Fixing Canadian Media Part 1

March 6, 2024

Seven years ago, John Oliver did this brutal take-down of the American newspaper business. Almost all of it turned out to be accurate. For example, TRONC, the awfully-named company that owned the Chicago Tribune and some of the more important newspapers in the United States, was just a recycling operation for news stories. It lasted just two years.

In Canada, newspapers have been on life support for years. The Globe and Mail, the country’s most important newspaper, is privately-held so we don’t know whether it makes money or loses it. Unlike every other newspaper in Canada, the Globe’s owners have deep pockets and own money-making non-newspaper assets. Executives of the Thomson family holding company Woodbridge had the good sense to unload newspapers in the last century and buy cash cows like Westlaw. It’s a database that’s indispensable for lawyers because it has information that’s very hard to get anywhere else.

Other Canadian media companies didn’t do that. Instead, they were saddled with debt in the “convergence” fad years as print and broadcast companies merged. These media entities have been dismantled, but the debt, usually to American vulture capitalists, remains.

So Canadian publishers banded together and started pressing the federal government for a bailout. Rightly, they claim newspapers are vital to the democratic system. The fallacy that they sold the feds was that their newspapers were the ones that had to be saved.

So the feds started bailing. Now here’s the problem: if the Titanic’s captain had been able to con someone into handing over cash to plug the hole, the donor/lender should be able to expect to see a floating ship the day after.

But that’s not what happened to Canadian newspapers. The ship seems to be sinking at the same rate. Since the bailouts began, dozens of Metroland and independent newspapers have shut down. The part of the province that I come from, northern Simcoe County, has 200,000 people living in Barrie, Orillia, Collingwood, Midland, Penetanguishene and the rural area, with another 100,000 or so seasonal residents, has no newspaper at all. A couple of entrepreneurs have one or two-person online news sites, but that is the thinnest journalism, no matter how dedicated and skilled they may be.

The London Free Press’s office building was torn down this winter. It had a small, rented office in the city’s downtown that’s closed, too. The National Post doesn’t have a newsroom anymore. And that matters. People who have a story can’t easily have a face-to-face meeting with journalists. Many reporters rarely do in-person or even phone interviews. Reporters, always under the gun for time, and burdened with demands to write for their own publications and have a profile on the various social media platforms, do too many “interviews” by email, often communicating with media relations staff rather than decision-makers.

Federal funding was supposed to at least slow the decline as we head towards… what? There was never a destination in all this. With no targets, an untenable status quo and obvious structural failure, how could bailouts be anything more than a delay of the inevitable?

And it’s fair to ask whether the feds are simply buying time for the vulture fund that owns PostMedia to asset-strip and wind down the company. It’s hard to believe, looking at the product, that Chatham Asset Management is seriously trying to build a journalism business in Canada.  

As Michael Geist often points out , Canadian newspapers have become dependent of government funding. Maybe that could have worked if (a) people saw an improvement in Canadian print media, and (b) they could be convinced that a subsidized media is not a bought media.

Because here’s what the publishers and their lobbyists didn’t care about, and what the Trudeau government, which has come to resemble the McGill University Graduate Students Association, chose to ignore: the populist neo-fascist movement despises the press, wants it out of the way, and has become skilled at delegitimizing its role in the public sphere.

I wrote about this ten years ago. While the Trudeau government has had kinder words for the press, the flow of information to the public never increased and the slide toward a spoon-fed media, now also on the government dole, continues. The federal, provincial and municipal freedom of information systems seem designed to fail, as this important Globe and Mail journalism shows. Whatever’s left of an inquisitive, effective media stands to take a huge hit if Poilieve is elected.

The publishers and the feds don’t realize that Pierre Poilievre and his extremist followers don’t want any non-partisan journalism.

What’s the answer? I’d start with the free market. Let dying papers die. Get news executives who don’t believe in the value of journalism out of the marketplace. That’s the messy part.

Then underwrite entrepreneurs. Investment capital, enough to carry a publication to the point where people are familiar with it and its product and are able to make informed choices about whether to support it, is very scarce (and always has been.)

And if that doesn’t work, perhaps we need to look again at the idea of a sort of “print CBC”, a text news system that runs on public funds but is independent of political actors and their appointees.

Maybe none of these ideas will work, but neither does the system we have now.