Back to the drawing board, Bill

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says his budget will provide support for journalism. It won’t. It will only provide demise-delaying bailouts for badly managed media corporations. There are better ways.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner March 25, 2019.

Start with this from Page 173 of the federal budget Finance Minister Bill Morneau tabled in the House of Commons last week: “Support for Journalism.”

Start with this from Page 173 of the federal budget Finance Minister Bill Morneau tabled in the House of Commons last week: “Support for Journalism.”

No one — certainly not I — would argue “a strong and independent news media” isn’t “crucial to a well-functioning democracy,” or that the news media doesn’t play a “vitally important role… in helping citizens make informed decisions about important issues.”

But, as usual, the corporatist devil inevitably lurks in the budget weeds close to the surface of Ottawa’s benignly aspirational generalities — camouflaged and eager to feast.

To understand those budgetary weeds — or for at the least the weeds the government has so far chosen to reveal — we need to turn in our budget hymnals to Page 373 under the general heading, “Tax Measures: Supplementary Information,” and then the more specific “Business Income Tax Measures: Support for Canadian Journalism.”

The budget proposes three new measures to support Canadian journalism (note the “m” at the end of journalism, for which read “publisher,” rather than the -ts of “journalists,” for which read the creators of the actual journalism in desperate need of support):

  • allowing journalism organizations to register as qualified donees;
  • a refundable labour tax credit for qualifying journalism organizations; and
  • a non-refundable tax credit for subscriptions to Canadian digital news.

I have no problem with the third bullet. I’m not sure it will make a huge difference, but it does put the enticement/benefit onus directly on consumers of news. Like the political tax credit, it allows us, as citizens, to choose to support with our subscription dollars particular flavours of public good and benefit from that on our tax returns.

The other two bullets, however, do give me pause, and make me wonder who, rather than what, the government is really trying to support.

As Steph Wechsler wrote on J-Source: “Most signs point toward the package benefiting legacy news corporations.” Which is to say those still saddled with the horse-and-buggy baggage of printing plants and fleets of delivery trucks in an era of instant digital publishing. Adds Carleton University Journalism prof Chris Waddell: “We’re in a situation where, in fact, government is subsidizing the least likely people to succeed in the current format. My question is why? To what end?”

Mine too.

QCJOs — government speak (Qualified Canadian Journalism Organizations) for the publishers it will support — will primarily be corporate entities that meet “criteria” as defined by a so far undefined “independent panel.”

What is clear from what we know about those criteria so far is they were written to ensure that Postmedia Network — the falling, flailing, merged, mashed-up media conglomerate largely owned by American creditors who control (without officially controlling) the company while making a profitable meal by picking at its bones — will qualify for government cash. And we know without being told that those criteria have been precisely crafted to accomplish that end.

While it is fair to argue Postmedia mostly merged and mismanaged its way to its own peculiar disaster, it is also certainly legitimate to make the point that all legacy print media are in desperate trouble, much of it not of their own making. Some of it, of course, is self-inflicted but very little of any of that will be more-than-temporarily resolved by government bailout.

The question really is whether the government should help delay their inevitable demise, or provide support for newly emerging media. Or…?

We know from Tim Bousquet’s “best guesses” Friday that his competitors — the Chronicle Herald and its Saltwire Network ($1.375 million), allnovascotia.com ($178,750) and the Star Metro division of Torstar ($41,250) — will all qualify to benefit from the government’s new deal for Canadian journalism.

The Halifax Examiner?

“Halifax Examiner Inc. will receive $0,” Tim wrote. That is true even though the four-year-old Examiner is “an independent adversarial news site devoted to holding the powerful accountable…” And even though the Examiner publishes every weekday and its focus is advertising-free, 100-per-cent local news and commentary… And, more, even though the Examiner’s investigative reporting helped bring attention to the wrongful conviction of Glenn Assoun and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Holly Bartlett and the stunning epic tale of how Nova Scotia billionaire John Risley wound up in bed with an arms dealer suing the South African government over an apartheid-era contract and…

The answer is still no, zero, nada…

That’s partly because the Examiner, like many digital news start-ups in the country, is owned by its creator-\publisher, who is also the publication’s elbows-on primary reporter and most everything else.

Under the pre-established criteria for government support, a QCJO would have to show it “regularly employs two or more journalists in the production of its content who deal at arm’s length with the organization.”

Jennifer Henderson, El Jones, Linda Pannozza, Evelyn White, Philip Moscowitz, Erica Butler, Joan Baxter and me, among others — all paid freelancers providing “content” to the Examiner — don’t count.

The reality of today’s news media — and many other industries, of course — is that there are very few salary-paying, benefit-providing gigs these days. Despite the government’s grand talk of refundable tax credits for companies hiring those who produce “original written news content,” the reality, as April Lindgren of Ryerson University’s local-news research project, told CTV News: “I don’t think it’s going to spark a whole bunch of new hires of journalists.”

Tim was more blunt: “In practice, I doubt [the Herald’s] Mark Lever and Sarah Dennis will use their subsidy to hire new reporters. Probably the money will just go to pay down the huge debt for that printing plant and maybe pay for a new coat of paint on their south end mansion. But the subsidy will put off the inevitable collapse of the Herald, which is the point where, all other things being equal, the Examiner and other startups begin to get much wider traction.”

So if the government’s real goal supposedly is to support journalism — and journalists produce journalism — why not start at the other end of the funnel and channel government funding to creators instead of purveyors at a time when there are few jobs for journalists but the financial barriers to “publishing” itself have become almost non-existent?

There is a tried-and-true model for this already. The Canada Council has been around since 1957. It allows writers and artists to apply directly to the council for funding for their creative projects. Independent panels of their peers make funding decisions. The writers are then free to sell their finished work to publishers. The process has helped support — and expand the market for — generations of Canada’s creative artists and writers.

Why not journalists?

This might not work in all situations, but I can see it being especially effective for investigative and long-form journalism, as well as to fund ongoing coverage of local institutions like city councils and school boards, or topics like urban development or climate change. It would be a start, and a better investment than propping up Postmedia.

And it would put the funding where it will do the most good. By supporting journalists who will create journalism, the government can actually encourage the existence of “a strong and independent news media” which will play a “vitally important role… in helping citizens make informed decisions about important issues.”

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