This has been one of the most brutal weeks yet in the Canadian newspaper industry.
More than 30 newspapers are closing down, and more than 300 workers are losing their jobs, after Postmedia and Torstar swapped a number of newspapers on Monday, and then promptly closed several of their new acquisitions.
The move mirrored a similar shuffle three years ago when Black Press and Glacier swapped a series of British Columbia publications in 2014, leading to the closure of several of them.
None of this needed to happen. The crisis facing the newspaper industry has been fully documented for years now.
The federal government has been presented with many ideas – from the newspaper companies themselves, from unions, and from independent media associations – to address the challenges facing the industry, and yet has failed to act.
When Heritage Minister Melanie Joly unveiled a new cultural strategy this past September, it contained nothing to help struggling newspapers across Canada, saying clearly that the federal government had no interest in bailing out industry models that are no longer viable.
Her surprise announcement came despite several submissions to the ministry calling for policy changes to help the newspaper industry adjust for the future.
There is little question that the model that has for decades supported a vibrant newspaper industry is broken – not just in Canada, but around the world.
Traditionally, newspapers sold ads that supported and furthered journalism.
Those ads, however, started to dry up with the advent of the Internet. The first to go, in a big way, were classified ads, which moved to free online ad sites. Where larger newspapers once had entire sections dedicated to classifieds, papers may only have a page or two now.
Display ads – the ones found throughout the paper – were slower to move online, at first, but the pace picked up after the financial crisis of 2008-09 as companies re-evaluated advertising priorities.
The decline in advertising has been steep ever since, despite a momentary upturn a few years ago, resulting in corporate consolidations, cutbacks and layoffs. This week’s newspaper closures were not the first, but the impact was definitely the most in one day.
For many, it was a day of reckoning when the decline in ad dollars led to drastic action.
Instead, what is needed is a call to action for our federal government to respond to this crisis.
There are several options for action that the federal government could take. A report by the Public Policy Forum called for a sales tax on foreign companies selling digital subscriptions in Canada and a $400-million fund to help finance reliable news and information.
Unifor has called for the same tax rules to apply to advertisers purchasing digital media space as traditional media, generating between $800 million and $1.4 billion by 2020 that could help support journalism, among other recommendations.
The House of Commons heritage committee made several recommendations last June, including a five-year tax credit to compensate print outlets for a portion of digital investments.
These are just a few of the options before Joly right now. Somewhere among them, or perhaps a combination of these and other ideas, lies a way forward.
Finding a solution, however, requires being open to having needed conversations about possible solutions – and not making insensitive remarks about a business model that are no longer viable.
There is no silver bullet to solve the crisis in newspapers. Models that work for one publication or in one community – such as paywalls or tablet editions – may not work in another. We have seen that over and over again. Each newspaper and each community needs to find the model and solutions that work for it.
The policy goal right now, then, needs to be to give newspapers the breathing space needed to find the solutions that address the immediate needs and puts the industry on a more solid footing.
Our democracy depends on vibrant journalism to keep the public informed on the issues of the day. News that the Competition Bureau will review this week’s Postmedia and Torstar swap and closures, then, is certainly welcome, but that review needs to consider more than just the impact on local advertising markets when newspapers close.
A strong media sector depends on multiple voices and competition among outlets to get the best story. Monday’s announcement only lessens that competition.
The simple fact is, the crisis in the newspaper industry will not be solved by making already-large media companies even bigger and offering the public fewer journalistic voices.
Strong action is needed now, before more papers close.