May 28, 2019
Last week Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez invited news publishers and journalist organizations to join an independent panel of experts mandated to flesh out definitions in the Budget Act pertaining to the $595 million rescue package for written media.
Then a media storm descended.
Lost in the storm were some important facts. Here they are.
The panel is to make recommendations to the government for regulations implementing the commitments in the Budget Act. There will be eight members of the Independent Panel: four from news publishers and four from journalist organizations. As the largest media union in Canada, Unifor was named one of the four journalist organizations.
The committee may only submit recommendations based on consensus of the eight members. The recommendations should be “aligned with the general practices of the industry.”
The committee’s work will begin shortly. It must be finished within thirty days, then its business is done.
Here are the questions it will answer:
- What is “original” news ?
- Who is an “eligible newsroom employee” for purpose of the publisher claiming the labour tax credit ? The Panel is asked to tease out, from the lengthy definition already provided in the Budget Act, the meaning of “otherwise prepare content.”
- What does it mean that an eligible news organization (QCJO) must be “primarily focussed on matters of general interest and reports of current events…and not be primarily focussed on a particular topic?”
- Review the requirement that an eligible news organization “employ two or more journalists in the production of content” and provide clarifications or definitions and even recommend “adjustments” which the government could legislate at a future date.
As you can see, the tasks range from important to granular. For example, should we include video producers in the meaning of “otherwise prepare content”? Should the “two journalist” threshold include part-time journalists?
The final duty of each of the eight members of the committee is to nominate a member of a second Independent panel which is expected to be the administrative gatekeeper reviewing applications to become eligible news organizations under the Budget Act.
The Minister has promised transparency for the entire process. As much as anyone, we will hold him to it.
I get, and accept, that a media rescue package is controversial. In an election year, it’s a juicy orange for the Opposition. So be it.
The federal aid comes in three envelopes: a 25% subsidy for newsroom wages, a tax credit for digital subscribers, and charitable status for non-profit news organizations so they can issue donor tax receipts.
For those familiar with the state of the industry, I don’t have to recite the long list of Canadian newspaper closures (250 in the last ten years, 2000 American closures in the same time period).
The 80 cents on the dollar that Print advertising revenue once paid to fund journalism is half of what it was ten years ago. It has not been replaced by digital dimes. There is no longer a viable for-profit business model.
What is cynical about the strident opposition to government aid to media is the willing denial of this business reality and the failure to offer any alternative.
The idea that government is buying media support with its modest subsidy designed to mitigate further newspaper closures is fear mongering.
We have had a full government subsidy of the CBC for decades, including the last 20 years in the written online news space. Yet a 25% subsidy to privately owned media (that endorse the federal Conservatives 77% of the time) is a dangerous ploy to “buy the media?”
Perhaps the Puritan objection to media subsidies will prevail. What will be left is a Saharan-sized news desert, bordered by the venerable CBC on one side and troll-land on the other. Heaven help our democracy.
Read the government’s mandate letter at https://www.uniformedia.ca/federal-aid-to-media.
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