We need more than the kindness of strangers to support Canadian journalism
By Patricia W. Elliott, Editor-in-Chief
When Canadians tune into PBS, they gain more than an appreciation of old houses, interesting science and Charlie Rose interviews. They also absorb by heart the names of those who support public interest journalism, sotto-voiced at the end of each program—the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Fords of the world.
PBS News Hour alone lists 68 corporate, individual and foundation supporters on its web page. American philanthrojournalism has some firm roots. When Seymour Hersh uncovered the Mai Lai Massacre in 1969, he did it with a $2,250 grant from Philip M. Stern’s Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Hersh turned to Stern for the same reason journalists find themselves in dire need of funds today: not a single news outlet wanted to back a diligent reporter who smelled something amiss but needed travel funds to ferret out the facts that would ultimately turn the table of public opinion on the Vietnam War.
Stern’s Fund for Investigative Journalism still exists, aiding 50 investigative stories in 2015. Today, media support remains a major go-to for American charities. A study released by the U.S.-based Foundation Center in 2013 found 1,012 foundations made 12,040 media-related grants totaling $1.86 billion from 2009 to 2011, and that annual support exceeded grants given to science and technology, religion and the social sciences.Sitting in Canada, it’s hard not to experience billionaire envy. Where is our John S. and James L. Knight in Shining Armour?
But this is Canada, not the U.S.A. There are key differences beyond preferred French fry toppings.
South of the border, relations between wealthy donors and the media raises fewer eyebrows, even when it’s clear everyone from Gates to Soros have their own agendas tucked into those deep pockets. Operating under the ‘because-it’s-a-free-country’ clause of the social contract, billionaires can darn well donate their spare change as they like.
On the flip side, the American public is hard core about maintaining at least perceived separation of media and state. The idea that any government hand could aid public interest journalism is almost beyond comprehension.
Meanwhile back in Canada, we have a publicly supported national broadcaster, distribution assistance for magazines, the National Film Board, grants for Indigenous media, translation grants, the Canada Council, the Canada Periodical Fund, and a levy on cable companies for local and community broadcasting‑-to name just a few federal interventions created to ensure a far-flung population has access to made-in-Canada media products in a variety of languages and formats.
To be sure, it’s no paradise. The above-mentioned programs have been assailed by decades of government down-sizing and U.S.-sponsored free trade challenges.
Still, envy cuts both ways. American journalists will talk your ear off about how lucky we Canadians are to have CBC and the NFB.
Gutters and strikes
As for philanthrojournalism, freelancers and media start-ups are mainly found clustered around crowdfunding platforms like Indigogo. There are a handful of exceptions. The Chawkers Foundation floated The Walrus after the corporate media world purchased, mangled, passed around and eventually torpedoed Saturday Night, the nation’s main source of feature-length print journalism for over 100 years. (Disclosure: I was a Saturday Night contributor; you can tell that episode still stings.)
Total revenues for the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting amounted to $29,335 in 2011. Meanwhile across the border, CCIR’s American cousin raised $5.4 million in 2011, while similarly-mandated ProPublica raised over $10 million.
CCIR gave up. In J-Source’s post-mortem report, CBC’s Bill Livesay stated the obvious: “The Canadian rich are bit more parsimonious, and they’re a smaller group.”
Indeed, as journalism life rafts go, the one piloted by Canadian philanthropists is tiny and precarious. Nonetheless, people keep jumping in, full of hope – because what else are you going to do in these days of underfunded public interest journalism?
You close your eyes, jump, and leave the future for tomorrow. And it doesn’t take long for tomorrow to catch up and tip you overboard. When the Pew Centre dug deeper into U.S. donations, they found just 28 per cent of media enterprises received funding beyond a single start-up grant, and only a minority— 38 per cent—were able to find alternate funding sources.
Donor culture operates on twisted logic: fund good journalists because the market is failing to do so, but then immediately throw them back into that same free market, because nobody likes a ‘malingerer.’ As a result, the media landscape gets flooded with shaky start-ups, rather than strengthening fewer outlets over the long haul.
Beyond foundation support, nonprofit media organizations often seek direct donations from viewers and readers. But unlike other nonprofits, it’s rare that they can issue tax receipts, in either the U.S. or Canada.
Media advocates have focussed attention on loosening up Revenue Canada’s increasingly strict definition of what counts as a registered charity. It’s unclear, however, that hunting for tax breaks is why readers donate to their favourite media outlets. After Briarpatch Magazine got bounced off the charitable list, for example, donations increased.
This isn’t to say making room for media on the list of recognized charities is a bad thing to pursue. It just may not drive donations to the extent people imagine.
Holding government to account
To be clear, I’m not against journalists seeking the kindness of strangers. J-Source itself relies on core benefactors to whom we are eternally grateful. Additionally, we pay freelancers via Patreon crowdfunding. (You are most welcome to make a contribution—we’ll send you a sharp-looking t-shirt.)
But, as Canadians, we have other levers that can and should be pulled. For starters, Ottawa shouldn’t be let off the hook of a historically-mandated commitment to ensure Canadians enjoy equitable cross-country access to media that reflects our lives.
In recent decades, media grant programs have been decimated on all fronts, while CBC’s directors have been left to continue their long waltz with the gods of rationalizing and downsizing.
Our geography demands a better media landscape. So does our history—witness the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action on Reconciliation and Media, which fully expects the news media to respond with resources and staff. Journalism is a public resource that deserves public support.
A co-op option
Co-operativism is another available lever we could pull more often. In the mid-Seventies, the Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau Québec showed how it can be done, by working the Quebec Northern Inuit Association to establish northern-owned media outlets.
The basic framework exists: Canada has nearly 8,000 registered co-operatives. At last count, however, less than two percent were media-related enterprises, according to an inventory taken by the Co-operative Secretariat in 2010.
Even in my home province of Saskatchewan, where co-ops stand among our largest industries, examples are scant. Among over 1,200 co-ops, we have a couple of alt weeklies, Prairie Dog and Planet S; a book publisher, Coteau Books; a cable provider, Access Communications; a radio broadcaster, Misinippi Broadcasting Corp.; and the Saskatchewan Film Pool Co-op.
We could have added to the list in 2010 after the provincial government unexpectedly put our educational TV channel, SCN, up for sale. Citizens were still scrambling to connect with credit unions and the co-op association when the gavel banged down on a fire-sale price of $350,000 to a private company, Bluepoint. If that wasn’t vexation enough, two years later Bluepoint sold the channel to Rogers for $3 million.
Journalists and their audiences need the co-op sector’s help to act fast when the big media companies divest and governments privatize. In Saskatchewan we were caught flat-footed—and now we have America’s Got Talent where there used to be prime time homegrown documentaries.
Co-operatives UK launched a campaign along these lines in 2012. A background report argues that co-ops—being community-owned and divorced from private profit – offer a viable answer to public mistrust of commercial media, and have better chances of economic survival than do debt-entangled conglomerates.
Obviously, not every co-op lives forever. Canadian Press ceased operating as a co-op in 2010, turning to private investors after Canwest and Quebecor dropped their subscriptions. On the other hand, Associated Press remains a co-operative since its founding in 1846, and there are plenty of other long-time co-ops that managed to survive the 2008 downturn better than most, like Wisconsin’s Inter-County Leader. Philanthrojournalism is not the only working model found in the U.S.
Good journalism as a social investment
In addition to our under-tapped co-op sector, Canada has a network of labour-sponsored venture capital funds. These are potential mechanisms for arms-length investment in public interest journalism.
The Tyee receives support from Working Enterprises, a labour-affiliated investment group that assists worthy causes. Quebec’s Fonds de solidarité has made occasional social investments in community radio. Nationally, examples are rare, though. Even though Saskatchewan’s largest labour fund, SaskWorks, was created by a media workers’ union (Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, now part of UNIFOR), it doesn’t invest in media enterprises.
Community economic development projects offer another potential tie-in. Given the close relationship between quality journalism and citizen engagement, it makes sense to include journalism in CED planning.
Indeed, what’s known as the social economy could offer the bedrock that Canadian journalism needs to survive. But there’s a catch. All of these alternatives to philanthrojournalism require sustained collective action, at odds with an increasingly individualistic society.
Cold fact: If we ultimately want a more hospitable environment for quality journalism, it’s not enough to put your personal project on Indigogo or fill out a foundation application form.
How about working with your fellow citizens to demand the revitalization of federal media development support? How about meeting with a co-operative development officer to find out how to build a sustainable newspaper in your home town? Or lending a hand to public campaigns that seek stable funding for the CBC and community media? Or demanding that regulators finally curtail the appalling level of corporate concentration that has left our media ecology so vulnerable to collapse?
We don’t have to spend all our energy chasing Bill and Melinda down the garden path. Canadians have multiple levers for securing a brighter future for journalism. Let’s not forget the tools we own—and let’s find the collective muscle to lift them.
Correction, Sept. 24, 2016: An earlier version referenced the Tula Foundation as a supporter of The Tyee. David Beers, founding editor of the Tyee, notes that although the Tula Foundation is listed on their website, there is not a funding relationship. He adds that The Tyee Solutions Society, a non-profit sister organization to The Tyee, has produced dozens of in-depth reporting projects with funding from various Canadian philanthropies. We have updated this story to reflect those facts, and apologize for the error.
You can reach Patricia W. Elliott at email@example.com.