It’s hard times in the journalism industry, and the government wants to help.
The first part of that sentence isn’t really arguable. News outlets that haven’t shut down completely have significantly downsized, and though there are new sources of news these days, they don’t have anywhere near the kinds of resources that newspapers, magazines and television and radio stations used to have. As a result, many stories go unreported or underreported, and society is poorer for it.
Governments are aware of this and have put forward ways to help. Some make sense and are fairly uncontroversial, like tax credits for news subscriptions or allowing news outlets to receive charitable donations. Others have been spectacular failures, like Bill C-18. Most have been somewhere in between, consisting of direct or indirect funding to those organizations who qualify based on criteria set by bureaucrats at (hopefully) an arm’s length from the political machine.
Deciding who is and isn’t a journalist, and deciding how much money they should get, creates a lot of problems. It could lead to a slippery slope where some CRTC-like body starts micromanaging journalism and infringing (in fact or in practice) on our rights to free expression.
But handing out money isn’t the only thing that could help the news industry these days. Here are 10 suggestions from me on things the government can do that would make things better that don’t include direct handouts.
1. Fix the access to information system
We will make government information more accessible. Government data and information should be open by default, in formats that are modern and easy to use. We will update the Access to Information Act to meet this standard.
— Liberal Party platform, 2015
You’ve heard it before, no doubt. A party in opposition says it’s outraged at how ineffective the access to information system is, and promises to reform it. Then it gets into power and if any changes are made, they’re the kind that look good on paper but horrible in practice.
The law isn’t the problem. In theory it works quite well. A small fee or no fee to make a request, a short deadline to receive a response, an appeals process when a request is denied. All good things.
But the reality is that journalists often have to wait years for responses, and those responses might be heavily redacted, in an unusable format (an Excel spreadsheet exported to PDF, for example), or on an outdated medium like a CD.
If governments, their departments and agencies stopped treating (reasonable) access to information requests as enemies to vanquish, not only could more information get into the hands of journalists, but those journalists could spend more time searching for stories instead of fighting the system.
It would also be extremely helpful if it was codified into law a procedure for people to waive their right to privacy of their personal information so it can be released to a third party. So often journalists will ask a government agency about a particular person’s situation because that person came to the journalist to complain about the bureaucracy, only for the bureaucracy to cite privacy reasons for refusing to confirm information or answer any questions. If a reliably secure method could be found to allow people to consent to sharing of personal information with a journalist, that excuse could be nullified.
2. Have more data available by default
Even better than a better access-to-information system would be a system where you wouldn’t have to file a formal request in the first place because the data are already public.
There was a wave of support for this idea and governments created “open data portals” or even sponsored “hackathons” to show their commitment to the cause. But while a lot of that open data is quite useful (and not just to journalists, but to scientists, app developers and all sorts of other people), it too often ends up being out of date or distracting from much more useful data that could be made open but isn’t. The next point is a prime example of that.
3. Fully digitize and open up the courts
Have you ever looked up a court case at the Palais de Justice in Montreal? You walk in, past airport-style security, and walk up to a computer that looks like it belongs in a 1980s library. Then if you know how to use the ridiculously complicated system, you can find a case number, which you then use to walk up to a counter, wait for someone to come to you, and borrow a physical file folder stuffed with papers.
Or, if you have the money, you can subscribe to a system that will give you access to some of the documents online.
There is no reason the court system has to be this way. These documents were all drafted on computers, why can’t they just be put online for free in the first place?
The pandemic led to journalists being able to access some court proceedings virtually. In an ideal world (with careful consideration for things like publication bans), everything would be open.
4. Make ministries answer journalists’ questions in a reasonable time
Hey, can I get this super-simple question answered? It’s 10am and I’ve just been assigned this story, the journalist says in an email to a minister’s PR flak. No problem, the flak responds, what’s your deadline? Well, it’s whenever you get me an answer, the journalist says, but to get it in the next day’s paper or on tonight’s newscast I’ll need to file by 5pm. OK, the flak says. Finally, at 4:59pm, a response: the minister will not be commenting, but here’s a bunch of boilerplate PR speak about how much the government cares about the overall issue.
It should go without saying that this isn’t helpful. Now I know ministers are busy and don’t have all day to just wait by a phone and compose well-crafted responses to every inquiry. But the flip side is that a journalist asking a question isn’t always looking for the PR answer. Sometimes they just want a fact checked or an issue looked into, or to talk to an expert. The PR machine that has been built up around governments is too concerned with sanitizing to avoid controversy, obfuscating to cover up bad news or just being bureaucratic for its own sake. (We know from access-to-information requests that a lot of these inquiries require way too many approvals from way too many people before they’re answered.)
If PR professionals were allowed to just be helpful, the work of journalists would be a lot easier and make for much better stories. Even better would be if the PR people could be removed from the process entirely, and journalists could talk to actual policy experts, scientists, engineers or decision-makers to find out why things happen the way they do.
5. Fix the online advertising loophole
Before C-18 drew all the media lobbyists’ attention, they pushed for a change to Canadian tax law that would have pushed the scales away from Google and Meta and toward Canadian media companies.
Under Canadian tax law, businesses can deduct advertising expenses from their taxes when those ads are placed in Canadian print publications or broadcast media, but can’t deduct those expenses if they’re placed in foreign print publications or broadcast media if they primarily target Canadians.
The exclusion of foreign-owned media from deductibility does not apply to online media. Meaning that advertising through Google or Facebook is fully tax deductible.
A Senate report in 2018 recommended changing the Income Tax act to close this loophole. But it has sat on a shelf since then.
We can debate whether it makes sense to limit the deductibility of foreign advertising. But it’s hard to make the case that advertising in foreign-owned print publications, television and radio shouldn’t be deductible but advertising on foreign-owned websites should be.
6. Crack down on online ad fraud
Online advertising is much more efficient than legacy media. Rather than taking out a page in a newspaper for thousands of dollars, or a 30-second ad on a broadcast station for hundreds, being exposed to their entire audience regardless of demographic, you can tell an ad network to serve your ad only to those people who tick the right boxes that might get you the best return on investment. On top of that, you can see, in real-time if necessary, how many people are interacting with your ad and going to your website and making purchases.
That sounds great. But the flip side is often you have little realistic control over where your ads appear, and often a lot of the traffic you get on your ad and pay for is fraudulent. Either the ads are placed on sketchy websites that get their traffic from bots, or the ad networks themselves mislead advertisers about what happens to their ads and how they’re displayed. (Even the biggest and most respected companies like Google have been credibly accused of this.)
When faceless people online have a way to get money from you, they’re going to find ways to game the system. And because the ad networks make more money when you pay for more ads, they don’t have much incentive to shut that down.
Governments could do more to regulate online advertising, police it, and prosecute those who engage in ad fraud. Doing so would level the playing field a bit and benefit those legacy businesses where human beings handle advertising. Making online ad networks liable for fraudulent ads would go a long way toward making the marketplace better for both advertisers and media companies.
7. Prosecute those who profit off misinformation
In a perfect world, we could snap our fingers and make all those ad-filled low-quality clickbait farm websites disappear.
But in the actual world, they have a right to exist. We can’t prosecute people for saying things we don’t like or having a website that doesn’t meet our editorial standards.
What we can do, however, is put the screws to those who use outright lies to enrich themselves. Those who say things they know are false to get our attention and then trick people into sending money directly or doing things that earn commissions for the liars.
The government should ensure resources are put into prosecuting misinformation for profit.
8. Make CBC content open
For many private news outlets, their main or even only competition is Canada’s national broadcaster. That has led some news barons to call for CBC to be ordered to stop competing with them. I think that’s a step a bit too far, though I do believe the CBC should focus its energies more on where the for-profit news industry can’t serve.
But I will endorse another idea that has been brought up by a few people: Make CBC’s journalism open. Put it under a Creative Commons licence, something similar or even in the public domain. Let private news outlets, community media, or random bloggers reuse and expand on CBC’s reporting without having to ask permission. Instead of competing with the national broadcaster, it could be used as a resource, like a free wire service, freeing up journalists to focus on other stories that aren’t being covered.
9. Impose stronger local news requirements for radio stations
Most commercial radio stations in Canada are required to have some form of local news, but the CRTC doesn’t specify how much. As a result, it’s very hard to ensure compliance.
The CRTC should set some minimum standard so that radio stations, in particular music stations that still earn a lot of money without having to spend much, are required to spend some of those profits on news content.
10. Provide basic media education to the population
Separating quality news from partisan hackery and organized misinformation is fairly easy for people who know what they’re looking for, but it can be difficult for the general population who don’t know how professional journalism works and haven’t been taught critical thinking skills.
We need to change that, preferably at the high school level. Classes in media law and ethics could help people understand why they should seek out quality journalism and help them judge the sources of information they’re exposed to.
Besides, in a world where everyone is their own media outlet, it’s important for people to understand the legal limits of what they can do when they post on social media.
Bonus: Actually subscribe
Blacklock’s Reporter, a media outlet most Canadians probably don’t know about but that covers the federal government, has been involved in legal battles with the federal government over internal sharing of its content among the federal public service.
You don’t need to be a fan of the news outlet’s tactics (suing so much it seems like that’s a key part of their business model) but if information is worth sharing like this, it’s worth paying for. The federal government should reach a deal with Blacklock’s and other media outlets for group subscriptions that properly compensate news outlets for the content they create and that public employees make available to each other (you know, the stuff the government created a law to force Facebook and Google to do).
It could even include non-news content creators whose works are shared within the government. They, too, deserve compensation for their work if it is of use.
It might be a bit complex to set up (you want to ensure the amount of compensation reflect the amount of useful news being produced and not just give away money to anyone who wants it), but I think it’s worth the effort, both for fairness reasons and as an incentive to produce more useful journalism.
Did I miss anything? Do you have ideas to add to this list? Put them in the comments below.