A responsible press is a precious public good, crucial to democracy. We know quality news is important to Canadians in communities large and small. But it’s expensive at the best of times, and at this, the worst of times, it is being gutted by cash-strapped news organizations floundering in a technological tidal wave.
The media industry is in turmoil. By CMG’s rough calculation, the industry has lost more than 16,000 jobs since 2008. A recent study predicts another 15,000 jobs will be lost by 2020 in television alone. Cuts, even closures have become routine and are having a devastating impact on workers and families. So it was refreshing to see CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais in a recent speech join the growing number of Canadians sounding the alarm about the crisis facing local news and programming. To quote Blais, “an alarming number of television stations have reduced the length of their newscasts, cut back on staff and centralized production of news programming, (…). If we allow each station to be plucked away in the name of profits and losses, what are we left with when the last is removed? What will emerge to replace them?”
We share Blais’ concern. What I was quite interested to hear in the speech was his belief that despite the dismal outlook, “there is more than enough money in the broadcasting system to support the creation of news and local information programming.”
Blais was clear the responsibility to pay for news lies with those who make profits distributing content, cable and satellite companies, and we presume Internet providers and other emerging players (when the required adjustments are made). In Blais’ words, “In exchange for using the public airwaves to bring their productions into the homes and onto the devices of Canadians across the country, these enterprises also have a duty to serve the public interest. They must ensure that news reporting and analysis, particularly at the local level, be done to a high standard.” A strong and encouraging statement. The question now is whether the CRTC is ready to reinvigorate the industry by enforcing the duty Blais speaks of.
He certainly heard support for action during the recent CRTC public hearing into local and community television programming. The CMG shared our views, urging the CRTC to set up a dedicated fund accessible to public service programming providers, including CBC/Radio-Canada, provincial broadcasters such as TVO and TFO, as well as distinctive broadcasters such as APTN.
This could be done by creating an expanded version of a previously successful fund – the Local Production Improvement Fund (LPIF) – that requires those who make such high profits distributing content to contribute a small percentage of those profits into a fund to support local programming. Blais has the power to make that happen. But does he have the will?