Feb. 9, 2021

Our headlines are disappearing

This column was motivated by major newspapers who are decrying the loss of advertising revenues as well as large Internet players using newspaper news stories without compensation. You can learn more at: www.levellingthedigitalplayingfield.ca 

This is serious business. Canadian newspaper advertising revenues hit a high of $3.88 billion in 2008 and by 2019 were down to $1.41 billion.
Newspapers are in trouble, some of it of their own making. Let’s start with the truism that local papers must print local news or perish, and a successful local paper has to sell enough advertising to hire the reporters and editors to produce a paper with significant local content.
A handful of giants dominate the Canadian media. They own most of the cable, internet, magazine, newspaper, radio and television outlets. To cut costs, they eliminated local editors and reporters, moving those duties up to higher levels that encompass a broad range of outlets in various markets. Local flavour and interest disappeared. Media concentration killed off local content.

There are crocodile tears in the major paper plea. Some lost advertising has migrated to cable, internet, radio and TV outlets owned by the same consortiums. Smaller market newspapers are left out in the cold.
Our governments can limit media ownership (all types) in any market of over 500,000 population (12 cities, 10.9 million pop.) to 25%, from 100,000 to 499,000 (42 cities, 8.5 Million pop.) to 33% and from 50,000 to 99,000 (45 cities, 3.3 million pop) to 50%. That would help to restore media diversity and independence. 

Coupled with that, they can require internet giants to turn over proportionate amounts of their advertising revenue to newspapers. If they sell $500,000 in advertising in markets with a population of 500,000 or more, local papers will receive 75% or $375,000 of that revenue. The giants keep the equivalent of the 25% ownership limitation. 

Newspapers can help themselves by agreeing on a standard size from the 15 or so currently in use. That makes co-operative (group) ownership or use of printing presses viable. Newspaper print presses are enormously expensive and require special buildings, support equipment and operators. The costs are beyond the means of all but the largest circulation papers. 
The government can help by requiring Canada Post to treat newspaper bundles as parcels to facilitate delivery. Currently papers are left behind the parcel rush and are being delivered up to a week late. This is particularly important in rural areas. We have 301 towns with a population of under 50,000. Their collective population is about 5 million.

Media concentration has strangled press freedom. “The Press” is 10,000 times more than a product to be delivered the next day or week. “The Press” is a constitutionally protected living thing, able to bring down giants who become arrogant and abusive as well as to educate us in the nuances of ballet in ordinary language. The press is our comfort when we grieve and our sword when we face injustice. The press keeps us aware of our surroundings and unifies us in community and national endeavours.

We have suffered through several months of sterile avoidance of everything in life that matters to us. We know firsthand how inadequate electronic communications are and how devastating keeping away from those we love and respect is.
Local papers will play a major role in helping us return to normal. Not the ‘new normal’ politicians hope we will accept, but the normal we demand now that we are acutely aware of how much we took for granted until we lost control and access. We can and will do so much better in future.
A tip of the hat to two Manitoba community newpspaper owners. Ken Waddell, owner of the Neepawa Banner who is a favourite critic, editor and friend, and the late Merv Farmer, who owned the Stonewall Argus and was the inspiration for me to put pen to paper.