Last week, as part of their Fall Economic Statement, the federal government announced several initiatives to provide financial support to news organizations, including tax credits to support the production of original news content and to support subscriptions to Canadian news media. They also announced additional direct support for non-profit local news organizations to create open source news content, and that these organizations would also be able to receive charitable donations. Predictably, Canada’s biggest newspaper chain welcomed the initiative. Equally predictably, opposition leaders accused the government of using the initiative to buy favourable coverage in the election year.
In some countries, subsidies to journalists are used explicitly as a tool to control critical coverage. The government has promised that eligibility for the funds will be determined by an independent panel comprised of members of the news and journalism industry, who will also be tasked to “promote core journalism standards [and] define professional journalism.” But who will choose the members of this panel, and what safeguards will be put in place to protect its independence? Just a few years ago, Stephen Harper’s government used the tax breaks that Canada grants to charities as a weapon to attack his critics, particularly environmental groups. Since many of these groups depended on charitable donations, Harper’s audits threatened their ability to stay
The subsidy for local non-profit outlets who produce open source news content under a Creative Commons licence is also worth considering carefully. It could well backfire by further degrading the willingness of Canadians to pay for content, undermining the viability of existing, for profit, local news outlets.
None of this is to say that the programs are a bad idea. They may be the only hope of pushing back against another growing trend, where news outlets are bought up by wealthy patrons. This can be incredibly corrosive to democracy, as the people of New Brunswick can attest.