If journalists are paid for with my (and your) hard-earned tax dollars, and it’s at government expense, it is now our business, writes Peter Menzies in C2C Journal.
By Peter Menzies, December 13, 2021
Should my son one day wish to explain to his children what grandpa once did for a living, I have stored away some old copies of newspapers. What magnificent beasts they were! Their weekend editions often contained hundreds of pages fairly bursting with advertising of every category along with the popular content that really drove readership: comics, obituaries, job postings, wedding and birth announcements, puzzles, horoscopes, recipes, home decorating tips, restaurant reviews, theatre critiques and sports columns.
And then there was news. For those of us who learned the trade under a flush-faced editor stabbing a nicotine-stained finger into our chest, news was the foundation of everything. News – its accuracy, speed of delivery, objectivity and fairness – amassed the civic trust upon which those beauties were built. Without news, there was no journalism; without civic trust, there was no newspaper. Or so we believed. The editorials, columns, “op-eds” and other commentary rounded things out and helped define the paper’s character (as well as reflecting the community back in those long-ago days).
That is all eroded, nearly to nothingness. Magnificent 200-member newsrooms have been pared down to teams small enough to be housed in strip-mall storefronts while legislature and city hall press galleries once flush with competitive news organizations have disappeared. Many publishers are now wards of the state; a mere generation ago, avoiding such a fate was a hill to die on.
Watching those grand old ships slip beneath the waves of change starting 20+ years ago, many of us embraced the proliferation of online media as possible replacements. Out of that primordial muck, surely new life would emerge. And indeed, the intervening period spawned numerous Canadian outlets including Rabble, Rebel News, National Observer, Canadaland, The Narwhal, BC-North.com, Blacklock’s Reporter, The Line, C2C Journal, True North News, Australia’s Quillette (which regularly covers Canada) and others. Diversity makes us stronger, baby; let a thousand flowers bloom.
True, a lot of online content read more like activism than trusted reporting, but at least it was a start. We all knew that if your content wasn’t fair, the less likely it was that you’d gain mass audiences. Right? So go ahead, pick your niche and work the corners, kids. You want to do #climateaction stories favouring a certain worldview, help yourself. Want to spot global commie #climateconspiracies under every laptop, be our guest. It’s a free country and, these days, there’s no truth like your own truth. Throughout all of this, though, it remained unclear whether anyone had really developed a self-sustaining financial and editorial model – not only a distinct voice, but a durable business.
One of the shinier baubles on the online tree has been The Narwhal, recently in the news after one of its staff “embedded” with Wet’suwet’en anti-pipeline protesters became a story herself when the RCMP moved in to make arrests. And who was foremost in “covering the news” of this arrest? Why, The Narwhal! A digression, but an important one: “embedded” is a relatively recent term, and not one of endearment. It stems from the U.S. military’s new way of handling journalists during its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was fiercely scorned at the time as inevitably tainting a journalist’s objectivity by making them dependent on their “host.”
The Narwhal is run by Carol Linnitt, Emma Gilchrist and Mike De Souza and according to its website subscribes to very high standards of journalism. Based in Victoria, B.C., it is partly funded by member-donors, currently stated as numbering 4,200-plus. Small donors provided just under 25 percent of its 2020 revenue, with larger donors, foundation grants and the Trudeau government fulfilling most of the rest, according to a table on the website’s Ethics page. This year, The Narwhal also received payments under the “Facebook Journalism Project’s News Innovation Test.” The publication maintains it is to be trusted by readers due to its non-reliance on advertising and “corporate bigwigs.” Its approach has won awards.
“We would agree with [Canadian Association of Journalists] ethics guidelines,” De Souza told me when I asked about definitions of journalism. (The CAJ’s ethics guidelines can be viewed here.) “These guidelines are consistent with The Narwhal’s code of ethics,” he continued. (Those can be viewed here.)
One cannot read The Narwhal’s About us section without being impressed by the publication’s stated dedication to independence, thanks to those who support its commitment to reporting based on “just two rules: 1) follow the facts. 2) Tell it like it is.” There is no question that most of its news stories, while clearly eco-agenda-driven, solicit and contain comments from energy companies.The Narwhal and its supporters certainly believe that what they produce is fiercely independent, in-depth journalism which is “tired of false dichotomies.”
Me? I don’t see a lot on the site of tell-it-like-it-is from young women like Melissa Mbarki, for example, or perspectives from those who think carbon taxes are misguided and damaging, or “here’s the view of the 20 elected chiefs who have signed agreements on the Coastal GasLink pipeline” commentary. Then again, I’m not the target audience and I truly believe in the concept of let a thousand platforms bloom. If The Narwhal has found an audience for its version of journalism, it doesn’t really matter what the rest of us think. You go get those oil barons, pipeline builders and elected chiefs, and good luck with the RCMP and the court system.
At least this is what I thought until I came across this story by The Narwhal’s “Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.” Nothing about that description – one that all participating recipients use – says “Reporter paid for by the federal Department of Heritage,” but that’s what it is. The “LJI” is a specific government funding program.
To me, that changes everything. If that’s a story paid for with my (and your) hard-earned tax dollars, and it’s being fed at government expense across the country into the Toronto Star and heaven knows how many other outlets, whether it’s journalism or activism is now my business, your business and probably Coastal GasLink’s business too. So I sent the aforementioned story around to a number of veteran newspaper people, collectively representing nearly 400 years spent working in the field, to get their professional assessment. They have a variety of worldviews and I am withholding their identities in case they ever want to apply for government funding. (I also reached out three times to the CAJ’s president, Brent Jolly, but failed to elicit a response.)
How, I asked them, would you assess this piece? Is it journalism? Here are their responses:
“No journalist has ever used the term ‘land defender’,” said one, “But I have been ranting for days about journalism which frankly deserves to die.”
“Seems a tad lacking in objectivity – loaded with loaded language,” said another.
“Reads like advocacy to me,” concluded a third. “Objectivity seems to be very much out of fashion.”
Another offered a more detailed judgment: “It is only journalism in the broadest sense of the word – the gathering of information for publication. Is it biased? Does it classify as advocacy journalism? Does it use heavily-loaded language in the headline? Does the writer even bother to challenge the chief? Can the reader even trust the author who is described as living on land wrongly taken? Answers: Yes. Yes. Yes. No. No.”
Still another saw the story’s flaws as an opportunity for constructive mentoring: “I would edit it as I saw fit before publication. Then I would speak to the reporter, hoping we can move forward.” And if those hopes were dashed, then perhaps this editor would encourage the journalist to consider another field of work.
“Skating pretty close to activism, no?” was another’s pithy observation.
Not everyone agreed, with one writing: “I’m no expert on this topic but this seems a relatively balanced account of the situation with all involved parties, with the notable exception of the elected band council members, represented in the piece.”
That was an outlying view among my correspondents, however. The reporter is lucky he didn’t have the following respondent for a boss: “Not only would I not run it, I’d tell the writer to seek employment elsewhere. It’s more a political statement than journalism.”
And then there was this coup de grace: “I’d say it tries worthily to pass itself off as journalism for about four paragraphs and then just says awww f— it, we’re going down to the corner to score some polemic. I mean, at the very basic level they might have included a quote or two from the elected band council which has been vehement in saying, ‘These folks don’t speak for this community’.”
The foregoing would probably hurt a little, but here’s the good news not just for The Narwhal but new-age journos and LJI reporters everywhere: given that not a few papers pick up stories such as this one and most that do run them word-for-word, it’s apparent that no one cares what those other veterans and I think. Journalism, it seems, has moved past us into the no-more-corporate-bigwigs era (just don’t mention Facebook, please). The kids, well, it looks like they’re gonna’ be just fine. The government is funding their work and the LJI panel has certified their platforms as trustworthy.
Voices that the government wants amplified – the ones LJI administrators refer to as “underserved” – will roll out across the country. Under the program, all stories produced by government-funded writers are amplified far beyond the often-modest reach of the original publication, for they receive distribution at government expense by the Canadian Press. Any debate about whether the copy lives up to commonly accepted standards of journalism is moot, once a journalist has been pre-approved by the LJI judging panel. Congratulations! You are a journalist! As for voices that the LJI panel doesn’t want to see amplified, who knows where they’ll end up?
The LJI’s current judging panel comprises Gerry Arnold, Bob Cox, Cheryl McKenzie, Brian Myles, Marc-Noël Ouellette and Linda Solomon Wood. They are drawn from a mix of mainstream legacy media and newer ventures, and they all appear to be earnest, experienced and well-meaning people.
The website’s bio for Solomon Wood, for example, talks about her background as an investigative journalist who would go after “corruption.” Now she’s among those in charge of helping to decide who gets government funding to cover, among other entities, the government itself.
Last year the Winnipeg Free Press, of which Cox is publisher, got funding for three reporters: one to cover climate change, one to cover education and one to cover, according to the Free Press’s website, “the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.” This year, the paper got one LJI-funded spot – the education reporter. Solomon Wood’s own platform, National Observer, also got three federally funded reporters for 2021-2022: one to be a youth reporter, one to be a Cortes and Quadra Island reporter and one, according to News Media Canada’s LJI web pages, to report on “Government of Canada impacting Vancouver and B.C.” No other media organization got more than two funded positions through the LJI. The complete list of recipient organizations and the coverage area of the funded reporters can be viewed here.
Altogether the LJI currently costs Canadian taxpayers approximately $50 million per year. It is one of four recently added federal initiatives to prop up news media, the others being a $595 million salary subsidy through tax credits, a $60 million Emergency Support Fund and a $10 million Special Measures for Journalism program added just before the last federal election was called. Meanwhile, the decades-old Canadian Periodical Fund was also topped up to provide $21.5 million for free, digital and small-circulation magazines and weekly newspapers. Most if not all of these publications would also have accessed Covid-specific relief.
Tom Korski is co-founder of the subscription-based Blacklock’s Reporter, which focuses on digging out exclusive stories of Parliament Hill/federal government behaviour, frequently using Freedom of Information requests. A fierce critic of government journalism funding, Korski sees the issue as straightforward. Such publications will have even less financial incentive to care about what their readers think because henceforth, the veteran reporter says, “You only need one customer and that’s the [federal] Minister of Heritage.” In short, government funding will make publications less integrated with their local communities.
Blacklock’s Reporter stands as living refutation to the claim that community-based journalism will die without government funding. Korski says the venture took only six months of its now 10-year existence to begin breaking even. Blacklock’s currently posts about four “hard news” reports a day from Ottawa, eschewing commentary. While its number of subscribers is confidential, Blacklock’s credits its success to an “agenda-free” style of reporting for which subscribers are willing to pay $314 plus taxes annually. Korski says that plus a trickle of online advertising revenue is the company’s only source of funding. No Facebook funding, no activist foundation grants, no federal subsidies.
To Korski, government funding makes matters worse for journalism, not better. As noted, the public’s faith in any news organization’s honesty is central. And yet, Korski points out, nothing about the byline descriptor “Local Journalism Initiative Reporter” says what the reporter really is: a federally-funded contractor. “If your reporter is 100-percent government funded, then say it,” Korski told me. “If you want to do business that way, then say it.”
LJI. I find reading such funding lists unsettling for their sheer one-sidedness and seeming linkage to the publication’s editorial interests and slant. At the same time, just as many people apparently couldn’t care less, and there’s a strong chance readers won’t make the connection at all.
Those who do likely see it as a perfect play by politicians to keep journalists alive but still hungry and grateful. They may be even more grateful once Trudeau delivers more loot by shaking down those corporate bigwigs for them. For, just how aggressive and dogged can anyone expect such journalists to be in going after possible corruption of the federal government variety? Isn’t the relationship they have entered into the very definition of conflict-of-interest?
The second problem, according to Korski, is how the LJI distorts the market in favour of those who seek subsidies at the expense of those who reject the very idea of them. “The problem is the subsidies propping up unsustainable business models,” Korski says. “How will you ever get innovation [when] you have these dead carcasses in the middle of the road?”
Indeed, it’s difficult to see any of these federal funds as anything other than stopgaps. Access to them didn’t, for example, keep the Halifax-based newspaper chain Saltwire Network Inc. from laying off 111 of its newspaper employees last year, according to Blacklock’s. Even the industry’s much-sought $100 million or so from Google and Facebook, once spread across the country, won’t do more than delay the inevitable. Innovation needs stimulation, not suppression.
For a former newspaperman like myself, the passing of the print era was painful to watch. And yet, ultimately I could accept it as the result of unstoppable technological change. If the same quality of content was delivered digitally, if the traditional relationship of community trust was maintained, if standards were followed, if the truth was told – that was all that really mattered. But surveying the landscape of Canada’s increasingly government-beholden media sector, it seems that these essential qualities are in as much peril as the physical medium through which the words and images are delivered.
Peter Menzies is a National Newspaper Award-winning journalist, Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, past editor-in-chief of the Calgary Herald and former vice-chair of the CRTC.