You know that a public policy idea’s time has come when it can take the best punch from the smartest critics without any harm.
Such is the case of the $350M government aid proposal tabled last week by News Media Canada and a broad coalition of industry groups, including Unifor, and columnist Andrew Coyne’s counter-argument published in the National Post.
Coyne doesn’t deny reality: he acknowledges we are experiencing industry failure because Canadian advertising dollars are streaming out of the country into the coffers of Silicon Valley.
But Coyne is unfazed. Let it happen, he says. Don’t prop up mainstream media at the expense of the upstart start-ups, the “rebels” of media as he calls them, a cheeky riff on the title of the muckraking, conspiracy theory-loving website of Ezra Levant.
Coyne’s core argument is really this: journalism is not essential to democracy. Write off the masses if they won’t pay for journalism. Instead, improve the quality of journalism to entice news-junkies to pay the full shot for what they read.
Journalism not essential to democracy? If you don’t care about educating ordinary Canadians about what their politicians are up to, then you might agree. Stephen Harper certainly wouldn’t have minded. Donald Trump would love it.
Coyne might consider that in between his two solitudes of political junkies who should pay more for news and Canadians who take no interest in civic affairs, is the great mass of Canadians who have a casual interest in political life, get more interested during election campaigns, and are likely satisfied with free Internet news that is filter-bubbled by Facebook, missing hundreds of stories every day, or just plain wrong.
Those Canadians are why we say journalism is essential to democracy and we can’t afford to lose it.
Here are a few other things to consider.
- Replacing disappearing ad dollars by raising reader subscriptions is a gargantuan task. Never mind competing with free news (of whatever breadth or depth) on the Internet. Ad dollars historically paid 80% of news costs. You might already be paying $30 per month for a newspaper subscription: will you pay $100?
- The industry coalition’s “ask” of $350M won’t turn news outlets into welfare cases.
- Some mainstream news outlets will fail regardless of government aid. Postmedia’s 27 urban dailies are among the most likely candidates. Hopefully shuttered news outlets can be replaced in the digital realm by start-ups doing good journalism, although it seems likely that only niche and opinion-based publications have the best chance.
- The $350M will necessarily be spread very thinly among existing news outlets. Under the proposal, eligibility for government reimbursement is based upon 35% of editorial costs, which are 15% of total costs. In other words, a subsidy worth five per cent of current costs. In an environment in which ad dollars are falling about 10% annually, government support is only part of the solution.
I must confess to a weakness for intelligent conservatives like Coyne. He sticks to the merits and avoids mean spirited attacks. But on occasion, he says something that is, well, kind of goofy.
What really gets under his skin about the industry proposal is this: public aid to newspapers gives their publishers an insidious stake in favour of state intervention. In this dystopia, the press becomes too soft on state regulation of the economy, too left-wing, “clients” of the state “like the CBC.”
This requires some imagination to behold. Can you picture the billionaire owner of the Globe & Mail going soft on socialism? The Postmedia chain endorsing more government interference with free markets? Their financial pages turning Toronto Star blue?
Mr. Coyne, it isn’t so. You must have faith in the enduring faith of capitalists.