OTTAWA—Nearly nine months after the federal Liberal government announced it would spend $50 million over five years to boost “local journalism in underserved communities,” not one dollar has gone out the door.
Nor has the government outlined how it intends to facilitate charitable support for professional “non-profit journalism and local news.” Nor how it intends to support “the transition to digital media.”
All were promises made in last year’s budget and repeated in the heritage minister’s mandate letter.
It’s baffling to those in the journalism industry, newspaper publishers and the country’s largest media union, especially with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau championing the need for strong traditional media this past week.
In France, Trudeau emphasized his government’s commitment to supporting the need for a vibrant free press to hold government and their institutions to account.
However Jerry Dias, president of Unifor which represents nearly 12,000 workers in the media sector, says the time for talk is past, and it’s time for action.
“You’re not going to all of a sudden change people’s habits to buying print media, I get all that,” said Dias in an interview. “But we’ve closed over 200 local newspapers in Canada so there has to be a mechanism in which to fund them. There needs to be some dramatic changes.”
A 2017 report by the Public Policy Forum said from 2008 to 2016, 169 local media outlets closed and another 54 reduced services, a trend that accelerated in 2017, most notably with the swap of assets by Torstar and Postmedia. A subsequent followup report in September shows the quality of news coverage across the country has also declined.
Yet Dias said what the federal government announced in last February’s budget amounted to “nickels and dimes.”
“What they threw at it was no solution, it was more tokenism than anything else,” he said.
News Media Canada, which represents 800 daily, weekly and community newspapers, had urged the government to provide $350 million to support a Canadian Journalism Fund, and was disappointed with last year’s announcement of $10 million a year, for five years.
John Hinds, president and CEO of the industry association, said the association’s numbers show that from 2009 to August this year, 137 Canadian daily or weekly community newspapers ceased publication, 38 of which closed since January.
“It’s pretty chilling,” he said in an interview.
Yet the industry is still waiting for details of how the government will meet its nine-month old promises of support.
“We were told they would issue an RFP (request for proposals) at some point for a group to look at sort of managing the fund because they don’t want to do it on their own” in order to respect the independence of media outlets, Hinds said.
“Our view would be that we’d like to replicate the model that they followed in the U.K. with the BBC, where the BBC has funded 120 journalists to work in local newspapers,” he said.
News Media Canada has talked to Canadian Press, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and a Quebec media coalition about joining forces to submit a proposal, Hinds added. “We’d love to get working on it, as you know time is off the essence on this. But to date, we haven’t had any followup.”
Simon Ross, spokesman for Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez, insisted the government is moving “to quickly implement” the measures promised last winter, but he declined to provide any details “because I don’t want to scoop myself.”
“What I can tell you is we are working with organizations across the country so we can implement this as quickly as possible and to ensure that it respects journalistic independence because that of course is very important.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc