My immediate response to the news of the federal government’s decision to pump some money into Canada’s “struggling” journalism industry was one of guarded optimism. It was nice to see that someone acknowledged the value – with strings-attached, of course – of journalism with public funds playing an increasingly important role. But as the public discussion of this forthcoming fund unfolds, I’m very worried that the forgotten part of this picture is the only people who should be trusted to preserve and enhance journalism in Canada – journalists.
Firstly, though, I’m worried that this new money will go to the same people at the same handful of companies who have overseen the decades-long demise of so much of the corporate-owned news business in this country. And it has been a decades-long process – these media companies and their predecessors (and their executives and shareholders) have been extracting value from communities and their citizens as well as dedicated journalists long before they started complaining about digital disruptions.
No one should trust these people with the government’s money or, more importantly, journalism’s future.
And to be fair, there isn’t any particularly compelling evidence that the new wave of journalism startup operators is any more deserving. The main thing they have to recommend is that they aren’t the other, older guys.
The only people I really trust in all of this are the journalists themselves.
Anyone who has worked in or around journalism in the last decade knows how many talented people who actually cared about reporting have had to switch professions because they couldn’t find satisfactory, meaningful or sustainable employment. I don’t think giving money to the current crop of media barons will have any long-term effect on that situation. Instead, the federal government should give the journalism bailout money directly to reporters. Cut out the middle-man. They don’t deserve the right to ruin it for everyone again.
There are still students enrolling in journalism schools in the face of the bleak news around traditional journalism jobs. Unaffiliated, uncompensated, publicly-minded journalists show up to cover public meetings and events across the country. Putting money directly in the pockets of those journalists and others like them would be the most efficient way to spend the journalism bailout cash. Give them the time, money and incentives to cover the stories that matter to them and their communities. Help them find, use or build free, public fora to disseminate those stories as widely as possible.
If journalism truly does serve the public good, as the government noted in its fall economic update, then it should be committed to creating more of it. The best way to do that is to pay journalists – and not 20 cents a word or $25 a post but a meaningful, steady, reliable wage – to create journalism that could actually serve the public interest.
During the depression in the U.S., writers, including the likes of Studs Terkel and Zora Neale Hurston, were employed by the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project. They were paid to produce guidebooks and local history projects, but the purpose was to keep talented and committed writers writing. The Works Progress Administration is the inspiration for many people calling for a job guarantee, an alternative to the universal basic income, that can encourage people to use their skills, talents and interests to build and create things in the common interest.
A reporter with a federally funded guaranteed journalism job, with no permanent attachments to a large established media company, could cover communities and stories that have never been properly covered by large media companies. They could fill important gaps that have opened up in areas like arts criticism, which continues to be abandoned by corporate media. And they would be well-placed to find the best way to share their work with the people interested in their journalism without the overwhelming need to sell subscriptions or ads or both.
I would truly be delighted and enthused if the federal government supported journalists – the people who do the work and care about the field – and not the industry that benefits from dogged, important reporting and citizens’ interest in public affairs.