Channelling funds into community TV news is good news for both

Journalism never really likes a handout. Suspicions arise of obligations, of being beholden to the benefactor, and of compromised integrity. It’s the craft’s defensive extra chromosome.

There is little glee, either, in accepting governmental largesse. Even the public broadcaster newsrooms are wary there are strings attached to the parliamentary appropriation. And Canada does not enjoy the same culture of philanthropic support that has emerged in the United States for its media – whether through foundations or high-net-worth individuals like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar at First Look Media.

But there comes a time to recognize that it comes to this: the business model is unsustainable, and the only alternative to an artificially created support system is extinction.

The federal regulator has figured this out, and it wisely decided last week to direct the reallocation of $90 million within the broadcast system, mainly from community channels, into local news in smaller Canadian markets.

In most markets, journalism has less of an audience problem than a subsidy problem. This is an acute challenge in an era of journalistic abundance and a lot of undifferentiated content. With so many outlets today, journalism in general would do well to spend less time covering and more time uncovering; audiences still seem inclined to pay for top-flight journalism.

The thriving outlets mainly are the premium brands, the specialized ones and some of the more granular community ones. They have much more high-end or unique material.

But television is a vastly more expensive cost-per-story beast to deliver. Even in markets where the station is the audience’s top choice for local information – and it usually is – the cost structure and the atomization of advertising to other outlets have clobbered the local TV newsroom.

Smaller station costs are disproportionate, so the modern-day news economics are even harder on them. They may be cornerstones of their communities, but their expenses outweigh their revenues.

Local stations now lose money. Expenses rose 22% between 2012 and 2015 and exceed revenue by 15.9% at stations in communities of fewer than 300,000.

In the next half-dozen years, there are evidence-based expectations that as many as half of the smaller-market stations could disappear in Canada. This would be a loss not only for journalism but also for communities, their economies and their identities. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission spent some time earlier this year conducting a review of the situation (full disclosure: I was asked to present to it).

Given the consumer climate on cable and satellite rates, the commission steered clear of digging deeper into anyone’s pocket. Its decision essentially moves money from one suit pocket to another.

It was cautious in accepting any fear-mongering about station closures. In the short and medium term, though, the commission concludes that private stations are “in need of support if they are to continue to offer high-quality, locally reflective news.”

Starting in the fall of 2017, the redirection of funds ought to start lending support. It won’t solve everything, but it will stall some decline in the hope that technology or other forms of support (philanthropy, perhaps) will emerge to address the business model.

Meantime, this is positive news for television news. While they may not be our direct competitors, even if they were it is safe to say their survival helps all of us.

Postscript: A few weeks ago I wrote about the provincial government’s new directive to disclose freedom of information requests before they are answered. The government has now decided not to impose this directive. In this vein, last week’s Commons committee report on information freedom is instructive in its substantial recommendations for more open government; how many of these measures are adopted to grant access to information is anyone’s guess at this point. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.