Opinion

Letter from the editor: The journalism bailout we need

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One of the industries bearing the brunt of technological disruption most is my own. Canadian journalism is in crisis. And while lots of people are focused on finding more money to build it up again, what we really need is to find a way to make it sustainable at scale.

A thoroughly-researched Public Policy Forum (PPF) report out next Tuesday paints a bleak picture of the journalism landscape. The study, Mind the Gaps: Quantifying the decline of news coverage in Canada, shared with The Logic ahead of its release, sampled communities in all five regions of Canada. It found that the total number of newspaper articles produced in those communities fell by almost half over the last decade. Coverage of democratic institutions and civic affairs declined by more than a third. The drop coincides with the downsizing, merging and closing of print news outlets.

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According to the authors, there were no outliers: in each of the 20 communities examined, there were fewer articles covering important civic affairs per year than a decade ago.

From 2008 to 2017, as local newspapers across Canada shrank and shuttered, print coverage of democratic institutions and issues fell sharply. Mind the gaps: Quantifying the decline of news coverage in Canada. September, 2018. The Public Policy Forum.

An accompanying report titled What the Saskatchewan Roughriders can teach Canadian Journalism, also to be released Tuesday by the PPF, recommends that communities establish cross-sectional ownership of publications in the form of non-profit, community-based organizations, instead of single controlling shareholders. They call it the “Saskatchewan Roughriders model,” after the CFL club, which has fans as shareholders and reinvests its revenues into the team.

The PPF rightly emphasizes the drop in quality journalism, and the focus on ownership got me thinking about how journalism is produced and who funds it.

Technology has created new opportunities for producing journalism by lowering the barriers to entry in the media industry and creating production efficiencies that reduce the high overhead costs.

For example, advances in live-streaming, transcription services and machine learning mean that local news outlets no longer require a reporter writing up meeting notes from city council meetings. With ambition, creativity and journalistic instinct, smart reporters—or citizens, for that matter—armed with smart algorithms can break important stories that set the agenda. And they can do so at a fraction of the cost of traditional newsrooms under a model that can scale.

There are also opportunities to pursue new funding models. The truth is, news is not going to produce the double-digit returns it once did, and frankly, nor should it. It can, however, when done right, produce a modest return, build community capital, and maintain editorial independence.

There is an opportunity here for patient, community-centred capital. For example, foundations and philanthropists who want to help solve the journalism crisis can do so by pursuing impact investments that can spur innovation.

Using our own publication as an example, as it’s the only one whose economics I can speak to with authority, for The Logic to establish a bureau in Kitchener-Waterloo, it would cost roughly $100,000 to $150,000 annually to start. We’d only need about 300 subscribers a year in that region to return a profit. We don’t have the cash flow to do so today, but a community-oriented foundation willing to make an impact investment could provide that funding immediately. Once up and running, the operation could pay for itself and, in time, pay a return to the foundation, both in dollars and, more importantly, in advancing its mission—all while maintaining editorial independence.

The journalism industry doesn’t need a bailout. It needs a value-for-money audit. Handouts, whether from the government or anyone else, won’t pay the bills forever. Companies that can’t figure out how to turn a profit will eventually be back for more. Use the cash to fund journalism outlets that have a clear path to profitability. If they can’t make it work, stop giving them money.

I’ll be speaking on a Canadian Journalism Foundation panel about this topic on October 4. If these issues are important to you, and you’re in Toronto, you can find more details here. I’d love to meet you.