BARRETT: Government funds is not what the newspaper industry needs

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I’m going to be blunt: a government bailout is not what the newspaper industry needs.

Despite Minister Melanie Joly’s remarks that print media is no longer a viable business model, I still appreciate the sentiment behind the nearly $600 million the Liberal government is pledging in their recent economic update. I appreciate, despite one minister’s belief newspapers are a dying industry, they’re recognizing there’s a problem and attempting to address it.

However, throwing money at journalists and newspaper outlets reeks of trying to buy off and have some control over media.

Their plan involves a refundable tax credit to be given to qualifying news organizations which is supposedly to go towards supporting labour costs. A panel of journalists would be appointed by the government, to decide which outlets would qualify. As per the proposals put forward by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, they’d have a directive to maintain their definition of core journalism standards, and the gender equality that has organically been achieved in journalism, with 48 per cent of journalists employed in Canada being women.

With that alone, I’m going to call the Liberal assertion such a plan would be “arm’s-length and independent of the government” for what it is: a flat out lie. There are already objectives, directives straight from the government. That’s not arm’s-length, nor is it independent.

The biggest problem with the so-called “aid” package is the inevitable politicization of the press and the political posturing that’s already begun.

The Conservative Party of Canada denounced the plan as a way to buy off the media, which caused the Liberals to strike back with ads about how “their” new plan will help journalists of “any stripe” thrive. They’re creating an idea that Conservatives are against the media, while the Liberals are for them, all the while also perpetuating the idea journalists have political stripes and are inherently biased.

It’s also making the very media that reports on politics a political issue in an election year, putting the industry in a very awkward position. If journalists criticize the Conservatives after accepting a bailout package, we’ll be seen as being paid off. If we criticize the Liberals, then we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and siding with “media-haters.”

Post-bailout, we won’t be able to critique bailouts of other industries, or the politicians’ acceptance of donations from lobby groups and organizations. As other journalists have already pointed out, the risk of influence is enough to undermine the media’s credibility, and the press as a whole is nothing without credibility.

Tax credits for newspapers, possibility of acquiring charitable status, tax credits for digital newspaper subscribers – none of it is the answer to stopping the closure of newsrooms across the country.

Part of the problem, as has been pointed out by many a journalist, is advertising revenue. No one really pays for classified ads to sell their homes, rental properties, cars or other items, because they can jump on Kijiji or Facebook buy and sell groups and do so for free. There’s also a discrepancy between advertisers and newspapers on what digital ads should be worth, and despite having much more reach than traditional print ads, many aren’t willing to pay the same amount for a digital ad as they are a print ad.

Another issue is media outlets stepping on each other’s toes – broadcasters like the heavily-funded CBC, as well as radio stations, have become online newspapers in addition to providing news on air where advertising revenue hasn’t dwindled in the same way newspaper ads have. Newspapers, in return, are trying to add video and sound bites to stay relevant, but with less revenue, there’s less staff and time to dedicate to the more time consuming video.

What is needed is a more level playing field, a way to bridge that advertising revenue gap, and the creation of a culture where readers and advertisers see value in advertising and supporting local news outlets as much as people see value in shopping local.

That last part is the key issue. In order for value to be seen, it must be provided, and that’s where newspapers are failing.

However, it isn’t a government problem. It’s a business, industry problem, and it’s up to the industry to figure it out or suffer the consequences as any other business would do.

If newspapers start taking bailouts, they’ll eventually become dependent on those bailouts. They’ll never address the problems the industry has and the mistakes that have been made. Instead, of taking the fall for those mistakes, they’ll let the taxpayer do so – and that’s just about as right as allowing the government to have any hand in the media.