Torstar chair, National Post columnist debate future of a struggling industry
OTTAWA— Torstar Chair John Honderich squared off against Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne at a soldout and spirited debate Tuesday over whether the government should “act to save journalism in Canada.”
Honderich made the case that newspapers are vital for a democratic society, arguing that because of the industry’s “badly broken” business model, government action is necessary to prevent their disappearance.
“You could not have a more fundamental public good than making sure the Canadian population is well-informed,” Honderich said.
“That is an absolutely fundamental tenet of how a democracy works.”
Coyne said the struggles of the in- dustry are largely self-inflicted — mainly by posting content online for free — and that the government has no place choosing which media players deserve to be bailed out.
“People do not value the thing we are selling at a price sufficient to cover its cost,” Coyne said.
“If the government can’t subsidize everyone, it shouldn’t subsidize anyone.”
Tuesday’s event was part of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s “Great Canadian Debates” series and took place at the Canadian War Museum. The question of the discussion — “Should government act to save journalism?” — comes as the federal Liberals study ways to support the beleaguered news business, which could include tax changes or the creation of an independent, publicly funded organization to support local media and startups.
In February, the Public Policy Forum released a report that outlined the precipitous decline in advertising revenue among Canadian media organizations, and recommended a series of tax changes and the creation of a $400-million journalism fund to support the industry.
In the debate, Honderich contended that, despite the ascendancy of social media and bloggers practising so-called “citizen journalism,” traditional media remains best positioned to hold governments to ac- count, pursue deep investigations in the public interest, and give voice to the less powerful.
“The functioning of a healthy democracy is predicated on a well-informed populace,” he said, citing examples of persistent Star journalism on police racial profiling and former mayors Rob Ford, of Toronto, and Brampton’s Susan Fennell.
“Newspapers provide, when well run, the means for a populace to ex- amine itself, a channel to ferret out lies, abuse and corruption, and a vehicle to give voice to those whose voices are not often heard.”
He also argued that the idea of government subsidies for newspapers and other media is not “radical or a brand new idea in Canada.” It’s been around in various forms since before Confederation, he said, pointing to a periodical fund for print magazines and nondaily papers that provides Maclean’s magazine with “almost $2 million annually,” as well as the $1.1 billion the CBC receives every year.
Coyne, meanwhile, warned that an infusion of public cash to struggling media could promote mediocre reporting, whereas maintaining a tough profit motive in a competitive industry might well be its saving grace. Honderich concluded by stating journalism is essential for a wellinformed public — making it different from simple products or services on offer in the economy.
“It’s a value, it’s a judgment, it’s the essence I think of what we’re about,” he said.
In a straw poll of the audience at the end of the debate, it appeared that most were opposed to the idea of federal support for the industry.