Protecting local journalism isn’t just a good or noble idea, it’s a matter of protecting what we know as a healthy democracy.
Recently, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault tabled Bill C-10, which is an update to the Broadcasting Act. At its core is a commitment to ensure digital giants such as Spotify and Netflix pay their fair share.
Due to provisions in their broadcasting licence, traditional broadcasters must support Canadian content, while web-based services do not. Between the years 2018 and 2019, online services have seen their revenues grow by about 90 per cent. In the case of Netflix, that translates to about $1 billion in revenue in Canada in 2019, and the number has grown during the pandemic. This money is not required to be reinvested in Canadian content or journalism.
C-10 proposes to ensure online broadcasters contribute to Canadian content. By 2023, the government expects to be taking in as much as $830 million a year to be used to support Canadian music and stories. While some dispute the dollar figure, the important question is: How will any money be distributed, and what priorities will it support?
Last week, the precarious nature of local journalism was in the spotlight. Cuts at Bell Media led to more than 100 journalists losing their jobs in Toronto alone. However, since the cuts have happened across the country, that number is certainly much higher, and as of the writing of this, the total is still climbing.
The numbers are big, but the impact is bigger. Consider Shuyee Lee, for example. I knew her many years ago when I was a reporter for CBC in Montreal. She worked at CJAD, the only English-language radio competitor to the CBC in Montreal. CJAD is one of the many stations impacted this week by the cuts at Bell. They no longer even have a newsroom.
During my time in Montreal, I would see her covering a news conference I was assigned to, then I would see her image in the background of photos or TV news items relating to at least three other stories that had happened that day. If there was a serious fire that night, she was there, too. Why? Because CJAD had far too few reporters to cover Montreal news and it relied on newsroom staff to be there. Always.
Last week, she was one of the hundreds of journalists who were laid off. Her departure alone will leave a big hole in Montreal’s news coverage. Unfortunately though, this is just the latest swing of the axe. Canadians are getting numb to these cuts because it feels like it happens with alarming regularity. Recently, Canadians have witnessed cuts at the National Post, Global TV … heck, I was one of those let go from the CBC a few years ago.
It is even worse when you get out of the major cities. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters estimates that by the end of this year, as many as 200 local radio stations will close altogether. Most of them in the more remote parts of the country because there just isn’t any profit in operating these stations.
"There are about 180 community radio stations in Canada that continue to operate without any government subsidies at all," writes @AlexFreedman40 of @crfcfcrc #funding #cdnpoli
What’s happening in Canada is less overt, but has the same effect on democracy as Trump and the right wing’s war on the media, which recently led to hundreds of American citizens storming the U.S. Capitol building. This happened because many of the rioters are ill-informed and have been misled by information from sources that value shock over research, sources that put headlines over standards, and partisanship over facts.
This insurrection, as some have called it, didn’t happen in a vacuum. The U.S. has seen unprecedented voter suppression, executive overreach, and violent division. This is part of a bigger problem faced by our neighbours to the south and democracies all over the world.
The Knight Foundation recently surveyed more than 12,000 non-voters in the U.S. It found that non-voters who turn to partisan-leaning news outlets, particularly conservative ones, are more likely than those who rely on centrist media outlets to influence their vote. Not only that, but less than half of non-voters — aged 25 to 29 — say they actively seek out news, with a majority saying that instead, they typically “bump into” news as they go about their day.
To protect Canadians from disinformation, local news outlets need support — badly. Not just the CBC, but local news outlets across the country. The current government has made a good start. The Local Journalism Initiative funds hundreds of journalists from coast to coast to coast. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a $140-million program was reduced to $50 million over five years. That’s $10 million a year. We deserve better.
This is where the $830 million comes in. This seems like a lot of money, but when it comes to protecting Canada’s newsrooms and sources of community information, it is a drop in the bucket. That said, there will be hands reaching out from all corners for a share of this funding, and there are some key areas that have been starved for support for some time.
There are about 180 community radio stations in Canada that continue to operate without any government subsidies at all. These stations broadcast municipal meetings, host virtual town hall meetings, and provide access to news from and for the communities where they are located. This is one of many groups that continue to provide the necessary structures to keep local journalism flowing and would benefit greatly from having access to a small share of this fund.
If something isn’t done soon to support Canadian journalism in all of its forms, we are all in trouble. It is often said democracy dies in the dark, and I think we can all agree, it’s getting pretty dark out there.