How to help the news media

The centerpiece proposal from the Public Policy Forum’s report, The Shattered Mirror, is to change the tax code to charge companies who want to advertise in Google and Facebook a ten percent levy, and then funnel that money into a fund that will be used to pay for digital journalism, as dispensed by an arms-length federal body.

This is one of those ideas that is high-minded, well-intentioned, and looks worse and worse the more I think about it.

There are fairness issues: why target, and punish, Canadian companies who do international digital business, and need to advertise on Google or Facebook to reach those audiences? How is the failure of the news media their problem to solve?

There are accountability issues: It is one thing to use taxpayer dollars to fund arms length institutions like NSERC or the CBC. There is at least in these cases a chain of accountability from the taxpayer to a minister to whom the institution is responsible, and who is in turn responsible to parliament. But what’s the accountability mechanism for the “Journalism and Democracy Fund”?

There are institutional issues: One of the stranger aspects of the report is how it looks to create new institutions to do things that existing institutions are supposed to be doing, while also proposing new institutions to undermine other, functioning, existing institutions. So for example: They propose to create a non-profit CP-Local reporting service, to do a job that is well within the CBC’s mandate and which the CBC used to do but no longer has any interest in doing. They propose making the CBC’s current reporting available under a Creative Commons license, which will kill the business model for the for-profit Canadian Press. And they want to create a new institute for the study of news and democracy, to do a job that is already well within the research mandate of Canada’s many journalism schools. In short: This report proposes to undermine existing institutions by creating new ones, without trying to address the institutional failure that makes these new institutions seem like a good idea in the first place.

Finally, there are what we can call existential issues: The report, high-minded as it is, takes the same sort of approach to journalism that underwrites too much of Canada’s approach to official culture: centrally funded and approved. In this, I am firmly with Andrew Coyne: That journalism needs to remember its blue collar roots:

The case for journalism is that out of the jumble of petty vendettas, axe-grinding, spin, and self-promotion that make up the news — that daily collision between the interests and obsessions of its readers and the egos and ambitions of its writers — something close to an accurate composite portrait of the times can emerge.

My version of Coyne’s argument is this: The rise of the “accountability journalism” that we value as essential to democracy, and which the PPF report is designed to support, is largely an artifact of runaway status competition between newspaper proprietors of the mid to late 20th century. And that in turn was an artifact of an ownership model bolted on to a business model at a certain stage of technological development. In this country, the launching of the National Post was the last, great gasp of this model.

Unlike the PPF report, and like Coyne, I think that the new model for accountability journalism will have to grow organically out of the digital muckrake. It can’t be funded from on high by bureaucrats paying out to approved gladhanders. That way lies horrors.

So what’s your proposal, Potter?

I sketch the outline of a competing model in this week’s Policy Options. (I actually wrote it before the PPF report came out, but it holds up as an alternative storyline for a federal policy programme). It’s hard to excerpt, there’s no real money graph, but it begins with the notion that the decline of trust, the rise of fake news, and the problem of a viable business model for digital journalism are linked. It’s like Gresham’s law applied to news. Here’s the challenge:

Any viable approach to nullifying the Gresham’s Law impact on news, and re-institutionalizing real-news journalism, has two definite requirements. It will have to be both organic and open, in a way that allows any media outlet – from large legacy outlets to digital-only startups and citizen journalists – to become voluntarily institutionalized.

Second, real news has to be made more valuable than fake news to all the relevant stakeholders – the producers, publishers, advertisers and consumers.

The beginnings of a solution can be found here. 



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