Government funding for journalism: To what end?

Finance Minister Bill Morneau being interviewed after delivering a budget that promised financial aid for journalism. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Government funding for journalism: To what end?

The federal budget has finally answered some of the questions about the Liberal government’s plans to subsidize the news business, which were first floated late last year. But the details revealed by Finance Minister Bill Morneau raises many more questions about Ottawa’s reasons for supporting journalism.

There will be a 25-per-cent refundable tax credit (up to $13,750 per employee) for those producing “original written news content.” Broadcasters, or any organization getting aid to publishers under the Canadian Periodical Fund, will not be eligible for the tax credit.

Eligible recipients must be public corporations with shares traded on a Canadian stock exchange and controlled by Canadians. If not publicly traded, the company must be 75 per cent owned by Canadian citizens, incorporated and reside in Canada with 75 per cent of its directors Canadian citizens, and Canadians owning 75 per cent of any trust or partnership.

Not for specialized publications

Recipients must be general interest news publications not focused on a specific topic such as sports, business, entertainment or industry news. Yet it is precisely those specialized publications that are persuading audiences to pay for distinctive and high quality information online that has depth and can’t be found elsewhere.

As well, the publications must not be primarily promotional and must not have connections to any government or Crown corporation.

But there’s lots we don’t know, starting with some basic question that should be asked about any government subsidy: What is the objective? What are the results it is supposed to achieve?

It is obviously designed to assist traditional, general interest newspapers, but to do what? Keep them on life support and then what? Allow them to convert their print operations to digital? It’s notable that the budget did not designate eligible jobs as those directly related to digital transformation.

No future for print

Printed newspapers do not have a long-term future and some historic titles in Canada have already made the switch to digital only. Will a subsidy help print newspapers return to the good old days of large profits? Is print circulation growing at any newspaper in Canada?

These are all good questions to ask — and even better ones to answer before doing anything.

There’s lots more we don’t know.

The problems of mainstream media have been coming for a long time. The immediate crisis is the collapse of print and digital advertising to the benefit of Facebook and Google, which can offer targeted ads that costs a fraction of print advertising and also gives advertisers specific audience data.

Newspaper executives like Paul Godfrey of Postmedia have been asking for government assistance for years. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Dennette

Circulation declining

As advertising has disappeared, the audience must become the main source of funding for any news organization’s long-term survival. But circulation has also been declining everywhere for years and few people under 30 read newspapers and aren’t about to start.

Where do those audiences get the information they used to get from newspapers? Are they satisfied? What do they miss? We don’t know. If nothing, subsidies won’t fix that problem.

Similarly, the second government proposal — non-refundable tax credits up to $75 for subscribers to digital publications that meet the same Canadian rules as for labour subsidies — doesn’t solve anyone’s problem.

Boutique tax credits are bad tax policy. They don’t persuade people to do things they weren’t doing before. They overwhelmingly reward those who are already doing whatever the tax credit is designed to encourage. That’s why the Trudeau government killed the children’s sports tax credit and the transit pass tax credit introduced by the Harper Conservative government.

Few pay for news

More importantly, subscription tax credits don’t address the problem. Public opinion research in recent years has consistently shown that only about nine per cent of Canadians are prepared to pay for news online. That’s because they see news available for free everywhere online and they have limited or no ability to differentiate between quality and commodity.

Lowering the monthly price of a subscription from $15 to $10 through a tax credit won’t change many minds about subscribing as long as the alternative for the audience is news for nothing.

The budget also lays out principles under which news organizations can become charitable institutions that would be able to grant tax receipts to donors. Time will tell if this is an effective idea.

Historically in the United States, First Amendment rights and related media issues have received broad philanthropic support — often from families that made their fortunes in the newspaper business. There is no comparable history in Canada, where philanthropy has been primarily directed to social, cultural and educational causes.

What about the CBC?

Finally, there is a large question that the Liberal government has consistently ignored.

What about the public broadcaster? What role does the federal government see for CBC/RadioCanada in all this? CBC/Radio Canada has already moved aggressively into the digital world, competing with newspapers online for news, opinion and — most important to the private sector — online advertising dollars.

Does the prospect of competing against the relatively deep pockets of the CBC prevent entrepreneurs from launching news start-ups in communities across the country? Should government place fences around the activities of the broadcaster it owns?

Until we know the answers to all these questions surrounding subsidies for the media, why do it?