The Shattered Mirror – News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age proposes increased bureaucratic input and public funding for a sector rocked by new technology.
What Uber has done to the taxi business and Airbnb to accommodation, has invaded all forms of media including news reporting and distribution. Daily newspapers are haemorrhaging advertising revenues and many have been forced out of business, or to adopt different means of distribution. Many other sectors are affected by technology such as education with the offerings of online courses. Existing suppliers fight back to maintain at least some semblance of the status quo, often lobbying governments for increased support. Ultimately new technology usually wins and a new breed of entrepreneurs rise to fill any gaps to provide the desired goods and services.
The process is part of Schumpeter’s stages of creative destruction which benefits consumers, and those producers who adapt. Those who lose appeal to the government for support. Such is the case for The Canadian Public Policy Forum’s latest report The Shattered Mirror, News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age which examines how technology has affected traditional news media. It argues that the public is poorly served by the new digital news providers and that democracy is at risk with, for example, the reporting of fake news.
Since the 1950’s numerous reports have examined the Canadian media including news. They include:
1951 Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts Letters and Sciences (Massey Report).
1961 Royal Commission on Publication (O’Leary Report)
1970 Special Senate Committee Report on the Mass Media, (Davey Report)
1981 Royal Commission on Newspapers (Kent Report)
1982 Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee (Applebaum Hebert Report)
2006 Senate Report on the Canadian News Media (40 recommendations and 10 suggestions).
All recommended measures of protection and support to which The Shattered Mirror adds its contribution. Written by a person who has had a distinguished career in journalism, this almost assures that the recommendations will include further government support for the industry. It succeeds in this regard. It would be the same if dairy farmers were asked for advice on supply management or academics on university funding.
The report contains thirteen proposals. Many require additional administration of funds and rules which in total would require both added bureaucratic overhead and time spent by firms to qualify for the funding.
Two proposals provide the tenor of the report and the tortuous process that would be required to comply with the provisions.
- In the proposal to extend provisions of Section 19 of the income tax act to other media. Producers of eligible news will be required to show that: (Recommendation No.1).
At least 75 percent of editorial payroll and 75 percent of their eight most highly paid employees are Canadian individuals or personal-service companies.
At least five percent of the company’s revenue generated in Canada is spent on editorial operations, with a significant amount for civic-function journalism.
- Creation of a fund managed independently from the government (Recommendation No.5).
Creation of the Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund would provide financing for digital innovation, especially in its early stages, and be directed at those operators who produce civic-function journalism at the national, regional and local levels. To qualify, enterprises would have to be Section 19-compliant and deliver original news on digital platforms that are refreshed at least once a week. The fund would cover a maximum of 75 percent of the cost of a project. The ability of applicants to attract support from other partners would factor into the grant decision.
Proposals regarding the CBC fail to note shrinking audiences especially for English language television. CRTC Annual Monitoring Reports (available online) show the CBC’s share of the English language television market fell from 13.2 percent in 1994 to 7.5 percent in 2000 and to 5.1 percent in 2012. While government financing has remained around $1bn, this segment of its mandate has been shrinking, so that on a per viewer basis the funding has been increasing.
If the CBC is to survive, consideration should be given to it being funded only by government and not selling commercials. The latter puts it in competition with private broadcasters, allowing it to use public funds to buy programs like major sporting events. In the UK and Australia, the public broadcaster is funded almost entirely by government, with far less angst being created between public and private broadcasters. A government owned broadcaster, if one is needed, can devote its attention to its public service mandate and have a far lesser concern for audience size.
The Shattered Mirror focuses on the importance of civic-function journalism defined as the coverage of elected officials and public institutions, from legislatures, judicial and quasi-judicial bodies and city halls to school boards and supporting public services. That is important, but in a globalized world coverage of what happens outside Canada is increasingly important. Much of this can be accessed online from websites and blogs run by people whose judgement I personally respect in different news related fields, and superior to many traditional news sources. In broadcast media, my preference is for The Agenda on TVO and the PBS Newshour. In both instances the anchors are informed but do not insert their own opinions, unlike what prevails with the CBC and CTV.
There is much more to comment on in the report. As it stands it argues the case for supporting more of the same with increased bureaucratic input. It deserves further discussion.