Sean Holman at Public Eye recently posted a short piece titled Alms for the media?
Canada’s for-profit mainstream media is in a state of crisis. That’s how the left-wing Website Rabble.ca described the results of a recent Toronto conference on the subject. But, as an independent journalist, I question whether the majority of Canadians are prepared to financially support non-profit alternatives. And here’s why: down in the United States, the free press is a cause. It’s enshrined in the American constitution. And, as a result, public interest journalism projects such as ProPublica have received millions of dollars in charitable contributions. By comparison, the free press just isn’t a cause in this country.
Which means environmentalists, the homeless and even athletes are more likely to receive donations than journalists are – in part because those with the deepest pockets don’t know what they’re getting when they contribute to the media. Because the best journalists will follow any lede – even if it embarrasses one of their funders. So, unless there’s a cultural change in this country – something that would take an enormous amount of effort to affect – Canadians will need to find an alternative to the non-profit alternative media if indeed the mainstream media is in a state of crisis.
We should hope that Sean Holman is wrong, that Canadians will support journalism in the public interest if given appropriate opportunities. I sense no alternative. The traditional media industry has an insatiable profit appetite and that objective does not serve the information needs of our democratic society. In fact, growing integration and centralization of media ownership, while perhaps serving private interests, works against vital public interests.
In the next 24 months, British Columbia’s news media will witness a major restructuring. First, we have the reorganization of Canwest Newspapers. The Globe and Mail invites us to Meet CanWest’s new owners:
The houses of Morgan are willing to buy what Canada’s banks are selling, as CanWest’s newspaper division gets a new lease of life courtesy of two iconic Wall Street banks.
J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley stepped up Monday with a new $700-million loan that will help unsecured creditors in CanWest buy the newspaper chain for $1.1-billion, according to court filings on Tuesday. J.P. Morgan is driving this deal, shouldering 70 per cent of the loans. .
As the U.S. banks take the stage, Canadian lenders are heading for the exits.
. . . CanWest’s unsecured creditors, who are now calling the shots and will soon convert their debt into equity, are led by U.S. hedge fund GoldenTree Asset Management, a veteran player in restructurings. The new owners hope to make money on the back of rising advertising revenues, cost cutting and a renewed emphasis on digital media. . .
Halbis Distressed Opportunities Master Fund, Alden Global Distressed Opportunities Fund, Firest Eagle Investment management, 1798 Relative Master Fund, Seneca Capital Investments and OZ CW Investments fill out the new ownership of venerable CanWest, which owns 11 big city daily papers, and a stable of weekly community publications.
Canwest and its debtors have been negotiating with the Harper Government for months to bless this reorganization and agree to turn a blind eye and waive tax rules that ordinarily prevent foreign controlled media. There will be a price for the new newspaper group to pay in the coming years and that will be favorable treatment of the Conservative Party of Canada. Stephen Harper’s friendly press is about to get friendlier.
In the Northern Insights article Connecting dots to draw lines, I provided an example of how Global TV serves the corporate agenda. Maybe even worse than reporting news badly is to make no effort to report news at all. As we have pointed out before, over 40 hours a week of news programming is filled primarily with soft news, human interest and assorted fluff.
Globe writer John Doyle also sees a campaign aimed at destroying the CBC as we know it. He writes about the Conservative Party making a:
“. . . ghoulish attempt to demonize the public broadcaster, to isolate it and, one suspects, an attempt to batter the CBC into compliance. Or one could imagine an even more ominous scenario: the possibility that the current battering is the minority Conservative government’s manner of preparing the public for a major cut to CBC funding and the eventual beleaguerment of the CBC as a fringe broadcaster.”
Radio is another arm of media that is withdrawing from the news business. Despite high rates of returns, the major broadcasters are combining operations, eliminating people and relying evermore on technology and networked content. CRTC regulations are routinely ignored and this results in Vancouver radio stations that, except for hockey talk, sound much like those in Seattle or Portland.
Existing news operations operate on a market model and they exist in a world dependent on government regulation and restriction. They’ve learned to turn that to their own advantage by comforting the the same powerful interests. Thomas Jefferson would be appalled because he believed that a free and vigilant press should be the prime antagonist of governments.
However, I return to the opening subject. Since I consider that citizens should not rely on government for information and cannot rely on the traditional media in its present form, an independent citizen initiative must act to make new media a counter-check that protects the public interest. It is happening in the USA, in Australia, Britain and elsewhere. I regularly link to ProPublica and I’ve written about NewsTrust. Different but intriguing models have evolved at Spot.us and The Investigations Fund.
I am presently researching the many efforts underway to promote public interest journalism in the English speaking world. My aim is to examine all options and consider the viability of a non partisan foundation to promote ethical and accurate examination and reporting of public issues. We can examine the best and worst of other initiatives and design one particular to British Columbia.
Robert MacNeil, a host of PBS’ MacNeil-Lehrer Report, summarized the decline of television journalism, saying we had already reached “the end of news as we know it.” Since he spoke, the newspaper business entered a death spiral and his words now apply across the platforms. A new information system is evolving. Are you ready to participate in its formation?