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May 8, 2020, 12:51 p.m.

In Canada, a government program to support local news tries to determine who’s most deserving

The country’s $50 million Local Journalism Initiative is funding more than 160 reporting positions across the country. But critics say that it’s subsidizing old media at the expense of new models.

Before the novel coronavirus struck the United States, there was already a small-but-measurable groundswell of support for more government support for local news. But the virus and its devastating effects on advertising — even as the audience for local news has exploded — has accelerated that discussion. (Most recently, 65 percent of Americans say they would favor including money to help local news outlets in a coronavirus stimulus package.)

But all government attempts to support news outlets face a common problem: How do you decide which outlets to support?

Do you determine a class of outlets that is eligible for support — like, for example, Sweden, which specifically subsidizes the second-most-popular newspapers in cities in order to try to maintain competing dailies?

Or do you set up a system where someone — a nonprofit, an association, or the government itself — picks and chooses the outlets who win support?

That latter approach carries obvious risks — picking government or industry favorites instead of the most deserving. So it’s worth looking at what’s happening across the border in Canada, which is now navigating that process.

The Local Journalism Initiative is a $50 million, five-year effort created and funded by the Canadian government to support local and civic journalism for underserved communities. To administer the fund while “protecting the independence of the press,” the Department of Canadian Heritage entrusted seven nonprofit organizations representing various segments of the news industry with soliciting applications from news outlets, creating independent panels of judges, and administering one-year, renewable grants.

The largest share of funding is being distributed through News Media Canada, an industry group representing majority-language news organizations writing in English, French, and Indigenous languages, is the largest of the administering organizations and has the biggest share of funds to distribute. (The other nonprofits represent radio, television, ethnic press, and minority-language organizations, such as French-language publications outside of Quebec.)

News Media Canada announced the first wave of funded reporting positions in December, with a second round announced, after a coronavirus-related delay, last month. They add up to 168 new reporting positions in more than 140 newsrooms across the country; you can see the full list here. Each position will be funded with a maximum of $60,000 per year, 5 percent of which can go toward equipment.

All material published by LJI reporters will be made available to other news outlets through a public portal run by the Canadian Press and a Creative Commons license.

The funds come at a critical time. More than 250 media outlets closed across Canada from 2008 to 2019, according to a 2019 study by the Local News Research Project. The coronavirus and attending economic fallout has only accelerated the trend, as the Canadian Journalism Project mapping of the impact has shown.

“We know firsthand that papers in Canada and everywhere are having a really hard time staying afloat,” said Christian Dognon, who helps coordinate the initiative for News Media Canada.

Before the winning news organizations were even picked, though, there were rumblings in the Canadian digital news community about whether News Media Canada would be making the right choices to invest in the future.

The trade association calls itself “the voice of the print and digital media industry in Canada.” But its roots and governance are, like its equivalent in the United States, still very much rooted in newspapers. News Media Canada was previously known as “Newspapers Canada”; it resulted from the merger of the Canadian Newspaper Association and Canadian Community Newspaper Association. (Its CEO last tweeted in 2012.)

A large majority of the positions funded have been at newspapers. (Of the 105 reporting positions funded by the LJI in the first round, 93 went to newspapers, 12 to digital media.) And when the first round of winners was announced, Mathew Ingram questioned the decision to fund new reporting positions at large urban dailies or those with significant financial backing. The Toronto Star, the country’s highest-circulation newspaper, has been granted five funded positions thus far, for example.

Another dozen positions have gone to newspapers owned by Canada’s largest chain, Postmedia, which is controlled by hedge funds and has made some of the country’s deepest cuts in newsrooms while rewarding executives. Most recently, the company announced in April that it was laying off 80 employees and permanently closing 15 community newspapers.

The debate raises some fundamental questions about how to target support. Is it better to fund established newspapers with large existing audiences — or digital startups with fewer readers but a brighter future?

Is a community less worthy of support because its local newspaper is owned by a large chain or a hedge fund seeking little other than financial return?

Is it a more effective use of money to support a small outlet — where adding one reporter could be transformative — or a larger one where a reporter’s work would reach and benefit far more people?

Can a neighborhood in Toronto that rarely gets coverage be as “underserved” as a small town in Manitoba with a weekly newspaper?

Dognon says News Media Canada was conscious of the need to assemble a diverse group of people to make these decisions. He said the seven judges reflect the industry from “coast to coast,” with large newspapers, smaller community papers, print publications, online-only news, and French-speaking and Indigenous news organizations all represented. (Though only one of the seven, Linda Solomon Wood, comes from a digital-only outlet, with the rest coming from newspapers, a wire service, broadcast, and academia.)

News Media Canada provided the panel specific criteria for judging the applications. Successful proposals must demonstrate a commitment to local and civic journalism, such as reporting “from courthouses, city halls, band councils, school boards, Parliament, provincial legislatures, and more” in underserved communities in Canada. Here’s how the initiative defines underserved:

News deserts: Communities where citizens do not have access to journalistic information about community issues and institutions because there are no daily or community newspapers and other media (for example, community radio or television). Also, if there are other public or private broadcasters, they do not produce local news.

Areas of “news poverty”: Communities where there is limited access to journalistic content about community issues and institutions through a daily or community newspaper or public or private broadcaster. Available sources of local news — whether a newspaper, a community radio station or other media — demonstrate significant gaps in coverage due to a lack of capacity.

“Is this something that is required? Is it a project for an area that’s presently underserved? Is there an actual need that’s being filled by this project?” Dognon said. “We don’t want to be financing things that are already done. We want to add to the journalistic capacity of papers and publications.”

Judges were asked to consider whether the publications were well-positioned to deliver on the promises in their applications — meaning the organization’s administrative and editorial capacity was a factor. Winners also needed to have had at least one year of uninterrupted public publishing. (“This is not a program for startups or to help entrepreneurs start a new business,” Dognon said.)

The Calgary-based news site The Sprawl probably doesn’t qualify as a startup anymore — it launched in 2017 and now has more than 1,100 paying members. But its founder and editor Jeremy Klaszus was nonetheless frustrated to see that language had been added to disqualify “pop-up journalism organizations” from consideration — language that seemed to specifically target The Sprawl, which had described itself as such until last month. (Klaszus said he’s unaware of any other Canadian news org that described itself with that phrase.)

Dognon acknowledged the change and that it was added to the eligibility criteria after the first round of applications. He said the judging panel was concerned that “pop-up” outlets, like startups, may not be well positioned to serve and distribute civic journalism to the community.

“By nature, pop-up journalism organizations do not have an ongoing presence in the communities they cover and therefore are not engaged in ongoing service to the community,” Dognon said. “The civic journalism created under the LJI is meant for the residents of the community, but if the pop-up journalism organization does not have a relationship with those residents, we cannot be certain that their stories will reach them.”

But Dognon mentioned another consideration at work. “LJI is a support program for the news industry, so we do not want to introduce new competition into already struggling markets,” Dognon said.

That will be disappointing to anyone trying to start something new in Canadian journalism: The “news industry” is something that apparently doesn’t include you.

Other critics have argued that the best-funded outlets often have more resources to put into funding applications like this one, and that Postmedia’s American hedge-fund operators violate the spirit of LJI’s mandate that winning publications be Canadian-owned and -operated, if not the official standards.

Klaszus told CJR that local ownership, digital models, and innovation should have been prioritized.

“Basically I wish they’d support the future of journalism, rather than the past,” Klaszus said. “And I do get that setting criteria for any kind of government funding is tricky. But the future of journalism is clearly digital, at least in the near future.”

Erin Millar, founder and CEO of The Discourse, said she offered similar feedback to LJI directly, suggesting the LJI should privilege applications that demonstrate innovation and include plans for sustaining the position after the grant expires.

“I viewed LJI as a source of seed funding to add a new product to our mix we can grow to a sustainable level,” Millar said in an email. “I’m not interested in increasing reporting capacity that can only persist with government support.”

Millar also noted that one expectation outlined in the application form — that LJI reporters file five to seven stories a week — doesn’t make sense for most digital startups, who often focus on more substantive coverage to support a business strategy based on audience revenue.

(The Discourse was awarded five positions to support a partnership with APTN, the country’s Indigenous TV network and news service.)

Millar said she strongly supports the LJI’s objectives but felt frustrated by the lack of an appeals process or transparency and said she remains confused why some of The Discourse’s applications were approved and why others were not.

“I shared my concerns because it is essential that the program is perceived as fair and transparent to earn the confidence of the public, the government, and the news industry, especially digital, Indigenous and others that are not members of” News Media Canada, Millar said. “As the closely watched first pillar of the Canadian government’s journalism package, it could threaten future initiatives if it is not seen as credible.”

Publications that were selected to host LJI reporters have already started to post job listings and announce selected candidates. The Richmond Sentinel is taking the opportunity to bring a previously freelance journalist on staff. In northern Ontario, three new reporting positions will serve areas that have seen layoffs and rolled-back coverage in recent years. In every case, the news organizations will submit their selected candidate’s credentials to News Media Canada for approval.

News Media Canada received applications from 155 news organizations for the first wave of grantees, with nearly two-thirds of them receiving funding for at least one position. Although the panel had not planned to review a second round until next year, News Media Canada decided to solicit a second set of applications from news organizations in Quebec, Ontario, and Indigenous communities in order to improve regional balance, Dognon said.

Last month, as the ramifications of COVID-19 were becoming more apparent, News Media Canada announced they will fund a third round with an additional 37 grantees. This third call is for short-term projects, “including freelance and contract positions from Quebec French media, English media from the rest of Canada, and Indigenous media across the country.”

Beyond that, the initiative is budgeted to run for five years. What happens after that will depend on a host of unknowable factors — including whatever shape, if any, Canadian newspapers are left in.

Photo of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald building in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, by Sean Marshall used under a Creative Commons license. The Times-Herald, the city’s only daily newspaper, shut down in 2017 after 128 years of publishing.

POSTED     May 8, 2020, 12:51 p.m.
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