The Future Of News

Sean Speer: The news industry won’t be fixed by a parliamentary committee

Politicians need to butt out and let the market decide the future of the news industry
Canadian Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge arrives to a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

The news media in Canada is in crisis. Policy responses to date are failing to solve for the information that citizens need to make informed decisions about important issues and debates. The Future of News series brings together leading practitioners, scholars, and thinkers to imagine new business models, policy responses, and journalistic content that can support a dynamic future for news in Canada.

One of the more bizarre developments on Parliament Hill in recent weeks is the current parliamentary committee hearings into the “appropriateness of government support” to the national news media to hold a “national forum” on the future of the industry. The study’s basic purpose is seemingly to determine whether politicians should instruct and fund the industry to hold a conference about itself. 

The origins of these hearings date back to late last year. During a meeting in December, members of the House Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage debated and ultimately agreed to a motion in favour of studying this question. 

By coincidence, I appeared before the same committee on the day of its approval. For better or worse, it gave me a unique vantage point to observe the discussion, including the ideas and arguments in favour of such a study. 

The whole exchange was a bit surreal. It exposed the extent to which a lot of members of Parliament have both inflated conceptions of the role of government and superficial understandings of the role of business and markets. The idea that a parliamentary committee ought to determine whether a private industry should hold a conference—including its “terms of reference”—ostensibly reflects some combination of arrogance and ignorance.  

There are hundreds, and quite likely thousands, of national, provincial, and local industry associations across the country. Many of them hold annual conferences. Some may receive public funding to defray the costs. But virtually none rely on a parliamentary study to determine whether to host a conference in the first place or what they ought to discuss. Those decisions are typically made based on the best interests of individual companies and the industry as a whole rather than the diktats of a parliamentary committee. 

Conservative MP Rachel Thomas understood this basic point. Speaking in response to the motion, she told the committee: 

I don’t believe it’s appropriate for this committee to determine whether or not it would be appropriate for stakeholders within the national news sector to hold a forum to talk about their own challenges and to resolve their own issues. I think that’s their determination.

Her perspective however was a minority one. Most MPs seemed to think that the industry is somehow unaware of the challenges that it’s facing and requires an impetus from Ottawa to respond to these developments with greater urgency. The “national forum” therefore represents an opportunity for politicians to tell heedless news media executives what’s actually happening within their businesses and industry. 

I had a telling exchange with a Bloc Quebecois MP that went as follows: 

Martin Champoux: We’re discussing business models. I think we all agree that the traditional media business model has to be revamped. Furthermore, if a national forum is being proposed, its purpose is to revamp the model and enable media companies, especially in the news industry, to prepare more effectively for present and future challenges.

…I believe everyone agrees that we have to give industry people tools and enable them to acquire tools to adapt to the digital shift. In most cases, that shift is still incomplete or has been accomplished with limited resources and is therefore not very effective.

…Mr. Speer, I think I understand the direction that we should take.

Sean Speer: Respectfully, I precisely think we don’t know where we’re going. That is why government should be cautious about intervening in the market in favour of one particular content format or business model or approach to journalism. This process is uncertain. 

…I ultimately have more confidence in markets… [For instance,] if there’s a critical mass of Canadians who want their news produced and provided to them in a traditional physical newspaper, then I have confidence that entrepreneurs of some sort are going to seize that market opportunity. …[P]recisely because this process is creative and uncertain, I would caution policymakers not to intervene and preclude it from playing itself out.

Champoux’s comments and the committee study itself convey a basic misunderstanding of a market economy. Its genius is rooted in its self-regulating profit and loss system. The former rewards successful risk-taking. The latter punishes excessive risk. 

Member of Parliament Anthony Housefather talks to reporters prior to a Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, March 6, 2023. The committee is looking into the activities of Google in reaction to Bill C-18. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

As long as companies are subjected to these two sides of the capitalist coin, they ought to have sufficient incentives to respond to the market trends that the committee has identified. Companies that innovate in the face of these developments will be rewarded with more readers and profits. Those who don’t will face contraction and possibly closure. The process will be decentralized and instantaneous. There’s no need for the parliamentary committee to study it or render post-hoc judgements. Markets will do the work for them.  

The committee hearings themselves in fact reflect the inherent problem with government subsidies. As the state’s role in a sector increases, it invariably leads to a growing presumption about the efficacy of politics over markets. Although news media executives may have made some wrong decisions over the past several years, there are few reasons to believe that MP Champoux or his parliamentary colleagues have a better understanding of the commercial interests of their companies or the industry itself. 

Should the news media industry hold a national forum? Probably. It may be a good opportunity to share best practices and discuss common concerns including forthcoming online harms legislation and its potential consequences. But these decisions shouldn’t require approval or funding from politicians. The industry can surely decide itself whether to hold a conference. 

More importantly, it ought to decide itself how to deal with the broader market developments that it’s now subjected to. That starts with listening to consumers rather than politicians about the future of journalism.

The Future of News series is supported by The Hub’s foundation donors and Meta.

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