In Alberta, when the legislature isn’t in session, admittedly, there are few reporters scouring the halls. But regardless of the time of year, over the sixteen years I’ve covered politics, there has always been a healthy core of reporters around to discuss stories, swap tales and most important, probe issues to hold government to account.
But not so much anymore.
It’s kind of lonely at the “Ledge.”
The reality couldn’t have been more stark in mid September, when I found myself as the only reporter outside Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s office, when the long awaited, much anticipated portrait of disgraced Premier Alison Redford was hung in stealth silence. The auspicious occasion wasn’t announced in advance, as had been the practice in the past. This time, there was no elaborate ceremony with speeches and cake.
I just happened to be waiting around trying to nab a cabinet minister or two at a treasury board meeting, and by chance caught that historical moment.
The point is, a few years ago, there would have been several reporters, a few television cameras, still photographers, and radio stations there to cover the Cabinet. With a core of journalists roaming around the legislature, it would have been nearly impossible to surreptitiously hang the disgraced premier’s portrait without anyone noticing.
I shot the video of the portrait hanging on my iPhone, posted photos on Twitter, and wrote an account for our website. Other media eventually covered it.
It was a good example of the key message I had just delivered to a round table discussion assembled by Canada’s Public Policy Forum (PPF) at the University of Regina about democracy, news and public policy in Canada.
The PPF was asked to review federal government policies related to the news media, in conjunction with the review of Canada’s cultural institutions by federal Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.
The wide sweeping review includes questions ranging from opening up the Broadcasting Act and reviewing the mandate and role of CBC/Radio-Canada to how or if the federal government should support struggling media organizations through subsidies or taxation changes.
As a CMG sponsored participant, I was the only on-the-ground reporter at the Regina round table with daily and weekly newspaper editors, publishers, and academics from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
The key questions we addressed were:
-How has the deteriorating state of traditional media impacted the civic function of journalism and democracy?
-Are new digitally based news media filling the gap?
-Is there a role for public policy to help maintain a healthy flow of news and information?
The difficulty in assessing the overall impact on democracy from changing news coverage is there is no consensus of how to quantify the result.
While Facebook and Twitter have empowered citizen journalists and encouraged innovation, sentiments expressed during the round table questioned the reliability of information, and inability of a freelance citizen-reporter to challenge institutions.
A provocative question arose about covering sports and the influence and reach of National Hockey League teams. A participant commented that the best coverage of the Winnipeg Jets these days is from the team itself. He added that in that context, the few journalists who do cover the team risk having access to the team and its players cut off or restricted if they challenge the team a little too much.
Many people fear the same thing could also be happening in politics and business.
“Powerful interests control information,” was the comment. We’ve heard this before.
Round table participants talked about how doing long form investigative, or even daily news reporting requires time and legal support. Journalists must routinely attend court proceedings, file access to information requests, and sit through school board and city hall meetings even though they may not land a solid story that day. Getting “feet on the street” is a cost that many editors and publishers are struggling with.
Advertising revenue is drastically down compared to just a few years ago, as governments have either stopped advertising in papers entirely, or simply are re-directing their advertising dollars to online sites such as Google and Facebook. There was concern that revenue loss has hurt community, ethnic, and minority language papers particularly hard.
Some participants suggested government offer tax credits to companies to encourage advertising on Canadian media websites. Other recommendations include creating a royalty fund similar to the Canadian music industry’s for Canadian news publishers, and updating copyright laws so aggregators such as Facebook and Google pay for content.
As a public broadcaster, I’m keenly aware of advertising revenue battles that were waged in the 80s and 90s over television. There was constant pressure on CBC from private broadcasters to get out of the local television news market. Now those same complaints are coming from publishers who generate online news and current affairs content from behind a pay wall.
CBC.ca is a successful online news outlet that competes with every news agency in the world. There was concern expressed by private sector roundtable participants about why CBC as a public broadcaster, carries “click-bait” stories to entice readers.
There is no pay wall on CBC.CA.
The reality is that the media crisis is affecting everyone, and it’s flawed thinking to assume that CBC is the single biggest obstacle. There are many challenges including Facebook, Google, other technological innovations, evolving viewing habits, just to name a few. A singular focus on the public broadcaster could blind us to real solutions to the problems all news media , and likely the viewing public now face.
It’s generally recognized that CBC plays a vital role in our media system as the country’s national public broadcaster. Both CBC and private media benefit from specific regulatory and funding supports, but clearly these are no longer enough. The goal then should be to find ways to ensure we continue to have a healthy diversity of voices in our system – including strong public, community and private news media.
CMG firmly believes that CBC has to be present on all platforms Canadians use including radio, television, online, mobile and any future delivery devices.
However that commitment to serve Canadians on all platforms will require expanded supports for CBC/ Radio-Canada to keep reaching and connecting Canadians regardless of geography.
In 1957, renowned media and communications guru Marshall McLuhan wrote, “As technology advances, it reverses the characteristics of every situation again and again. The age of automation is going to be the age of ‘do it yourself’.
Oh how right he was.
Which is why the question the Public Policy Forum raises – of whether in such an environment, the civic function of journalism and democracy is still important to us – is key, and the answer is clearly yes. What we must figure out together is how to do it right.
Kim Trynacity is an award-winning journalist and CMG member