All through the Canadian newspaper business’s long, doomed struggle against the inevitable, the word on industry executives’ lips has been “runway.” As in, “we’re just trying to give ourselves a little more runway.” After each layoff, each sale or merger or shuttering of a century-old franchise, it was the same: we just need a little more runway.
The image this is supposed to convey is of an airplane hurtling down the tarmac, struggling to take off. There’s nothing wrong with the plane, you understand. Give it enough room to pick up speed, and it will surely make it off the ground. The only question is whether it has enough runway.
Well now it’s 2018, and the end of the runway is fast approaching, with no sign of liftoff. The industry is, increasingly, putting aside any pretense that it can avert the horrific crash for which it is headed. What was once a fringe idea, something no respectable newspaper would dream of indulging, is instead becoming the new mantra: the government must bail us out.
Indeed, the Trudeau government seemingly having failed to respond to their demands with the proper enthusiasm, the publishers have become increasingly shameless in advancing their self-interested cause — not just in the usual luncheon speeches or lobbying sessions, but more and more in the pages of their own papers.
Leading the way has been John Honderich, chairman of Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star. In a Jan. 26 op-ed, published not only in the Star but in a number of other Torstar-owned papers, Honderich expressed his dismay at the government’s “studied indifference” in the face of what he called the “crISIS of quality journalism.” He singled out for particular scorn Heritage Minister Melanie Joly.
This week the Star was back, this time with a lengthy news piece out of its Ottawa bureau. This time it quoted not only Honderich, but Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chairman of News Media Canada, the publishers’ trade association, together with a representative of Unifor, the union that represents many newspaper employees. Nowhere in its nearly 1,300 words would you find any hint of a suggestion that anyone, anywhere outside of government, bore any reservations about the government getting into bed with the newspapers, or that the roots of the industry’s woes lay in anything but forces outside its control: “a precipitous decline in ad revenues, the shift to digital and the domineering online presence of Facebook and Google.”
More or less simultaneously, a highly sympathetic piece appeared in the Globe and Mail, interviewing, of all people, the chairman of Torstar. Once again the villains were identified as “declining print advertising, and a booming digital economy,” with a sidelong mention of the heritage minister.
To be sure, Honderich admitted in passing, “we are the authors of our own misfortune.” The Star, like other papers, put its content online for free; like other papers, it forced readers to put up with a succession of hideously designed websites, then wasted $40 million on an unreadable tablet app; all this, I might add, on top of the decades of print-based mediocrity that preceded it.
None of which deterred him in the slightest from demanding millions more from the taxpayers. We screwed up. Now you get to pay for it.
This is a remarkable, and troubling, development. Reasonable people can differ on whether the government should rescue the newspaper industry from its own mistakes. I’ve argued it’s unnecessary — nothing is preventing people from paying for what we produce if they choose and, in fact, the better papers are finding more and more people willing to do so.
Worse, it would, I am convinced, do great harm: because it would involve the government in deciding who was eligible for support and who was not, and not incidentally, because it would change how we ourselves viewed the role of government, and our relationship to it.
Others will take a contrary view. But of all the voices that might argue for government support of newspapers, the very last should be those of the newspapers themselves, least of all in their own pages. This is not just craven, or in bad taste, or an obvious conflict of interest. It is crossing a line that should never be crossed.
Consider. Here we have publishers issuing demands for Cash to the government, in the run-up to an election, via the reporters they employ. (And not only by such means: I am told Honderich has met personally with the prime minister on the subject.) Can we pretend their coverage of that government will remain unaffected by its answer? Can we pretend that it even has to date?
Or turn it around. We have a government that, in fact, has not ruled out the possibility, but rather has said only that it will not bail out “non-viable Business models.” The coming budget, we are led to believe, will contain assistance for “local news” and the “transition” to digital formats.
Can we pretend that its decision will be entirely unrelated to how the newspapers behave: not only the coverage it receives, but the promises they undertake? Why would we, when the publishers themselves have explicitly proposed that aid should be restricted to particular types of publications — their own — and in return for, as the Star story noted, “reporting on elected officials and public institutions.”
And even if no such quid pro quo is advanced, implied or understood: can the public be expected to place their trust in the media’s coverage, knowing such negotiations are under way, publicly and privately?
Call it blackmail, call it bribery, call it something in between, but it stinks.