OTTAWA—Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is touting Ottawa’s investments in the CBC as one remedy to the financial crisis that has hit Canadian news organizations, forcing newspaper closures and newsroom cutbacks.
In question period Wednesday, NDP MP Tracey Ramsey pointblank asked the prime minister about cuts announced earlier this week at the Toronto Star that included suspension of an intern program that has helped hundreds of young journalists get their start.
And she questioned why the government has yet to act on any the recommendations laid out in reports that have studied the issue.
“The news media are undergoing unprecedented changes,” said Ramsey.
“Months have passed and job losses are a daily occurrence in the media. How many consultations, reports, and recommendations will it take for the government to decide to do something, even to act on a single recommendation?” said the MP for Essex.
And he said the government is “modernizing” the Canadian Periodical Fund to ensure “it is meeting the needs of local news and magazines, including in the transition to digital.
“We know there is more to do. We will continue to work with our valued friends and partners in the media to ensure they can continue to do their job of holding the democracy to account and informing citizens,” Trudeau said.
The swift transformation of the media market, the onset of digital and the presence of Facebook and Google in dominating online advertising, has wreaked havoc with the bottom lines of many private sector news organizations.
Those financial challenges have been driven home by shrinking newsrooms and declining coverage, including the news this week that the Star, Canada’s biggest newspaper, was implementing another round of cuts to save money.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail published Tuesday, John Honderich, the chair of Torstar, the parent company of the Toronto Star, gave a grim prognosis of what lies ahead.
“We have very little time left. More cuts will be coming, guaranteed. I’m not going to speculate on various competitors, but we’re very, very close to the end,” Honderich said.
Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has hinted that the Feb. 27 federal budget will deliver some assistance to offset the financial challenges.
A number of reports have laid out proposals, such as a new levy on advertising purchases on foreign-owned websites that don’t invest in Canadian editorial operations and allowing charitable support of journalism.
Some recommendations suggest changing the periodical fund, which currently provides funding only to print magazines and non-daily newspapers to offset their mailing costs. News Media Canada has suggested giving the fund a new civic news component to extend funding to daily and community newspapers, some digital-only publications and The Canadian Press wire service.
On Wednesday, representatives from Quebec media unions were on Parliament Hill Wednesday to press the government to act, warning that the financial crisis is “real.”
“There’s a lot of people who say ‘we don’t need newspapers anymore, because we have the internet.’ By the same logic, you don’t need farmers because you’ve got supermarkets,” said Stéphane Giroux, President, Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec.
“It doesn’t work like this. There has to be people writing the news, documenting the news and for this you need professionals,” Giroux said.
But the issue of government support is tricky, raising questions about how the media could preserve its independence. As well, some argue there should be no government help at all and that market forces should decide the fate of media organizations.
Asked about the issue Wednesday, Joly stuck by the lines she has used in the past, declaring that the media play a “fundamental” role and highlighting Liberal investments in the CBC.
“We are looking at how to support local media in their transition towards much more viable business models, which are digital,” she said.
“We know that there have been cuts in newsrooms, specially in rural communities across this country and therefore, we want to make sure that we can provide the right approach while respecting journalistic independence,’ she said.