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Opinion: The news industry is in crisis. What does it all mean for The Hub?

Commentary

The popular current affairs podcast, The Herle Burly, recently had veteran journalists Andrew Coyne, Paul Wells, and Joyce Napier on as guests to discuss the state of Canadian journalism and its future in the face of considerable market disruption. It was a fascinating and informative conversation. 

Following its release, someone tweeted that David Herle, the show’s host, ought to have a parallel conversation with voices from the world of independent news media and media start-ups, including a representative from The Hub, in order to get a different perspective. 

It made us wonder what we would say if asked to participate in such a conversation. How have our more than two years publishing The Hub informed our views on a news media landscape reshaped by growing government subsidies, an explosion of small start-ups, and experimentation with different business models including not-for-profits and charities? We’ll come back to that in a moment.  

First we need to confront a more fundamental question: are recent developments in the news media industry—namely a significant reduction in the legacy news media’s capacity and growing consolidation within the legacy media itself—a problem? The answer, in our view, is yes. 

Although we are highly optimistic about the future of the news media based on the high degree of innovation occurring in the world of independent media (which involves various forms, perspectives, and sizes), we accept that there’s a timing problem that needs to be addressed. 

That is to say, while the long-term solution to the market’s disruption of the legacy news media likely lies in some version of the various start-ups currently trying to figure out the market, they don’t presently have the scale or capacity to fully replace the legacy media which, for better or for worse, remains principally responsible for the production and distribution of the news content that citizens require to be informed participants in our democracy. We, therefore, face an unknown transition period between when a new, more sustainable model can reach the minimum scale to fulfill this public good and the possible risk of a serious collapse in news content in the meantime. 

If one accepts this premise, it follows logically that there may be a role for public policy to help smooth out that transition. It’s important however that any policy intervention is as neutral as possible. Policies that preference established incumbent players over media start-ups risk distorting the market and impeding rather than enabling the eventual transition to a consumer-supported media landscape. 

We’ve been critical of Bill C-18 (Online News Act) for this reason. Although it may not have been intended or fully understood, the policy outcome increasingly appears to be a failed attempt to secure financial resources for incumbent outlets at the expense of start-ups’ ability to promote and disseminate their content on the big distribution platforms hosted by Meta and Google. 

It’s the digital policy equivalent of subsiding coal production at the same time that the market is transitioning to new forms of energy. Such a policy would rightly be criticized as the government trying to effectively impede the market’s proper functioning in favour of a legacy player or technology. 

Yet, in the Canadian context of rapacious rent seeking across our economy (think for instance battery plants), it should come as no surprise that this is a major consequence of Bill C-18 as currently configured. If not substantially revised in the regulation-making phase, the Act will entrench several large and already, for all intents and purposes, failed media outlets for an indeterminate period. These same outlets will continue to bleed resources and talent and Canadians will be forced to live with an even thinner gruel of news and information about their communities, institutions, national affairs, and ultimately the public policy issues that will shape our collective future. 

Put bluntly: any policy intervention in the news media market should see as its primary aim to enable the transition away from the failed legacy media model to new, different, and more sustainable ones. Put more bluntly: the goal ought to be to move beyond the CBC or the Toronto Star or whomever else rather than to try to sustain them in their current ossified forms. 

Which brings us back to The Hub. The Hub is a charitable start-up that, similar to some online media organizations, produces insights and analysis that it disseminates via a regular newsletter, its own webpage, podcast channel, and social media platforms. Its focus is mainly Canadian national affairs and public policy, though in the past week alone we’ve covered topics as diverse as the federal Cabinet shuffle, the Bank of Canada’s efforts to restrain inflation, UFOs, and Sinead O’Connor’s death

The key difference is that The Hub is organized as a charitable initiative that’s able to receive donations from individuals and philanthropic foundations. Major gifts by public-spirited foundations such as the Donner Canadian, the Hunter Family, and others inoculate The Hub to a certain degree from the vicissitudes of the market while providing all our content free to the public to read, watch, and listen on-demand.

This enables us to resist rank punditry or the “who’s-up-and-who’s-down” tendency inherent in much of contemporary journalism’s coverage of national affairs. Our analysts and contributors are able to go deeper into issues that are underexplored by the legacy news media such as the complexities of Canada’s fast-growing population of international students or the future of Canadian conservatism or the jurisprudential consequences of Supreme Court Justice Russell Brown’s resignation. 

It has also enabled us to grow. While most news media organizations are rationalizing their operations and content, we’re doing the opposite. Just this year alone, we’ve launched a new bi-weekly podcast series on business and economics with award-winning journalist Amanda Lang, produced a five-part video and podcast series on Canada’s state capacity that she’s also hosting for us, produced a major series on the economics of our health-care system, and kicked off the inaugural Hunter Prize for Public Policy to award innovative public policy ideas from a new generation of policy practitioners and thinkers, as well as established a core group of regular contributors that, in our view, holds its own with any in the industry. 

This progress has come to manifest itself in growing numbers of users, page views, podcast downloads, subscribers, and individual donors. Consumers are increasingly affirming what we’re doing. In fact, we’re now consistently reaching a weekly audience of more than 200,000 users across our platforms. It’s been a difficult yet highly rewarding experience to get to this point and kudos here goes to The Hub‘s hard-working editorial team of Stuart Thomson, Luke Smith, and Amal Attar-Guzman.

The future of Canadian journalism is likely to come in different shapes and forms.

So we suppose that if we were asked to participate in a discussion about the current and future state of Canadian journalism, we’d bring with us the pragmatic optimism that stems from our experience at The Hub. We’re both clear-eyed about the short-term challenges and confident about the long-term solutions. 

The former warrants our collective attention. The Hub and other newer players like it aren’t currently in a position to replace the major news outlets. But we’re constantly experimenting, innovating, and growing, and eventually some number of us are going to figure out how to reach scale and restore a sustainable market-supported model to the industry either as for-profit entities or inside entirely different governance structures and economic models. The point is that what comes next won’t be a single model. The future of Canadian journalism is likely to come in different shapes and forms.

But the latter means that government policy cannot stand in the way of fundamental change. It should instead aim to smooth out some of the bumps in the transition but understand that its goal must ultimately be a shift to something new rather than preserve something old.

It’s regrettably however not been part of the debate around the Online News Act or within the legacy news media itself (surprise, surprise). That’s a missed opportunity for the industry, consumers, and the health and vitality of Canadian journalism that our democracy and civic life ultimately needs to thrive.  

So, David Herle if you are reading this, let’s have the conversation. We are game as are the other start-ups out there trying to solve, in their own ways, for the future of Canadian journalism.

Amanda Lang: Long-term thinking in government can easily fall victim to politics

Commentary

The following is the latest installment of The Hub’s new series The Business of Government, hosted by award-winning journalist and best-selling author Amanda Lang about how government works and, more importantly, why it sometimes doesn’t work. In this five-part series, Lang conducts in-depth interviews with experts and former policymakers and puts it all in perspective for the average Canadian. Listen to the accompanying interview with Michael Wernick, a former clerk of the privy council, on your favourite podcast app or at The Hub.

It’s easy to bring a glass-half-empty kind of nostalgia to Canada’s public service, recalling a time when a deputy minister was afforded the greatest respect, paid like a CEO, and considered an invaluable asset to government. The notion that somehow the quality of personnel has deteriorated over time is a widely held one. But is it true?

One answer to that question is purely empirical, according to a former Clerk of the Privy Council: “In a more and more demanding environment the public sector, federal, provincial, and municipal, continues to deliver for Canadians.”

As the most senior unelected official in the land, Michael Wernick quite literally wrote the book on how government can function best. In charge of the civil service, but also the liaison to elected officials as cabinet secretary, Wernick also had a front-row seat to how politics can run roughshod over public servants. But measuring the quality of our government at the most basic level is pretty straightforward: “It’s about keeping us safe and secure, generating economic growth and prosperity,” he says. “And by a long list of measures Canada is a successful country.”

That’s not to say our civil service doesn’t occupy itself with improvement. Wernick says some of the infrastructure of government is a “vast feedback loop” designed to audit performance and do better. “There is this continuous checking in and looking back on what could have been done differently.”

But he also cautions against speaking of government as though it’s one entity. The federal government is more like 300 different organizations, with seven or eight different occupational groups, all doing different things. Like the private sector, the functions are diverse enough that they represent totally different sectors. But unlike the private sector, the management and leadership of them is made more complex because it is done in the context of politics, and also of a larger budget mandate. To analyze how government is doing, Wernick says, has to involve a look at individual organizations.

“There are pockets of excellence and innovation, and there are organizations that run into trouble.” For all the attention the trouble gets, Wernick argues there are plenty of success stories that don’t get told.

Wernick notes that public-facing services get the most attention—so you can now renew your driver’s licence online in minutes, and file your taxes entirely electronically. But internal processes of government are often the ones that get neglected—the services like finance, human resources, information management, material management, buildings, tools—“these are the kinds of things that make everything else possible. Not only do they tend to get neglected until there’s a crisis, but when you have one of these waves of spending reviews and cuts, they tend to be the things that are cut, because any group of politicians will go out and say, ‘No, no, we’re protecting service to Canadians, we’re going to find efficiencies within government.’”

One place Wernick says should not be neglected is leadership and training development, which benefits every department, but falls victim to cutbacks. It’s something he has argued for over time, including before Parliamentary Committee.

When it comes to size, Wernick is keen that the right problem be solved: even with its recent increase in size, the bureaucracy isn’t the line item that will make or break the federal budget. Of course “it’s worth trying to make the operations of government leaner, but you’re not going to balance the budget on that,” Wernick says. In fact, cutting the federal civil service in half might save you $20 billion dollars, out of a $400 billion dollar budget. “It’s worth doing because it might create better outcomes and better services and better policies. But it’s not going to be the key to fiscal balance.”

As for how departments function, Wernick says there is a balance to be struck between creating deep specialists—by leaving people in place longer—and those who have experience in multiple roles. He’s upbeat about the quality of talent the federal civil service can attract, including from the private sector. “I’m an advocate of more interchange, it’s a good idea to have people crossing from the private public and not-for-profit sectors for a period of time and learning about what it’s like on the other side,” he says. Rather than the dozen or so a year, he would like to see up to 200 interchanges, seeding more awareness on both sides of how the other functions.

It’s important not to forget that government isn’t separate or apart from the private sector, Wernick notes. “When you have a strong public sector, you get a strong private sector, and vice versa. And it’s something that Canada does better than many other countries.”

One hot political question has been the use of outside consultants in government, and Wernick takes a characteristically measured view. The pace of change in things like technology makes outside consultants necessary, and he argues that another perspective should be welcome. If there is too much reliance on consultants—and he is not saying there is—it only bolsters the argument for more robust internal training. What he calls the “learning software” of government includes developing in-house potential.

Wernick argues that the “spend money to save money” mentality is harder to achieve in the public sector. The reality is that longer-term investments in systems or staff development can more easily fall victim to day-to-day politics.

As someone who spent four decades working in various parts of government, Wernick isn’t blind to its shortcomings. “I don’t want to be misunderstood. There are lots of things to attend to.” Information management inside government is “a shambles,” he says, and there are areas of service that need to be corrected. He’s also passionate about improving training and development so that the most organizations can build on their talent.

But the evidence for how Canada’s public service functions is in the output, he says. “Things get done. This is a successful country that ranks very highly in all the governance measurements around the world.”

It’s a kind of optimism about government employees that feels refreshing. Glass-half-full, as it were. And maybe from this vantage making positive change is an easier prospect.

“I’m not making the argument that government is perfect. I’m making the argument that it learns and adapts and moves forward and the more attention paid to how it works, especially how it works internally is a very, very welcome.”