A brief paragraph on page 186 of Tuesday’s federal budget held some of the best news for Canadian journalism in decades.
“Over the next year the government will be exploring new models that enable private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional, non-profit journalism and local news,” the budget read. “This could include new ways for Canadian newspapers to innovate and be recognized to receive charitable status for not-for-profit provision of journalism, reflecting the public interest that they serve.”
I had to read it three times to believe it. The alarm bells have been sounding on the state of Canadian media for, oh, about 50 years.
Take this humdinger of a quote: “Some newspapers dig. Some newspapers are a constant embarrassment to the powerful. Some manage to be entertaining, provocative and fair at the same time.There are a few such newspapers in Canada.”
That’s from a report issued in 1970 by the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media.
In the ensuing five decades things have become much worse. Canada has one of the most monopolized news landscapes in the world and since 2010, 225 weekly and 27 daily newspapers closed.
A handful of digital startups — DeSmog Canada, The Tyee, Press Progress, Discourse Media, the National Observer, The Conversation Canada, Canadaland, the Global Reporting Centre and Hakai Magazine — have fought an uphill battle to buck this trend.
Meanwhile, more than 150 non-profit journalism outlets are thriving in the United States, where donations in support of journalism are tax deductible.
Take the Centre for Investigative Reporting. It has a budget of more than $10 million and employs nearly 80 people. ProPublica operates at a similar scale. InsideClimate News has won a Pulitzer Prize for its work. Even some of America’s large daily newspapers have converted to a non-profit model.
Philanthropic foundations, such as the Knight Foundation and MacArthur Foundation, have poured millions into journalism south of the border, but such philanthropic funding has been sorely lacking in Canada in part because, up until now, donations haven’t been tax deductible.
DeSmog Canada and others have been advocating for Canada to catch up by modernizing its charitable law. A report by the Public Policy Forum last year, The Shattered Mirror, recommended that Canada bring its charitable laws in line with Germany and the U.S. to allow for non-partisan, civic-function journalism.
And voila, now the federal government is committed to exploring these new models. Of course, the devil will be in the details.
For one thing, the word “newspaper” in this sentence could be a harbinger of trouble ahead: “This could include new ways for Canadian newspapers to innovate and be recognized to receive charitable status for not-for-profit provision of journalism, reflecting the public interest that they serve.”
Why only newspapers? Why not all public interest journalism? Perhaps it was a semantic slip? Only time will tell. But if Canada’s digital news leaders are left out of this promise, you can bet there will be noisy protest.
In addition to considering charitable status for news organizations, the government is offering $10 million a year to smaller, local news outlets in “underserved” communities. The funds will be distributed among local media through “one or more independent non-governmental organizations” but the organizations “will have full responsibility to administer the funds, respecting the independence of the press.”
How will the federal government define “local news?” And how exactly will the funds be distributed? Those are two big questions the government will need to answer in the next year.
In the meantime, at DeSmog Canada we’ll continue building out our reader-supporter journalism through our membership program. If you enjoy reading our independent journalism, please join nearly 200 other readers and become a member today.