Viewpoint: Journalism matters more than ever

On September 1, an agency of the Canadian government directed nearly $100 million to support local television news. Suddenly, more local television reporters are working stories on more broadcasts across Canada.

But why just television? Why not newspapers or digital-only publications? It's the reporting of news that's important, not the platform on which it resides.

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The answer is purely bureaucratic. Television is regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which collects a levy on the revenues of cable and satellite distributors and then redirects the funds into producing content deemed to serve the public good, such as television news.

Other parts of the Government of Canada, supported by the same taxpayers, have so far resisted measures to bolster an industry that plays an essential role in our democracy, one that's even explicitly written into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The situation is bad and getting worse. More and more newspaper jobs are disappearing and newspaper closings in more than 200 federal ridings have loosened the social glue news provides to communities. These reporter-intensive organizations are the tributaries for much of the news about democratic institutions generated in Canada, both in print and online. Digital news startups in Canada, with a few exceptions, so far have been unable to fill the growing deficit in reporting capacity.

This is not a good time to allow the weakening of news organizations. We are seeing in the United States the critical role newspaper companies are playing in keeping the public informed of deep stresses in their democracy. The classic relationship between whistleblowers and reporters cannot work if the latter become an endangered species.

Meanwhile, as the sources of verifiable news dry up, fake news proliferates. Making something up or simply distorting facts costs a fraction of real reporting. Whether for commercial, partisan, ideological or geopolitical reasons, it represents a direct assault on our democracy.

We see two problems that cry out for attention: getting more reporters on the ground and financing innovation so news producers can keep up with ever-evolving consumption habits.

Last April, on the heels of The Shattered Mirror report on news, democracy and truth in Canada, the Public Policy Forum brought together about 40 news organizations and unions to propose solutions that would support employment of reporters and investment in innovation without sacrificing media independence or shutting out new competitors. Out of this process came a proposal to add a new component to the well-established Canadian Periodical Fund, one that would support journalism of a civic, or democratic enhancing nature.

This new Canadian Journalism Fund would feature a pre-programmed formula to cover 30 per cent of the costs of reporting, creating an incentive to hire rather than fire reporters, and, critically, denying governments the discretion to play favourites. A definition for who qualifies and an appeals process independent of government have been established. As well, companies would be forbidden from diverting the funds to dividends, bonuses and debt payments.

There are those who rightly worry any government involvement would compromise a free press. But a broke press is not much of a free press.

The alternative of more and more fake news and less and less reported news is antithetical to the precepts of a healthy democracy.

Bob Cox is chairman of News Media Canada and publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press; Jerry Dias is national president of Unifor; Edward Greenspon is president of the Public Policy Forum.

Copyright © 2017 Powell River Peak

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