality of Canadian Press, the private sector news service, and vows to take a meat cleaver to the CBC as soon as he becomes Prime Minister. For the companies that own the Toronto Star, Postmedia, CTV, Global, TVA, there is still money to be wrung from news journalism, but they also know they are in the business of managing demise, and the government knows this too.

That’s the policy problem, surely. Not keeping the legacy media alive, but easing their passing. Was Bill C-18, the Online News Act, realistically imagined as the salvation of the news industry? Or was it a palliative pat on the back, a procedure to buy the patient more time, so that the doctors could show they’d done all they could?

Imagine what the Canadian news media landscape is going to look like two years from now, by which time the next federal election must be held. Or a year after that, when who knows who might be in power? The Conservatives are revving their engines to put the mainstream media in their place. It’s right up front in their campaign rhetoric. It gets cheers every time they mention it. Expect no favours for the news industry from a Poilievre government.

The Liberals tried to help the industry because they genuinely believe that sources of trustworthy news are essential to social wellbeing, and we’ll all be worse off once no one is covering city hall. How well the government has gone about it is up for debate, but that was the motivation. For the Conservatives, the “trustworthy news” the Liberals insist is so important is just a running account of things told from a liberal point of view. The fact that the Liberals tried to help this industry at all is evidence that the news cannot be trusted.

Yes, there are promising news journalism start-ups and we’ll get to them shortly, but to appreciate the policy issue and the political problem the news media have become, we have to recognize what’s dying commercially and why it can’t be stopped.

First, it’s only a specific type of media content that’s dying. Everything else is proliferating at the gallop. From porn to podcasts, sports to fanfic, scandalous gossip to helpful home repair videos, every other genre of information has made the transition from the 20th century to the 21st in order to either make money or command attention. Except local news reporting. Why should that be?

Consider the Belleville Intelligencer, exactly the sort of newsroom the Online News Act was designed to help keep alive. A hard fact about the Intelligencer is that it cannot generate any revenue that does not come from the city of Belleville (population 50,000), no matter how good its journalism. There are only so many local car dealerships, and even they don’t need the Intelligencer as an advertising vehicle anymore.

The second hard fact about the Belleville Intelligencer is that it is an omnibus publication, and it can’t be anything else. Other newsrooms can focus on a single subject and cultivate readerships across the country: The Hockey News (the NHL), The Logic (the tech industry), The Hill Times (politics and Parliamentary affairs). The Intelligencer has to cover politics, business, sports, crime, the courts and the cultural scene. It has to be all things to all people who live in Belleville or it doesn’t have a product to sell. As cutback after buyout after layoff whittles the staff down to the point that the newsroom simply can’t cover the city comprehensively, its hold on the city’s attention slips away. It becomes irrelevant.

How could a newsroom like that be in any way profitable?

The third hard fact about the Belleville Intelligencer is that it is part of a chain. Small town newspapers never made much money even before the Internet, but they did make money. If a company owned scores of them, those marginal, steady profits added up to millions. Plus, the local papers benefited from the efficiencies of chain ownership. Centralized payroll and insurance. Popular syndicated material such as the crossword, the bridge column, Calvin and Hobbes. Corporate purchasing and delivery of newsprint. Tech support to keep their printing presses well-oiled and humming. Tax breaks aplenty!

There used to be advantages for city dailies and community weeklies in being owned by chains. Now they are roped together like doomed alpine mountaineers. If the corporation that issues the paycheques plunges to its death, they all get dragged into the crevasse along with it.

When Metroland, the Toronto Star subsidiary, decided this summer it could no longer sustain its local papers in 70 towns and communities, it didn’t try to sell the properties, even at rock bottom prices. There was nothing left to sell. Just employees to terminate, rental agreements to wrap up, and 13 cents on the dollar for the creditors.

It’s not just that news conglomerates are no longer wanted. News as a species of information – the industrial output of waning corporations – has fallen out of favour. News journalism promised reliable accounts of what matters in the world and where you live, something we could all agree on. It aimed to fix the facts of things.

That sort of arrogance no longer sells. If every fact is contestable, what matters is not the facts but the contest. Something we can all disagree on.

One of the gifts of the Internet has been the all-consuming firestorm of everyone announcing their opinions to one another – seeking approval, picking fights, writing Amazon reviews, rating Uber drivers. And the one thing everyone feels absolute freedom to mouth off about is politics. Because how political power is exercised is important in a way that other important things are not. And because that’s democracy, citizens. In a free society, everyone gets to speak up about how they are governed. Everyone is entitled to try to persuade everyone else.

So, hats off to political journalism start-ups such as The Hub and The Line and the various Substacks, who are betting they can carve out a paying clientele for topical commentary on political news. You’d think that would be an over saturated market, but apparently not.

Even as their newsrooms wither, the legacy media show no sign of growing short of polemicists. If anything, they’re top heavy with marquee names who have plenty of opinions but don’t do much in the way of original reporting. They riff on events as they unfold. The point of their work is to take the facts of things and try to persuade us of something.

They may be very smart people with insights and analysis that deserve our attention, but the facts they comment on have to come from somewhere. Spouting off is easy and cheap. Responsible inquiry and accurate reporting require professional standards and a budget.

Consider two Canadian journalism start-ups, launched around the same time. The Post Millennial debuted in 2017, its focus on Canadian political news, right from the start a right-wing indignation machine. The Logic debuted in 2018, its focus on the policy, politics, and business dealings of the tech industries.

The Logic delivers interesting information you didn’t know until they told you (i.e., news), written with snap. The Post Millennial is nothing but snap. The Logic has exacting standards in its reporting and analysis. The Post Millennial has nothing of the kind.

Why? Because when the subject matter is money, the reporting has to be deep and dependable, and the analysis has to be genuinely useful to knowledgeable readers, or you don’t have a product to sell. When the subject matter is politics, and if the only priority is crying for attention, all you need is a smart mouth. The Post Millennial is just a bunch of partisan warriors having a good time being outraged. It’s not expected to make money. It’s expected to make trouble.

Even so, it makes money. In 2022, it was purchased by Human Events, an American conservative outfit that’s been around since 1944, whereupon its emphasis shifted ever more to US politics. I miss the old Post Millennial, the one that was so deeply, sophomorically annoying about Canadian politics.

Now imagine trying to devise a policy instrument that will materially support a 189-year-old title like the Belleville Intelligencer right along with a start-up newsroom like The Logic, but exclude a start-up like the Post Millennial, a publication that is nothing if not current, politically attentive and engaged. Why exactly do we want to help the Belleville Intelligencer but not the Post Millennial?

That’s the policy problem the current government has been grappling with. How to assist the responsible news industry as it tries to adjust to a transformed economy. But on top of their economic woes the legacy media companies also have a political problem, one that the current government can’t help them with. In fact, the more the current government tries to help the news media economically, the more it inflames the political problem the news media face, which is that the government-in-waiting is out to get them.

In the Fall Economic Statement, the Liberal government bumped the Journalism Tax Credit from 25% to 35%. (Quick reminder: a tax credit is not a tax. It is a means to pay less tax. Nor is it a cash subsidy from the government. I repeat, it is a means to keep more of one’s own money by paying the government less. It is a tax cut.)

The idea — and it’s a very good idea — is to coax the news companies to hire journalists rather than, say, accountants or insolvency lawyers, and otherwise keep government out of it. The Journalism Tax Credit does not cover executive compensation and cannot be used to service corporate debt. It is a tool to help local newsrooms like the Bellville Intelligencer without padding the bank accounts of the parent company. And a tax credit is ideologically blind. It applies to the newsroom of the Toronto Star just as it does to the newsroom of the Toronto Sun. Ultra-woke liberals and reactionary conservatives can benefit equally. All they need are accountants to file for the exemption.

Good idea or not, the Conservatives attacked it as a bribe, yet another sly Liberal measure to make the media beholden to the government agenda. To conservatives, it’s this sort of ongoing bribery that accounts for the pervasive liberal tone of the mainstream media, and corrupts the whole lot of them. If you are of that cast of mind, the CBC is the biggest bribe of all.

And if you are in the corporate suites of the private sector news companies, you are now cold in the realization that an ascendant right-wing party would rather campaign against a tax break than lift a finger to help you. They’re not anti-business, they’re just anti- your business. They see you the way environmentalists see the petroleum companies, as polluters.

Nor will the private sector news companies find many allies. When the election is called, the threat to the CBC will draw protests and placards, but no one will be marching in the streets in support of Postmedia.

Here’s my prediction: If the Postmedia chain still exists three years from now, it will be an even more shrunken thing than it is today, its newsrooms so diminished it will hardly matter whether they hang on or cease to exist. The CBC will either be the last remaining national news source with local newsrooms across the country – in which case it will be vilified by its enraged political enemies as a government Thought Ministry – or it will be a gutted ruin, like a city sacked after a siege.

The CBC was created expressly to provide a public service alternative to private sector broadcasting, to backstop where the profit market in radio and TV fails. So, to lose the CBC just when the for-profit news companies are so obviously failing would be twice the catastrophe. But that’s what we’re looking at.

Me, I will lament the passing of the network and newspaper newsrooms, but I’m getting on in years. It’s hard for folks of my vintage to conceive of a city like Edmonton without a big city daily like the Edmonton Journal. How can a city know itself without a common source of municipal information to which everyone subscribes?

But this is not something that worries anyone who is 23 years old, or even occurs to them. The storied news titles the old guard is so concerned about – the Montreal Gazette, the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, Maclean’s magazine – young adults have barely heard of. They are certainly not where people born after the year 2000 turn to be informed about what matters in the world and where they live.

For an entire generation of Canadians, a future without the legacy news industry is already here.

Plan for that, strategists.

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  • The Hill Times, December 11, 2023