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Rudyard Griffiths: In trying to save journalism, government risks killing it

Commentary

Readers will have seen this week our appeal for free Hub members to become paid subscribers. Some of you might be wondering: why the push now? And why is The Hub’s news and journalism deserving of my financial support? 

Let me explain, as our campaign is about more than The Hub. It goes to the heart of the now sweeping intrusion of government into the funding of journalism in Canada and its implications for news and information consumers like you.  

The largess began with the 2019 federal budget and the first-ever labour tax credits for producers of written digital news. Fully $360 million was set aside over five years to support media outlets (not including broadcasters), who were able to convince a panel of political appointees that they were mostly engaged in the production of “original news” content. 

The subsidies were snapped up by privately owned media outlets (you can see a partial list here as there is no formal requirement for newsgroups to report they are taking government funds) from Canada’s paper of record, the billionaire-owned The Globe and Mail, to local and regional outlets across the country. Thanks to the media’s aggressive lobbying, the program was enriched to the tune of $129 million in the 2023 fall economic statement so that “qualified” outlets can now claim nearly $30,000 in subsidies for every journalist they employ.  

Around the same time, the federal government established (and just this month renewed for three years) its so-called “Local Journalism Initiative.” This now almost $130 million program currently funds upwards of 400 journalists’ salaries up to $60,000 each who cover “the diverse needs of Canada’s underserved communities.” Participating news organizations must have or adopt a hiring policy “promoting diversity and inclusion” and acknowledge the government’s financial support by featuring the Canada Wordmark (“Canada” with the Canadian flag on the final “a”) in their publications. Editorial guidelines helpfully remind news publishers to display the Government of Canada wordmark “…in print on the front page or in the masthead, and online on the homepage…” How this promotes the best traditions of an independent press capable of holding the powerful to account, including government, is frankly anyone’s guess. 

This surge in government subsidies for the news media ratcheted up yet another notch in 2023, with the debut of the Online News Act. After a torturous legislative and regulatory setting process that prompted Meta to ultimately block news sharing on its platforms, the government was able to extract from Google a $100 million annual pledge (indexed to inflation) to fund news journalism. This time, coerced Big Tech, not big government, will work with a yet-defined news media association to parcel out subsidies to a smorgasbord of publishers, broadcasters, local media, First Nations and French language media outlets, and the CBC, as proscribed by federal regulation.  

The Online News Act monies, combined with the recently enhanced labour tax credits, the Local Journalism Initiative, Google funding, plus tax credits for digital news subscriptions, will bring about a truly bizarre state of affairs for the news media. Fully half of the salaries of most journalists working for private companies will be paid for by, in one form or another, direct or indirect subsidies. In Quebec, thanks to a provincial tax credit, the subsidy will approach 100 percent of the salaries of journalists earning up to $75,000 per year.     

Remember that all this government largess being heaped on private, for-profit news companies is happening alongside the CBC’s $1.4 billion dollar-a-year public subsidy and the massive national news operation it helps to underwrite.

In sum, it is by no means a stretch to claim that in the coming year, almost all the news journalism we will consume will be produced by reporters and editors whose salaries are majority funded by one type of subsidy or another. 

We also know that in the next 18 months or so there will be a federal election. It will be a high-stakes campaign with sharply different visions of the country’s future on offer. And it will be fought for the first time in an information environment where the majority of the salaries of most news journalists—including at private media outlets—will be subsidized by the policies of the party in power. 

To state the obvious, we (the news media) are facing an “own goal” of epic proportions. Specifically, how do we think the only 37 percent of English-speaking Canadians who say they trust the press are likely to react when they suss out that almost all the news they are consuming is directly or indirectly government-subsidized? Will they be more or less likely to trust us? Will they take our reporting as factual, or government-funded spin? The complicity of silence of the “news industry” on these questions, ones that go to the core of what the profession of journalism is supposedly all about, is as appalling as it is inexcusable.

Heritage Minister Pascale St-Onge speaks with reporters in the Foyer of the House of Commons, Wednesday, November 29, 2023 in Ottawa. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Editors and journalists will protest that they aren’t corrupted by the government’s lucre, and for most, this will be true. But we live in an age of conspiracy theories, disinformation, and bad faith actors. All three will ensure that government-subsidized “news” journalism at scale becomes something far less than what our democracy urgently needs: truly independent, arm’s length reporting.  

There is a good faith argument we’ve encouraged at The Hub about whether news journalism is a public good that merits government support in a moment of sweeping technological disruption. But assuming that conspicuous rent-seeking from government by private news providers is consequence-free strains credulity. Instead of saving journalism, the blind rush to subsidize newsgathering risks destroying what little remains of the industry’s credibility.  

As The Hub enters its fourth year of publication and starts gearing up to cover the coming federal election, we are purposely choosing to hoe a harder row than the mainstream media: producing original news journalism not funded by the current subsidy regime. In the process, we will turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential government subsidies because we cannot in good conscience take these funds and claim to be truly independent. 

This is why we are now asking you, our 25,000+ free subscribers, to become paid supporters of our news journalism. It’s your generosity that helps us hire fiercely independent reporters and editors who know their salaries are paid for by readers like you and not by the incumbent government and its policies. 

In sum, support a future for independent journalism by supporting The Hub

Rudyard Griffiths, Publisher, The Hub

‘We need to get back to basics’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

This week saw Hub readers discussing the dying dream of Canadian homeownership (and how it should be revived), Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre’s surging popularity, rising crime in Canada, and our electrical grid problem, among many other topics.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community to the fore and to foster open dialogue and the competition of differing ideas in a respectful and productive manner. Here are some of the most interesting comments from this past week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

It’s time for Canada to seize Russian assets

Monday, March 18, 2024

“Ukrainians are being bombarded in their homes on a daily basis and soldiers are dying on the front without sufficient means to defend themselves. They need all the help they can get.”

— Lynda Thivierge

“I like both the idea of Canada taking the lead and the obvious justice of using Russian money to begin to compensate for the non-human destruction inflicted on Ukraine. The justice for the utterly immoral human destruction should take place in the Hague, hopefully after a Russian defeat.
Other than the illegality in relevant countries, which can be remedied with legislation as Canada has done, I don’t understand the nuance of why there is resistance to taking this step.”

— Paul Attics

The Canadian dream of homeownership is dying

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

“Our country faces a fundamental problem of lack of growth in wealth. Our economy is stagnant. Businesses are not investing in Canada. Without economic growth, the free market doesn’t work well. Government interventions are rarely helpful, often hurting real investment. I’m afraid we need to get back to basics.”

— Al Raftis

“The Canadian economy has obviously suffered while home ownership, the traditional foundation of our society and economy, has been eviscerated.”

— John Hartley

“Some people need to be able to buy within a few years, but even more need confidence that it’s worth saving and working towards. Young people can see that governments are restricting the supply of housing (mostly houses and townhouses) that people actually want with no apparent plans to stop doing that and that, when push comes to shove, housing affordability is likely going to continue to be put second to other goals like population growth.”

— Valerie

Poilievre’s popularity is surging—his working-class appeal is a key reason why

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

“The reason Pierre Poilievre is so popular is that he is saying what the vast majority of Canadians feel. We must get our spending under control.”

— Kim Morton

“I suppose your definition fits the dictionary definition of ‘working class.’ However, I would suggest that most people, maybe as you suggest as well, see it as those who work to survive either to just get by or to at least not have to ask for help from the government. This definition would include way more than 6.5 million Canadians and would explain the polls.”

— Sandra

Canada’s crime problem is only getting worse

Thursday, March 21, 2024

“Improvements to law enforcement coordination are a must. Not only to catch the ‘big fish’ but because, if most cars are retrieved, the financial incentive to steal them for export diminishes. If, as implied in the article, low-risk offenders are in jail awaiting trial while repeat offenders accused of violent offences are out on bail, then that needs to be fixed and fast.”

— Gordon Edwards

“Part of the problem lies with the car manufacturers making cars more difficult to steal and this costs the manufacturers money to develop technologies and integrate them into the building of the vehicle. Many high-end cars use keyless fobs which can be hacked fairly easily by professional auto thieves. The insurance industry is also pressuring manufacturers to make cars more resilient to theft.”

— Michael F

An electric vehicle is charged at a Tesla charging station in Ottawa on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.
Our electrical grid can’t handle the coming demands

Friday, March 22, 2024

“Electrifying Canada’s 26+ million registered vehicle fleet by 2050, in addition to the almost 300 million in the U.S., over 300 million in China, and another 250 million in the EU, will require far more crucial battery minerals and REEs than the world’s current reserves. EV batteries come with high, upfront, carbon footprints and environmental degradation due to the mining and processing of those minerals.”

— Michael B

“Our current generating capacity is far below what will be needed to supply future demands that Trudeau’s policies will create. Wind and solar are not the solution, as electricity is a demand commodity. “

— Greg Jackson

“Today we design grids—generation and transmission—which must be able to address the peak demands we anticipate for the coldest hour of the coldest day and the hottest hour of the hottest day, for the next few years, plus a safety margin. But our electricity demand is usually quite a bit lower than those peak times, and in fact, if you look at most jurisdictions the capacity is about twice the actual consumption over the year.

That’s inefficient and expensive, and one of the reasons we are now looking to smarter grids, smarter appliances, storage, and other ways of better-distributing demand towards off-peak times.

Electric vehicles already come with this advantage. Most charging (over 70 percent) is fine at home, and most of that is done overnight during times of low demand. So, as with time shifting, while consuming more power generation, the nighttime portion of that does not necessarily require more capacity.

It is easy to paint all of this transition as unachievable, or requiring that’s what was said about phasing out coal power, until jurisdictions like Ontario, the U.K., and now Canada as a whole showed it can be done in about a dozen years when the political will to do so exists.”

— Rick Anderson