The federal government is putting $595 million into a grant to finance the media industry. These are coming in the form of tax incentives and credits for reporters, editors, and researchers who work at least 26 hours per week. On the consumer end there is a personal income tax credit of 15% per digital subscription (with a maximum credit of $75).
This looks pretty good. Well, it looks pretty good to someone graduating from the Broadcast & Online Journalism program here at BCIT—but there are a few catches. The most glaring one is who the budget omits automatically: broadcasters, sports news, industry news, entertainment news, lifestyle and recreation do not qualify.
Jesse Brown, founder of Canadaland, points out another problem—organizations must have at least two journalists that operate at an “arm’s length”—this means that if you’re reporting for a business you own, you aren’t eligible for any benefits. This alienates a lot of media start-ups.
“I launched Canadaland solo & did it part-time for a year before I started hiring,” tweets Brown, “The bailout could have encouraged dozens more individuals to do the same, but explicitly excludes them instead.”
Why do we need a media fund?
In 2016, Public Policy Forum—a think tank based out of Ottawa—published The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, a report that attempted to tackle fake news and advertising. The report, which uses language like “vampire economics,” discusses the loss of advertisement revenue in the press. It said that Facebook and Google account for 72% of online ad revenue.
The report cited a 2016 Reuters survey, which found that 9% of Canadians pay for online news with a median of $23 CAD annually. In contrast, the highest spenders in press were Norway, with 27% paying for online news with a median of $41 CAD. Advertisers seem to be content with social media, and the rest of us seem to be fine getting our news unfiltered, un-fact-checked, straight from the ether. As long as it’s free, right? Here’s the real cost (see infographic on the right)
“The loss of local journalists is a serious threat to our democracy,” says CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon. “It means fewer journalists reporting on the stories that matter to communities—and leaves almost no one to hold local politicians and powerful interests to account in many places.” The Globe & Mail, November 21, 2018.
Reporters Without Borders dropped Canada’s World Press Freedom Index number down to 18 from 8 in 2015, citing “… the recent closure of more than forty independent newspapers following an agreement between two of the country’s largest publishers risks compromising media pluralism in the country.”
“The extraordinary financial strain on the journalistic system Canadians have known for a century has led to successive waves of newsroom buyouts and layoffs,” echoes the Shattered Mirror from 2016. “As the mirror the media holds up to society shatters, a disruptive new system is rising in its place.” That new disruptive system is taking the form of the new media supergiants, Facebook and Google, that are under scrutiny for privacy and ethical issues—and potentially influencing the upcoming federal election.
Something to tweet about.
We all have that uncle that says he doesn’t need newspapers, and gets all of his news from Facebook, conveniently delivered in memes. But the social media giants have been in the hot seat for privacy issues and the rise of “Fake News.” They’ve been reacting to and trying to shell that image. Facebook partnered with Ryerson University and DMZ to create the Digital News Innovation Challenge, and the end result of that were some great tools for news junkies. One of those was Ground, an app that aggregates news feeds, lets people verify and react to news, and was trending on the App Store shortly after its release.
Google itself has launched the Google News Initiative, spending $392 million over the next three years. They helped fund NewsWise, which is working its way into Canadian classrooms to help students differentiate between fake news and real news.
These are attempts at avoiding misinformation being shared on their platforms—but is that really something they should be held accountable for? The biggest issue of moderation on Facebook is if they start, they can never stop. And when things fall through the cracks, and they will, Facebook will be accountable. We’ll reach a point where you’ll need to provide a citation to share how you’re feeling today.
“Platforms like Facebook are displacing Canadian journalism, but not replacing it”, says Daniel Bernhard, executive director of the watchdog group, FRIENDS of Canadian Broadcasting. “Mr. Trudeau is paying lip service to the importance of journalism and democracy while quietly siding with companies like Facebook that pollute our democracy. These companies profit wildly from Canada’s policy of inaction, smothering Canadian journalism in the process.” Friends of Canadian Broadcasting Online, March 19 2019.
He adds Google and Facebook siphon more than $6 billion in advertising revenue away from Canadian media each year.
A note on this, according to a study from iPolitics, revealed that from November 2015 to April 2016, the federal government spent a total of $3.3 million on advertising: $1 million on Google, $904,822 on
Facebook, Yahoo $406,920, Twitter $364,090, YouTube $161,847, Bing $96,051 and Huffington Post $17,608. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has been vocal about the government putting that money into Canadian media.
Tomorrow’s bird-cage liners are still today’s headliners.
The stark reality is that a media fund from the federal government could be used to create a rich media landscape—one that could help inform Canadians on bipartisan topics ranging from fashion to politics. Instead, the government chooses to go down the slippery slope of attempting to define what journalism and journalists are—with tax incentives and credits on the line.
“We don’t need a handout.” writes The Discourse’s Erin Millar, (March 25, 2019) “But a policy that actively disincentivizes new media outlets from launching and growing to serve the information needs of Canadians is bad policy.”