Perfect Storm Led to Decline in Canada’s Newspapers, Committee Hears

Independent publications bought up by corporations disguised as newspaper chains
March 9, 2016 Updated: March 9, 2016

Canada’s newspaper industry has seen a perfect storm over the last 20 years, leading to the rapid decline in papers across the country, Parliament’s heritage committee was told on March 8.

In the latest testimony on the state of media in Canada, Richard Tardif, executive director of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association and a former journalist, told MPs that over the past 30 years, corporations disguising themselves as newspaper chains have bought up many of the country’s independent newspapers.

“These corporations owe allegiance to shareholders and less and less to readers, all the while steadily cutting back on journalists’ resources, column width, line rates, and shutting down their newspapers,” Tardif said.

“The corporate hope was to attract advertisers to online news platforms, but as it turns out, the method of click-per-thousand across the Internet generated only a few cents of revenue. In the end it was an insurmountable disaster, with no turning back for them.”

Since 2008, cuts have resulted in over 16,000 job losses in Canada’s media.

Witnesses who spoke before the committee estimated that revenue generated online translated into one dollar for every seven dollars that was lost in print.

“How do you pay the bills? Well, you have a hard time doing that, as a lot of my colleagues have suggested,” Tardif said.

The Quebec Community Newspapers Association estimates that since 2010, federal advertising has dropped 98.5 percent.

Carmel Smyth, president of the Canadian Media Guild, told the committee that since 2008, cuts have resulted in over 16,000 job losses in Canada’s media, according to the guild’s estimates.

Jeanne d’Arc Umurungi, the guild’s director of communications, later read into testimony a letter from a Saskatchewan resident who noted that his home province now lacks a full-time reporter for the province’s legislature.

“Our province, in the last few months, now has the dubious distinction of having not one reporter assigned on a full-time basis to cover provincial politics for our entire province—not one reporter from either private or public news outlets now covers provincial legislative politics on a full-time basis,” Umurungi read.

“Tweets and press releases simply won’t do in a democracy.”

The situation was discovered by University of Regina professor Marc Spooner, who discussed the issue in a J-Source news story late last year. The J-Source report noted that while reporters arrived for question period scrums, no reporter from public or private news outlets covered the legislature full time.

“We at the Canadian Media Guild have been sounding the alarm about this crisis in local news for many years,” said Smyth. “We know the devastating impact that funding and staffing cuts are having and continue to have on reporters’ ability to cover or investigate stories.”  

No single solution was proposed during testimony. An increase in advertising by the federal government was suggested by Tardif as one possible step, while the issue of funding was also raised.

Previously, the Local Programming Improvement Fund was established to subsidize the production of new local TV programming. The fund was discontinued in 2014.

“We think a similar kind of fund could be established now for anyone willing to do local news,” Smyth said.

“We would hope professional organizations of varying sorts … [would be] willing to work in the community, where lots of statistics show that you can’t make a profit—that it’s not profitable. So unless there’s an incentive, we see of course decreasing service.”

Smyth said she was concerned that opinions in print media are increasingly coming from a single viewpoint.

“In the end having one view—and that’s where we’re heading—that’s the opinion that you’ll have in that [particular] province. It’s scary, it’s just not right,” she said.

Kaven Baker-Voakes is a freelance reporter based in Ottawa.