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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Never mind media funding, stop the unfair advantage

WT24 Desk

It was a bad idea in the first place, but that hasn’t stopped it from trundling along, according to Journal Pioneer.

Now, the federal government has moved towards setting up a panel to decide who the “worthies” are: who will get funding from the government’s five-year $595-million fund to help independent journalism.

(I’ve touched on this in columns before, and I also add this caveat: this is my opinion, not necessarily my employer’s. I don’t actually know what my employer’s opinion is on the issue.)

First of all, I think local news is valuable — I also think many people don’t realize that value until it disappears in their area. And once gone, local news outlets are not easy to resurrect, even with the ease of the internet. Plain and simple, it’s hard to start from scratch and have any kind of reach, both in terms of audience numbers and in maintaining the number of staff needed to cover daily events.

But millions in government-funded tax and employment support for traditional media?

Leave aside the question of conflict of interest for a moment — by that, I mean the reticence that news organizations may have to criticize a government that’s holding the purse strings.

Instead, look at the funding a different way.

Across North America, the local media model’s certainly broken — but I don’t believe throwing government money at a broken model will do anything to help. In fact, I think there’s a good chance it will make things worse.

It might be more sensible in the long run to spend less government money, rather than more.

Here’s why.

At The Telegram, we make a product and then try to sell it, online and in print. With fair regularity, the CBC follows up on our content and does their own version. And fair enough; that happens all the time in the media marketplace.

But they don’t have to sell it. With the benefit of a huge federal subsidy, they simply give it away. Not only that, they sell advertising around it as well. And, full disclosure, I worked at CBC for a time years ago.

Think of it this way: you’re growing and selling apples. At the table next to you in the farmer’s market, the federal government is subsidizing someone else who gives apples away for free. How long can you keep selling apples?

Why does the federal government think that it’s in any way reasonable to pay a subsidy to the CBC to undercut local private media, and then provide a subsidy to private media to deal with, in part, the huge presence of the CBC in areas like digital media?

I believe a public broadcaster is important; I always have. It does work no one else can do.

But the CBC’s a juggernaut right now: big, stable multi-year funding, huge reach, large resources. It has far more people, and pays those people more money, than any news outlet in the province. And however the CBC likes to pretend it’s not in competition with local outlets — its president has said as much during an interview in this province — its actions speak louder than words.

As part of a private business, we actually have to find a way to generate all the money needed to pay the people who find, write and deliver the news.

The CBC’s fortunes can change as easily as a change in government. If local media’s in trouble now, imagine where we’ll be sometime down the road when all of the pit-props are pulled out, both from the CBC (which parties on the right side of the spectrum love to hate) and from any sort of private media funding as well.

The federal government should be looking at ways to make the local media stronger, not simply dependent on federal handouts.

They can start by getting a public broadcaster out of the private marketplace in digital advertising. Another option? Reduce the CBC’s federal subsidy, dollar by dollar, for every advertising dollar it takes in.

You can be a public broadcaster or a private business. Having a foot in both realms is simply unfair.

And having the federal government pay for a local journalism transfusion while its subsidized public broadcaster is opening the veins and bleeding out the private competition seems foolish.


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