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  • Toronto Star Opinion

Cabinet reset an opportunity for a policy reset in support of ‘civic journalism’

By Bill FoxOpinion

Sun., July 22, 2018

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday tweaked his cabinet line-up as his Liberal government readies itself for the 2019 federal election. And as the new line-up looks for opportunities to step up their game, federal policies regarding news organizations should be high on that list.

The Trudeau government reportedly does not want to “bail out” media companies that are “no longer viable.” Federal officials defend their “studied indifference” with public opinion research that indicates Canadians believe that in this social media age, they are awash in news and therefore have no desire to fund legacy media companies in any way shape or form.

But federal policy-makers would be better advised to heed Joni Mitchell’s lyrical warning that “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

As Thomas C. Leonard observed, media is a primary site for political discourse in any liberal democracy. Indeed, journalism provides much of the vernacular for that discussion. Classic liberalism has long asserted an informed and engaged public is the key to self-government.

To say legacy media did not always live up to the lofty ideals of the Enlightenment is to understate the case.

The mainstream media historically reflected an older, white, male social order. Too many voices were excluded, as journalistic practices favoured individuals in positions of power as newsmakers. The “gatekeeper” function concentrated power in the hands of relatively few professionals, to set political agendas, to prime voters to assess leaders in the context of that agenda, and finally to create bandwagon effects through public opinion.

Small wonder social media was enthusiastically embraced by those who struggle to find voice in the legacy media — women, visible minorities, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised.

That said, today’s social media platforms — such as Facebook — are prime examples of the law of unintended consequences. Parody accounts, bots, Twitter trolls, are now a factor in daily discourse. Social media didn’t invent “fake news” but social media did expand its reach exponentially.

Clay Shirky’s description of today’s media as an “ecosystem” is insightful, but legacy news organizations in general, and newspapers in particular, are disproportionately important in that ecosystem, a fact that seems to have escaped the policy-makers in Ottawa.

Instead of fixating on the newspaper as an outdated distribution system, policy-makers need to shift their attention to what is in the newspaper — the civic journalism that is essential to a healthy democracy.

The late and still legendary White House correspondent Jack Germond once observed that 90 per cent of journalistic content is derivative of what 10 per cent produce.

Opinion sells, and opinion relatively speaking is cheaper than news, talk radio being but one example.

But if the commentators in Toronto have an opinion about how well Bombardier has performed on the TTC contract for new streetcars, that opinion is based in no small measure on the shoe-leather reporting of beat reporter Ben Spurr, who routinely breaks stories about production delays and recalls.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Alex S. Jones — not to be confused with the Infowars Alex Jones — has written about the “iron core” of information that feeds democracy. And the only statistic worth dwelling on is that 85 per cent of that civic news comes from newspapers.

Today, the “iron core” is in trouble. Advertising is considered the midwife to a free press; but the midwife has moved on and isn’t coming back. For newspapers, Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” found form in Craigslist and Kijiji. The “virtuous circle” of profitability and public service has been broken, with direct implications for public discourse.

News organizations are withdrawing from city hall, from provincial legislatures, from police stations, from suburban council chambers. Newspapers once covered school boards extensively, less so today. This lack of coverage impacts a voter’s information base. When was the last time you went into vote in a municipal election when the names of any of the candidates for school board positions meant anything to you?

In fairness, the federal government’s spring budget did include a few specifics intended to assist news organizations as they cross the digital divide.

The Trudeau government did earmark $10 million over five years to support local media, with the funds to be handed out by one or more independent, non-governmental organizations, a provision that fell well short of the industry’s $350 million ask for a revamped Canadian Periodical fund. But as policy options go, picking winners is more often than not, a losing proposition.

The government has also indicated its willingness to grant charitable status to news organizations — a model that has enjoyed some success in the United States and that triggered a decision by the Desmarais family to convert La Presse — North America’s largest French-language daily — into a not-for-profit entity.

To riff off Alex Jones, if news organizations are just another business, then their survival is of little importance. But if news is as central to democracy as classic liberal theory asserts, then the situation warrants a fresh think on the part of federal policy-makers, both political and bureaucratic.

My own bias is to use the tax system to create incentives for certain types of behaviour, an approach that is fiscally sound, and universal in its application.

The leadership of Torstar, for example, has suggested Ottawa consider subscriptions to Canadian-owned news organizations an act of “civic engagement” and therefore tax deductible, the same treatment afforded political donations.

The proposal aligns with the reality that any viable business model for a news organization going forward is going to have to be subscription based. It avoids the need for independent panels to dole out federal subsidies, it avoids subjective criteria as to who qualifies and who does not. Anyone investing in news content would be eligible.

This example is cited as illustrative, and is not advanced as a magic bullet solution. The news media industry has tabled a wide range of proposals that would help, at no meaningful cost to the taxpayer.

Policy-makers in Ottawa seem to come at the question from a “managing decline” perspective when it comes to “print” journalism. They need to get past the word “print” and focus on the “journalism” — however it is delivered.

Multiple voices, reflecting the full range of political and cultural perspectives, ought to be the public policy objective, which means a media ecosystem that invokes more editorial voices than the public broadcaster.

In an age of “fake news” when liberal democracies are challenged to defend their world view, when both the purpose and value of multinational organizations are being questioned, when traditional economic and security alliances are discarded in a single presidential tweet, governments that espouse a world view built on shared democratic values will be challenged if there are no forums where nuanced, informed, debate can occur.

The prime minister speaks eloquently and often about Canadian values. Democracy is a core value. Multilateralism is a core Canadian value. Humanitarianism is a core Canadian value. Liberal democracy defends its institutions, and a free press is one of those institutions.

Jones states journalism’s first obligation is to truth, its first loyalty is to citizens, its essence is a discipline of verification.

There is a cost to that, a cost that is impacted by public policy, a cost that can and should be supported by incentive, not subsidy.

Otherwise, when it comes to public discourse, Canada’s “iron core” will disappear and as Joni Mitchell warned, we will have paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

Bill Fox is a senior fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto.

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