Not a penny more

So, I saw, a few days ago, in a report in the Globe and Mail, that “The print media need extra sources of federal funding, as well as a new deal with foreign internet companies, to survive unnamed (1)the economic shock brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the publisher of The Globe and Mail has told MPs … In a video appearance before the finance committee of the House, Phillip Crawley said the public-health crisis has contributed to the continuing decline in advertising revenue, which jeopardizes the ability of news organizations in Canada to provide high-quality content on major issues facing the country.

Mr Crawley makes a sound financial case … I’m sure he’s right: without additional government money fine newspapers like the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star and the Vancouver Sun will, likely disappear into bankruptcy. That will be a pity. But neither they nor the broadcast media should receive a penny of funding from the Government of Canada.

It might be good and proper public policy to allow very generous tax breaks (incentives) to advertisers and it might be proper to allow the newspapers to write off even more of the (high) costs of doing business, but, I suspect, that after all the pennies, coming in and going out, have been counted we will find that even the best-managed newspaper looks something like this:

Cost of Publication = $1n : Revenue = $0.9n

My guess is that the news for electronic media, radio and TV is worse, more like this:

Cost of Production = $1n : Revenue = $0.7n

In other words, there is no way that traditional media ~ print, TV and radio ~ can be operated, in Canada, by the private sector using the traditional business models.

Does that mean we should have government-owned media? Should we have nothing but the CBC and TVO? Should the National Post and the Montreal Gazette become Pravda and Izvestia?

No … of course not.

But, as Phillip Crawley explained the current economic model which has sustained newspapers for 400 years, since the Nieuwe Tijdinghen (or Antwerp Gazette as it was known in English) was first published in 1620, is broken.

I cannot remember when we did not have a daily paper ~ my first job, as it was for many downloadpre-teen boys in the 1950s, was delivering a newspaper. For most of my adult life, the morning paper was part of my breakfast routine ~ now and again I was pretty far from home and the morning news came in the form a long sheet of teletype paper, but it was still The Good Grey Globe and other familiar news sources. A few years ago I got tired of lugging the unread sections of the papers down the hall to the garbage room and I switched all my subscriptions to electronic format (except for Foreign Affairs, copies of which are crowding out conventional books as they take up row after soldierly blue-grey row in my bookcases). But I do not want you, reader, or my friends and neighbours or even my enemies to subsidize my daily “fix” of news with a single penny of tax money.

I will miss the Globe and the Post, and the Citizen and the Sun, too if or when they go under. But guess what? There is still be a market for Canadian news and some smart entrepreneurs will find out how to meet that market and they will hire some bright journalists to report the news in forms that are accessible to me ~ almost certainly delivered, electronically, to a screen, of some sort, in my home. Of course, I’ll have to pay for it. I pay now, directly or, in the case of the CBC, through my taxes, why would that change?

There may be some consternation when Canadians discover that these entrepreneurs Screen Shot 2020-05-24 at 18.34.07are foreigners who own multiple media outlets that provide news and entertainment in several countries using modern technology. Some faceless senior official will shrug and say “sorry, folks, but the kind of rules that we had, which said newspapers owners had to be Screen Shot 2020-05-24 at 18.35.40Canadians and even they couldn’t own papers and TV stations almost killed both our print and electronic media. If you want news and entertainment at affordable prices then you get what Rupert Murdoch, Subhash Chandra and Mort Zuckerman offer, or you get nothing at all.” Ninety-nine perceb=nt of us are going to be content with the outcome … Maude Barlow will be almost the only exception.

The same arguments apply to electronic media. There is one wrinkle: over the air radio and TV. I have argued, before for a national, over-the-air radio broadcast service, especially to serve rural and remote communities. Most of you, when you climb into your car for either your daily commute or to go to the shops, turn on the radio, first thing ~ you expect it to be there. Most of you do not subscribe to broadcast services like SiriusXM.

Here’s the thing: in international law the radio frequency spectrum belongs to you. The spectrum is part of each nation’s sovereign patrimony. In all cases, you, the Government of Canada, on your behalf, rents that spectrum, through licence fees, to broadcasters. Some  roadcasters, like the CBC provide some of their content “free of charge,” others sell airtime to sponsors and require you to listen to paid advertising. Both models are also broken.

It is likely that 5G will make it easier and cheaper to deliver high-quality audio and video to cars and other mobile platforms as a paid service, but it seems to me that any Canadian who is driving across the prairies ought to be able to turn on the car radio and receive a weather report, some news (biased or not) and the hockey scores. How to make that affordable ~ which means, effectively, free ~ is beyond me, but I’m sure that one or two of the media moguls have some workable ideas.

What I am absolutely certain about is that there are ways for the private sector to sell us news, information and entertainment, in various forms, some of which might not be old and familiar, at reasonable, affordable rates. And I’m also sure that one thing that they need is less and especially less capricious government regulation.

I know that there have to be some controls. I don’t want to tun on the TV and have my young grandson see pornography, nor do I want to turn on the car radio (or the back seat TV) and hear ‘Chopper’ (Ronnie Johns) telling us to “harden up.”  (Don’t click on that link if you don’t like hearing the ‘great Australian adjective‘ AKA the F word.) But we’ve had those controls in place for 85 years and they work pretty well. The controls that do not work so well are those designed to ensure that only Canadians can own media outlets and that there can never be a Canadian Kerry Packer. I’m afraid that will have to change.

This is not about media bias.

I expect the media to be biased. I am pleased when, as e.g. The Econonist does, that bias is announced, right up front. I am less thrilled when outlets fail to live up to their public mandates and try to manipulate rather than inform, but I expect that, too … I see little difference in bias ~ other than in which side each takes ~ between the CBC‘s TV News and Fox News in the USA.

This is about having media in Canada.

I assert, with certainty, that Canadians want, and are willing to pay for media that informs, enlightens and entertains. I am equally certain that while not all state broadcasters and journals are bad, they cannot provide the sorts of information and Screen Shot 2020-05-25 at 06.29.28enlightenment that are needed in a democracy. Izvestia is not the right model; neither is the BBC. For centuries the media was a wholly private enterprise. Governments intruded when the information age  began with the development of radio. We saw how bad that could get. Just think what Goebbels might have done with 21st century social media.

The best course of action for Canada is to get government out of the media business. If governments want to encourage a free, diverse, independent media then they can use the tax regulations to make it easier for broadcasters, publishers and content providers to make a profit. There can be a role for a public broadcaster, but it should not be a dominant one. I think that most thinking people would agree that broadcasting in Britain got better after e.g. ITV and Sky were allowed to elbow their way in. Competition really does make everyone better. The complaint remains that the media is owned by a few billionaires. That’s true … but the alternative is Pravda and China Daily and that’s not what we want or need.

I will be sorry if famous banners like the Globe and Mail and the Ottawa Citizen join the many, many others than have folded, over the years, but they will be replaced by something … hopefully by something privately owned and written/produced/edited by Canadians.

One thought on “Not a penny more

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