March 4, 2005

Senate Committee on news media (Draft for THIS magazine, March, 2005)

Joan Fraser has hard times ahead. The former journalist, turned Liberal Senator, is chairing the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation and Communication. Her unenviable job? To figure out how public policy can save Canada’s news.

Many doubt another committee can change much (remember the Davey Committee? The Kent Commission?) An endlessly concentrating news media has become almost old hat in Canada. And changing rules in the news game is always politically treacherous. Even a determined “journalist at heart,” as Fraser calls herself, will likely be hamstrung. Still, the committee is allowing pent up frustration to flow from journalists and the public at hearings in Ottawa and major Canadian cities. And new ideas are afoot.

Save for Americans taking over the Globe and Mail, Canadians and their government fear concentration when it comes to news. Christopher Dornan, director of Carleton University’s journalism school in Ottawa, says during the ‘90s when the Sun newspaper chain grew and specialty channels expanded the TV universe, nobody in Ottawa paid attention. “It’s only when they do something to consolidate that interest suddenly spikes again.”

Vancouver likely piqued the renewed interest: both its major daily newspapers, two available television newscasts, and most of its entertainment weeklies are now owned by Winnipeg’s CanWest Global Corporation. Leonard Asper, CEO of CanWest, is likely behind something most Canadians read, watched or listed to today. He controls a national chain of papers, television stations and websites, as well as radio stations, magazines, TV production houses and a book publishing company. Language like ‘convergence,’ ‘vertical integration,’ ‘cross-promotion’ and ‘synergies’ -- once the jargon journalists mocked -- are now more like CanWest journalistic mantras.

Many feel Vancouver has played the canary in the mineshaft for too long. So, when the committee came to town, residents showed up in force. David Beers -- a former Vancouver Sun editor, turned publisher of indie news website, The Tyee – told the committee Vancouver is “a heartbreaking place” to be a dedicated reporter. When fewer control more of our news, views on the margins are often ignored, and the trend is to put profits before journalism. Nowadays, corporate press releases masquerade as “news,” while foreign bureaus are closed and local and investigative reporting disappears. Suanne Kelman, interim chair of Ryerson’s journalism program in Toronto, says worshiping the bottom line never creates quality. “Journalism is expensive to do well and when you do it cheap it shows,” she says. “But stories that don't sell newspapers still have to be covered.”

Some aren’t so sure corporations are the villains they’re often painted to be. Dornan says some corporate owners, like the New York Times Corporation, behave responsibly and invest in journalism, while the much-lauded independent news outlets “are often run by complete nut cases who do so on the cheap.”

He feels policy makers should investigate Canada’s foreign ownership laws. Foreign investment could spur news outlets to innovate, increase competition, and might shatter the monopolies. “We’ve built in prohibitions of foreign ownership and there are those on both right and left that argue those strictures are outmoded. They basically legislate for ever increasing ownership confined to Canadian capital. You end up with gargantuan corporations like BCE owning newspapers.”

The danger, as Dornan acknowledges, is that when you open the gate, you can’t discriminate who gets in. Rupert Murdoch, anyone?

Formed specifically against that scenario, Vancouver’s Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom wants Canada’s media policies strengthened, not relaxed. Brant Cheetham, from the campaign’s steering committee, says the US media is an example of what can go wrong with concentration. “And at the end of the day, we have laxer media rules than they do.”

Cheetham points to the burgeoning indie media and media reform movement in the US as illustrating how much corporate control people will put up with in news before they snap. “We can’t seem to make waves about our ridiculous lack of laws, but at some point, it’s government’s responsibility to say it’s not in the people’s interest for news to come from one source.”

The group has a letter campaign urging Fraser’s committee to establish market domination caps, maintain Canadian ownership requirements and put communities in charge of community broadcasting, not cable companies. Vancouver’s mainstream media may be under siege, but Cheetham says indie media is thriving as a result -- and just waiting for government support to explode. “I think we [Vancouver] can be a test case not for media concentration but for bottom-up media, community creating the media, community supporting the media; more community minded, less about the bottom line.”

His beliefs are idealistic, sure, but they’re not radical for many of today’s youth. Ironically, media corporations have tightened their stranglehold at the same time, making traditional news sources largely illegitimate to an entire generation. Now the
corporations are getting desperate: they need the eyeballs of the 18-34 generation. As a response, CanWest’s has launched Dose, a daily national magazine and website aimed at younger, hipper readers. It will be printed in five Canadian cities starting in April. But will Dose bring youth diverse perspectives to the news, or instead, just offer them up as a demographic to advertisers?

A dark underside of this trend is that young people craving news are in the minority: many don’t care much at all about bigger issues, says Kelman. “You can measure some of the things going wrong by the reasons some students enter our program: they want to be on TV, they want to write about themselves,” she says. "Year by year, I'm seeing fewer and fewer shake-things-up students, and more ‘I want to be a star’ people.”

Fraser isn’t deterred by the apparent difficulties of her job. There was value in the Davey and the Kent inquiries, “by the mere fact they happened,” she says. “It wasn’t a question of a thunderclap, and suddenly the landscape changed, but over time, they did have an impact.”

But questions remain if this committee, like the Davey and Kent groups, will, in the end, not shake things up. Considering what’s happening to Canada’s news, that’s a dark thought for Kelman. “It makes us so easy to manipulate, if you don't know anything.”

The group plans to report to the House of Commons in June.

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