So, a bit before Christmas I saw this on social media:
W. Jeffrey Brown is the founder of Fourth Estate which proclaims that its role is “To contribute to a healthy society by fostering, supporting and incubating a sustainable and vibrant free press.“
The word sustainable caught my eye.
Traditionally, since the 18th century, the media ~ which meant print, newspapers and magazines until the 1920s when radio become very important and the 1950s when television began to dominate and the 1990s when the Internet exploded ~ was funded by sponsorship. Even though newspapers were sold on a per copy basis and even though Europe and Asia had lots of public broadcasting, the costs of journalism could never be sustained by subscription (or pay per copy) alone. Advertising was essential. Both print and electronic media sold “eyes” (readers and viewers) and “ears” (listeners) to corporations and were able to charge based on a reasonably accurate and honest system of measuring audiences. The Internet
changed broke the model. It’s not clear, to me, anyway, that there is an acceptable, workable, sustainable, new one.
I do NOT believe that public funding is sustainable ~ I think Europe’s experiences in 1950s ’60s and ’70s proved that, nor do I think it should be acceptable. Public funding brings with it the sense that the broadcaster is an arm of the state. Valid or not, many Canadians believe that the CBC is nothing more than the broadcasting arm of the Trudeau-Liberals. Those Canadians believe that the CBC‘s allegiance was bought and paid for in the first Trudeau-era, from 1968 to 1984. I discussed this about nine months ago. I had a couple of prescriptions for making things a wee bit more “balanced” but, possibly, eve worse in he short term.
I remember, back in the 1990s and 2000s that Canadian telecom companies, especially Bell and Rogers, established media arms and even entered the print media field (Bell acquired the Globe and Mail, for example, after Rogers had acquired Maclean-Hunter and Canwest (Global TV) had acquired the Southam newspaper chain) until they were forced out of the print media business by a combination of political concern (largely driven by media unions) about media concentration and failing print media sales. I suspect that media concentration may be one key to having “a sustainable and vibrant free press.”
I’ll repeat: I do not know how to make modern 21st-century media economically viable and sustainable. I’ll go even farther: I’m not sure I know what 21st-century media actually is. Is it the electronic editions of traditional print journals, like The Economist and the Financial Times and the Globe and Mail? Of course. It is also “new media” like the Huffington Post and Apple News and traditional broadcasters like the CBC and newcomers like Blacklock’s Reporter here in Canada. Some require me to pay a subscription, some are “free,” supported, directly or (somewhat worryingly) indirectly by governments, by open, visible advertising or (even more worryingly) by anonymous sponsors who make the “news” that they want to be propagated appear to be free. I tend to trust the media that requires me to pay or makes me see, watch and listen to commercial advertising. I have a mild distrust of state media, even of state-sponsored media, like the CBC, and I do not trust a lot of media outlets at all because I cannot figure out who pays for them to tell me what’s going on in the world. I don’t care who owns the media. I’m not sure that requiring the owner or major shareholders to have Canadian passports accomplished much. I also don’t care if the Globe and Mail owns TV channels or if Rogers owns a newspaper or two or even twenty.
My prescription for saving Canada’s media is simple: almost no direct government funding, of any kind, except to provide radio service in rural and remote areas. Some forms of indirect funding ~ business tax breaks ~ can be acceptable if they are available to all, without government screening for “acceptability.” Some, rather a lot, of media will survive and prosper. It may not look a lot like the over-the-air CBC television service or the print version of the Globe and Mail but it will provide us with information which, if carefully compared to everything else that is available, may, indeed, inform us and provoke us to seek even more information. Media will thrive when we demand trustworthy information.
Juts the other day I saw, in the Globe and Mail, that some private radio stations are struggling. But others are, I am fairly certain, doing very well. It is, it seems to me, a matter of offering listeners and viewers and readers the content for which they are willing to pay. Government regulation to “encourage” certain content doesn’t help. Companies like Netflix are already producing programmes in Canada. They are producing programmes that many (most?) Canadians want to watch, but those are not what the Laurentian Elites want us to watch. And therein lies the main challenge, I think, to a sustainable media: governments do not know better. The media which will survive and prosper in the 21st century is that which readers, listeners and viewers want, not that which is spoon-fed to them.