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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Could a UK-type system of ‘local democracy reporters’ help fill the news gap in Canada?

We need to ditch the patchwork quilt of newspaper bailouts and come up with a long-term strategy for journalism in Canada

Canadian BusinessMedia

Photo by congerdesign/Pixabay

While MPs wrangle clause-by-clause over Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which aims to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars a year from Google and Facebook to Canada’s starving news media, it may all be for naught if the digital giants refuse to play along and quit the country instead. That would be a lose-lose-lose, as news media would see reduced traffic to their websites, Google users and Facebook members would be hard-pressed to find and share news stories, and the digital platforms would lose some utility. It would also mean going back to the drawing board to find a sustainable way of funding journalism in Canada. Or we could, as Peter Menzies urged last week in a white paper, take a step back and re-think the patchwork quilt of newspaper bailouts we have been seeing for the past few years and instead come up with a long-term strategy for journalism in Canada.

To that end, it might be worth looking at what other countries are doing. My recent study of the UK newspaper industry, which was published last month, found that publishers there are doing better than they have in years despite the government refusing to bail them out. Instead an innovative solution was adopted in 2018 which sees support provided directly for news coverage of local government by so-called ‘democracy reporters’ who are assigned to local media outlets which bid for them. These can be newspapers, broadcasters, or even online-only publications, but the news stories local democracy reporters produce must be shared with other local media outlets. The system was initially stocked with 150 LDRs awarded mostly to the three large newspaper chains, but last year contracts were re-tendered and an additional 15 LDRs awarded, with more independent media outlets included this time around.

The system has received rave reviews and may have something to do with a sharp increase in public trust from 2020, when 23 percent of Brits said they trusted journalists to tell the truth, to 29 percent in a recent survey. Local councils that hadn’t seen a reporter in years due to cutbacks and closures at community newspapers suddenly saw renewed scrutiny. “Councillors now know that a member of the press will be at the majority of their meetings, holding them to account,” noted one LDR. A visiting American journalism professor was impressed by the program. “The scale of the project is immense, functioning like a wire service,” she noted. “No fires, no crimes, no courts; these reporters cover mainly community and civic meetings and events.” A former New Zealand journalist who was hired as a London-based LDR praised the idea. “Many people I interview are grateful to speak to a reporter, surprised even to see one turn up,” she wrote. “At first I found all this moving. Now, I find it disturbing. It articulates just how neglected many communities feel by the media that is supposed to act as their eyes and ears.”

There has been criticism, however, with some LDRs reporting that they have been co-opted by their host publications into covering other stories, even celebrity clickbait, and others noting that some positions were filled by a reporter already working in a newsroom who was then not replaced. Hyperlocal publishers have been critical of the program, with one calling it a “total sham” because the chains that received most of the funding “have been sacking journalists for years in the relentless pursuit of more profit.” Two journalism academics criticized the program as “a concession to the regional newspaper industry” that was open to abuse because it suffered from an absence of oversight or accountability.

The LDR program resulted from a long-running dispute between the chains and the BBC over the public broadcaster’s increasing online coverage of local news, which publishers described as putting publicly-funded “tanks on our lawns.” The BBC offered to share the content produced by their local reporters with newspapers, but the publishers insisted that the journalists work for them but be paid by the BBC. The result was an agreement under which the BBC funds the LDR program with £8 million (C$12.9 million) a year from its licence fee. Believe it or not, if you own a colour TV in England, you have to pay £159 (C$257) a year for a licence, or £53.50 (C$86) for a black and white TV. That will be going away in 2027, however, as the licence fee will be abolished, so Auntie Beeb will have to find a way to replace that £3.2 billion (C$5.2 billion) in revenue.

The future of the LDR program is a bit up in the air as a result, but it has worked so well that several other countries are considering a similar program. New Zealand began a pilot program employing 15 such reporters in 2019 which expanded the following year into a three-year NZ$55 million (C$46 million) Public Interest Journalism Fund employing 122 journalists, but its future is unclear. Both systems are similar to Canada’s pioneering 2018 Local Journalism Initiative, which provided $50 million over five years for news coverage in under-served communities and was recently extended for a sixth year.

Such a system might help to allay government concerns that public funding for news in Canada might go to “covering the Kardashians,” as one bureaucrat put it during talks leading up to the five-year, $595 million bailout that began in 2019, or flow south to enrich Postmedia’s hedge fund owners. It might also address the concerns raised this week by Liberal MP Lisa Hepfner that most digital news startups are “not gathering news. They’re publishing opinion only.” The UK system sets minimum qualifications for LDRs, including a credential which requires training, and ensures that the reporters receive a certain level of editing and supervision.

A Canadian system of LDRs need not be affiliated with the CBC, as there is another long-running national news service which could also use bolstering. The Canadian Press was long a co-operative of newspapers that shared stories and also staffed bureaus across the country and around the world, but its fortunes fell in tandem with those of most news media and it was taken over in 2011 by the owners of three of its largest members—the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and La Presse. The stripped-down news service continues to service most Canadian news media, which one rival agency noted has “created a curious situation in which almost all of the national and local competition is feeding from the same trough.”

But where would the money come from to fund a nation-wide system of LDRs in Canada if Google and Facebook don’t want to buck up? The CBC has to fight for every penny it gets, and journalism funded directly by the government has led to steep drops in public trust of news media. Well, there is a vast pool of funds available for the taking, except that the biggest media in Canada have been jealously guarding these monopoly profits for years. I’ll tell you all about it next week.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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