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.