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Imagine a world without news. The Canadians are doing it


Minister for Communications Denis Naughten Photo: Tom Burke

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten Photo: Tom Burke

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten Photo: Tom Burke

In October Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, spoke at a lunch for the Association of European Journalists. His speech touched on public-service broadcasting, media mergers and how the internet is impacting traditional journalism.

"In an age of bloggers, Twitter and noise generally the value of reliable, accurate and authentic sources of news - in other words, qualified journalists who have put in the hard yards - is being diminished in my view," the Minister said. He also said the viability of the newspaper sector was threatened, and suggested that an examination of the local newspaper market was needed "to identify what it is we as a country want local newspapers to deliver, and what steps must be put in place to deliver that."

Firstly, it's clear we have a prescient minister on our hands. His comments pre-empted some of the furore around false news that came with the US elections. Secondly, the idea of examining what our newspapers - and news media in general - should deliver is needed. If the minister is serious about examining the news ecosystem, he could do worse than look to the other side of the Atlantic. No, not America: Canada.

Like Naughten, the Canadian Minister for Heritage, Melanie Joly is aware of media companies' woes in the digital age. She has invited all of Canada's media stakeholders to participate in a sweeping review of Canada's broadcasting, media and cultural industries. She has said she will discuss the different tools her government has to help news media.

But her department is also going one step further. In trying to figure out how to best support the production of credible and reliable news, it is reportedly examining the economic and cultural collateral damage that would be caused by the collapse of Canada's two biggest newspaper companies, Postmedia Network Canada and Torstar.

Are the Canadian bureaucrats being too pessimistic?

Unfortunately, the answer is that they're probably not. Postmedia is owned by a group of US hedge funds. It has debts of $672m, which must be paid or refinanced by mid-2018. The equivalent of 800 full-time employees have been laid off in the last year, and there are more to come in the year ahead. The company's shares have lost more than 98pc of their value from their peak in 2011.

Earlier this year, Toronto Star business journalist David Olive called Postmedia a "foreign-controlled, debt-burdened contrivance flirting with insolvency" and "a blight on all the communities it underserves".

Things aren't much better at Torstar, which is the parent company for the Toronto Star. It has laid off 350 people already this year; recently reported third-quarter losses that exceeded analyst expectations. Operating revenue fell by 13pc to $162m and print advertising revenues dropped by 16pc.

Canadian newspapers aren't the only ones in trouble. The news media's global travails are well documented. Circulation and ad revenue are falling in most markets, with PWC predicting that total global newspaper revenue, which was US$130.5bn in 2015, will fall to US$121.1bn in 2020. Latin America is the only region where the newspaper industry is continuing to grow - and this is mostly driven by digital revenues.

But in most markets digital is the threat. Multinational technology companies like Google and Facebook now control access to news and information. Naturally, they are more concerned with global profits than an informed local citizenry. The continued weakening of local media outlets' reach and relevance can only serve to increase polarisation and undermine public discourse.

Now, it's up to media companies to create business models that are fit for the modern digital age. But while they're doing it, perhaps they need some form of support. In Canada, for example, one such support that's been mentioned is tax credits for digital innovation. So it's positive that public representatives are voicing concerns about media outlets and inviting a dialogue about the value of journalism as a social good.

Like the Canadians, perhaps we need a review of our broadcasting and media sector - a review that's wider than Minister Naughten's remit of public service broadcasting and the TV license. Community radio, print, online and TV all need to be considered to ensure we don't end up with an anachronistic outlook.

Earlier this year Vice Media's Shane Smith said he was expecting a "bloodbath" in the next 12 months in digital, mobile and terrestrial media. So perhaps the Canadians are right - the best way to decide whether we want to support journalism, is to imagine a world without it. It may be closer than we'd like to think.

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