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Is The Hub the future of journalism in Canada?

News media in Canada increasingly features an array of ideological voices, for good and ill

Canadian PoliticsMedia

There’s a new kind of journalism in Canada of the non-profit variety, and it comes with a wonkish bent. It’s been called think tank journalism by The Economist magazine, which noted that “the divide between having ideas and reporting on them is dissolving.” It is being pioneered in Canada by The Hub, posts from which you may have noticed clogging your X feed and even on Facebook despite Meta’s ban on links to news in Canada. The Hub’s ongoing series The Future of News is ironically being funded by Meta, which runs links to it as advertising, not news. A Meta spokesperson confirmed the arrangement, noting that “news outlets, like all Canadian businesses, are still able to use our advertising tools” (full disclosure: I have authored two installments in the series). The Hub recently marked its third anniversary and is just now hitting its stride.

“The response is bigger than we thought it would be,” said publisher Rudyard Griffiths. “We ended our third year with roughly a million Canadians on our platform over the last 30 days.” Griffiths co-founded the online publication as a pandemic project with Sean Speer, his colleague in the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto, which was controversially endowed with a $35 million donation from the Peter and Melanie Munk Foundation that reportedly brought late Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk a $16 million tax break. Munk also made a $5 million donation to the Fraser Institute before his death in 2018 to launch the Peter Munk Centre for Free Enterprise Education, which imparts the virtues of free market economics to students, teachers and even journalists.

Like Munk and his eponymous school, The Hub is avowedly pro-free market and its politics are decidedly conservative, which is apparent just from glancing at its headlines, such as “A lament for conservatism” and “We need neoliberalism now more than ever.” Both were authored by Speer, who is a large-C conservative who served as a senior adviser to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and has been called “the thinking man’s Conservative” by Maclean’s. Griffiths, a former television anchor for BNN, CTV News and Bloomberg who also hosts the raucous Munk Debates, insists that The Hub is “exclusively” non-partisan. “I don’t know if ascribing a political motive to us is a useful lens to understanding who we are and what we’re trying to do,” he said in an interview. “I’m not particularly politically active myself. We will not endorse a particular party or endorse a particular leader or politician. We don’t think that’s our role. People can read us as, on balance, a centre-right publication. We’re ideological but not doctrinaire.” There is also a limit to how far-right The Hub will venture, he added, as they’re not interested in debating such hot-button issues as vaccines or convoys. “We’ll leave those to others.”

Thinks tanks, or public policy institutes as they prefer to be called, aim to influence government legislation by producing research that has been called “treetops” propaganda, but they are increasingly aiming at a more grassroots audience by producing their own journalism. “Think-tanks are in journalism more to promote ideas than to inform the public or expose wrongdoing,” noted The Economist. “Much of what they publish is about policy.” Their ideas for government policy tend to be conservative and reflect the views of the foundations that fund them, which are endowed by wealthy benefactors as a means of tax avoidance. In his 2009 book Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy, Donald Gutstein found that conservative Canadian think tanks such as the C.D. Howe Institute and the Fraser Institute have been influential in calling for such measures as deficit reduction, privatization and tax cuts. Their research is often questionable, with the Fraser Institute in particular seeming to often start from its conclusions and then cherry-picking evidence to support them.

The Hub began as a project of the Centre for Civic Engagement, a registered charity co-founded in 1999 by Griffiths that commissions research on topics such as law, global affairs, economics, trade, technology, the environment and culture. The CCE is funded by the Ira Gluskin & Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Foundation of Toronto, which is known mostly for its medical philanthropy, and the Hunter Family Foundation of Calgary, which also funds the Fraser Institute, among many others, and declares on its website that it will not consider support for “anti fossil fuel initiatives.” The Hunter Family Foundation also funds The Hub’s annual policy prize, which this year is for the best proposal to address the housing crisis and offers a total of $50,000 in cash to contestants under 40 (entries close May 31).

Griffiths also founded the Dominion Institute in 1997, which merged with the Historica Foundation in 2009 to create Historica Canada, which is best known for its television Heritage Minutes. According to the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute, the Dominion Institute received its start-up funding from the Donner Canadian Foundation, “beginning a long-term relationship with the large funding agency.” The wealthy foundation, which was founded in 1950 with an endowment from American industrialist William Henry Donner, who also endowed the New York-based W.H. Donner Foundation, has been called “Canada’s paymaster to the right,” and also sponsors a lucrative book prize.

Even while he was at the Dominion Institute, Griffiths well understood the importance of media coverage for getting its message across. “Everything we do at the Institute is done with an idea to how it will play in the media,” he told the National Post in 2001. “We measure success in hundreds of media hits for each project.” The CFPI notes that the Dominion Institute “portrayed itself as an advocate of cultural memory and historical education” and “focused on promoting the notion ‘that citizenship is constructed primarily through experiencing and appreciating Canada’s military past.’” This is also a theme that runs through The Hub’s obvious concern with national identity, something it finds sadly lacking in Canada.

Griffiths is coy about the CCE’s funding and any ties it might have to Donner, noting that The Hub established itself a year ago as a separate entity. “The Hub is not funded by foundations because The Hub is not a charity, it’s a non-profit,” he said. “The only funding we receive is through advertising, subscriptions and through the Centre for Civic Engagement to conduct original research to advance the aims of the Centre for Civic Engagement and then translate that into long-form journalism for The Hub’s audience.” That audience is not a general one so much as policy wonks. “We’re trying to reach an informed audience that is engaged in public policy,” Griffiths said, adding that The Hub aims to provide “a more accessible treatment of public policy, stuff a lot of the bigger papers used to do before the cuts came along.”

Its arm’s-length funding arrangement is a common tactic used by non-profit publications that might not otherwise qualify as charities, which is made difficult by government restrictions, including that no more than 20 percent of their funding come from one source. Canadian Dimension, which was founded in 1963 by the Manitoba Foundation for Canadian Studies as an educational publication, had its charitable status revoked in 1980 by Revenue Canada, which found that “its main goal is not to educate the reader in the sense of training the mind in matters of political science but to promote a particular political ideology.” The Vancouver-based online publication The Tyee, which recently marked its 20th anniversary, received about a third of its funding until recently as a personal investment from the couple who also founded the Tula Foundation, which also funds environmental causes. After changing its for-profit status two years ago (though it never made a profit), the multi award-winning Tyee now swims on its own as a non-profit, and according to its publisher Jeanette Ageson is in the process of applying for charitable status as a so-called Registered Journalism Organization, for which news media were allowed by Ottawa to apply starting in 2019, so that it can issue tax-deductible receipts to its donors.

The Hub recently critiqued The Tyee, which seemingly contravened a long-standing unwritten rule against media covering their competitors in this country for fear of reprisal. The Toronto Star learned the perils of violating it in 2016 after it declared the US hedge fund-owned newspaper chain Postmedia Network “a cancer on Canadian journalism,” as it soon received return fire and then got the same kind of treatment.

The Hub’s profile of The Tyee claimed that its success in attracting donors was “for good and ill” and appeared under a headline which placed it at first in somewhere called British Colombia (pssst… it’s still in the link!). The possible ill effect of The Tyee’s success, The Hub article seemed to say, might come from keeping its content free for all to read and offering memberships instead of locking its content away behind a subscription paywall. That could contribute to polarization, it argued, because they might then “feel they owe their audience a certain perspective,” which seems like a classic chicken-egg argument. As media bun fights go, this promises to be a mere crumb compared to the Postmedia-Torstar spat, as Ageson conveyed no complaints when asked about it.

The closest competitor to The Hub in Canada might actually be PressProgress, which was launched in 2013 by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute founded by the late NDP leader Ed Broadbent and covers political, social and economic issues from a critical perspective. “We’re non-partisan in our approach,” said editor Luke LeBrun, who at least admitted to a certain perspective. “We are ideological.” PressProgress does some media criticism, but despite its name that topic makes up only about five to 10 percent of its content, estimated LeBrun. It was included in a 2019 listing by Canadaland, which was founded in 2013 and does some trenchant media criticism, of what it called a “wave” of populist online media outlets looking to sway voters, not all of which survived the ensuing five years. To that list The Hub must now be added, and it may have something to do with a complaint Griffiths aired during a recent Hub Dialogues podcast about the “complete ideological dominance” of the left in activist online journalism, which ignores such popular right-wing publications as The Western Standard (2006) and The Rebel (2015). By leveraging the low cost involved in online publishing, The Hub might be an attempt to help balance any left-wing online dominance.

The Hub’s focus on the news media in Canada is refreshing, as such coverage has been in short supply recently. It actually declares its opposition to the ongoing federal bailout of Canada’s legacy news media on its About Us page. “More government funding of news equals less public trust in the media,” it notes. “It undermines journalism’s role in holding the powerful, including the government, to account. In trying to save journalism, government risks killing it—with far-reaching consequences for democracy.” The subject is one that gets Griffiths worked up. “The subsidies are being weaponized by the critics of the mainstream media and generally voters, polls do not like the subsidies,” he said. “They associate the subsidies, possibly unfairly, with government interference or government influence. I don’t believe that, I think journalists are professional and independent but our view is that subsidies are making the public trust issue worse. The cure might be worse than the disease. Right now, the incentives are all backwards. You don’t have to make better journalism. It’s a recipe for a kind of paralysis.”

The Hub’s Future of News series will soon be wrapping up, he said, with some recommendations for addressing the media conundrum resulting from its recent conference in Ottawa with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. “We’re not against seeing journalism as a public good and therefore an understanding that there is a market failure going on and that there may be a need for government intervention,” said Griffiths. “Philosophically at The Hub what we oppose is this idea that the big papers have all gotten together with their lobbyists and that they’ve really gamed the system to benefit them so they get a vast majority of this money… Some of those community papers would be better off going bankrupt and then being bought by local business owners or others and relaunched. That creative disruption might actually be disruptive, but it could be very creative.”

While The Hub might not be the future of journalism in Canada exactly, it promises to be part of a future which includes an increasing array of ideological voices from all corners of the political field, for good and ill.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article inaccurately described The Tyee’s funding relationship with the Tula Foundation. Canadian Dimension regrets the error.

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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