CAJ on local news: Our submission to the House of Commons

The CAJ was invited to testify at the House of Commons standing committee on Canadian Heritage on the future of local news. Read our submission below. For the rest of our testimony, click here.

Thank you for inviting us to appear here today. I’m Nick Taylor-Vaisey, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists. I’m here today in that capacity, and do not speak on behalf of my employer. I’ll be sharing my time with Hugo Rodrigues, the CAJ’s past-president. Today, we’re speaking to you in Ottawa and from Toronto, but our National Board represents almost every corner of Canada. We see that as a strength, even if it does make our board meetings across several time zones tricky to schedule. It’s a strength because the CAJ is a truly national association of working journalists with members all over the country, and across all forms of media.

Before we offer you our thoughts on how the federal government can proactively, but non-intrusively, encourage high-quality journalism in Canada, allow us to tell you a bit more about our organization.

The CAJ was founded in 1978 as the Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit organization that encouraged and supported investigative journalism. Over the years, we broadened our mandate, and now offer three primary services to our members: high-quality professional development, primarily at our annual national conference; outspoken advocacy on behalf of journalists and the public’s right to know; and an awards program that honours the finest journalism in Canada—both investigative and across several other categories—and is affordable for our members.

Our members are the working journalists who are responsible for outstanding reporting that changes lives, forces governments to do better for Canadians, and ultimately serves the public interest. They’re local reporters who keep their eye on city hall when few others are watching, and who simply report the news that better informs their community. Of course, our members are often the first to feel the brunt of layoffs that have cut so deeply across newsrooms.

We are here to provide two modest recommendations that would allow more storytelling in more local newsrooms, and help stem the tide of job losses, at least to some degree, in those same newsrooms. The first recommendation is that government provides incentives to prospective local advertisers in Canadian communities; the second recommendation is that government make it easier for non-profit journalism to take flight in Canada.

You’ve already heard in prior testimony to this committee, and you no doubt already knew, that media are facing a revenue problem. Advertisers are able to exploit digital opportunities that offer more eyeballs and a larger audience share. This has irrevocably shifted balance sheets at media companies across Canada — first it was the classifieds, then the national ads, and now it’s hitting us at every level.

Just this week, the Rainy River Record, a paper that has served its readers for almost a century, announced it will stop publication this month and shut its doors. Why? The Record’s publisher said two of its major advertisers, the Government of Canada and the Government of Ontario, have chosen to, as he put it, “shun newspaper advertising” in favour of global giants like Google. That closure represents yet another blow to all newspapers in both Ontario and across Canada.

Put simply: As revenues drop, many media owners cut expenses by laying off journalists. With fewer human resources in those newsrooms, less journalism is produced and journalists spend more time chasing audiences that generate potential new online revenue than they do investing in content. With less content available and the quality of that content dropping, audiences look elsewhere for the information they want. All the while, revenues continue to drop.

Bob Cox, the chair of the Canadian Newspaper Association, told this committee on May 31 the federal government “could find ways of encouraging Canadian companies to spend their advertising dollars here.” The CAJ supports that view.

We’re not proposing a regulatory solution to the pervasive revenue question that’s gone largely unanswered in many media companies, both big and small. To be certain, different markets face different pressures, and some have more success than others. But there’s a clear and urgent need to find creative solutions for those communities in need.

The CAJ does support, generally speaking, government making it easier to invest in Canadian media—for instance, a tax break for local advertisers who currently see no advantage in placing an ad in their local newspaper or broadcaster. We know that when local media can raise enough revenue from their community, they can thrive. Let’s offer an incentive for companies to invest in the journalism being done in their backyards.

When media companies can cover their expenses through the revenues they raise from advertising, they can and do invest in quality — content that informs Canadians about their roles and responsibilities in a civil society, that shines a light in dark places, speaks truth to power and comforts the afflicted.

We also think government can play a useful role in the nonprofit world, which can play a crucial role in public-interest reporting and public education. This is, of course, distinct from public broadcasters such as the CBC and its public-broadcasting counterparts, including Ontario’s TVO. The CAJ believes Canada should embrace non-profit journalism as other countries, including the United States, already do.

To cherry-pick one example, ProPublica is a charitable organization south of the border that counts itself as one among many so-called 501(c)(3) non-profits. That’s a reference to sec. 501(c)(3) of the U.S.’s Internal Revenue Code, and it allows qualifying organizations tax-exempt status for the purposes of, among other goals, public education.

Now, that doesn’t mean transforming local reporters into civics teachers, though we certainly find ourselves playing that role from time to time in our communities. ProPublica describes its investigative reporting as work that “shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.” Not exactly the sort of thing you’ll find in an elementary school classroom, but it’s certainly as valuable.

Non-profit journalism does exist in Canada. The Walrus Foundation, The Tyee Solutions Society and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network all operate as charities—and with success. They’ve proven that charities can fund journalism. But there are far fewer examples in Canada than there are elsewhere in the world. The Knight Foundation in the U.S. and the trust-backed Guardian in the U.K. are but two examples of journalism-focused philanthropic initiatives that simply have no equal in Canada.

Non-profit media organizations have created compelling, groundbreaking stories that educate and inform their audiences about how their society works. Civic education is lacking in Canada, and while non-profit journalism isn’t a panacea for this problem, any government action to create and foster a friendly business environment to invest in these organizations can only help enable more of them to get started and flourish.

The more media outlets — whether traditional, mainstream, online, etc. — that operate in Canada, the more informed our residents will be. And that only strengthens our democracy.

Thank you for your time.

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