Peter Menzies: Let it burn
The Zombie Papers aren't coming back
By: Peter Menzies
I have been faithfully watching HBO’s The Last of Us, proudly pointing out that Bill and Frank’s place is in High River, that bridge was really over Calgary’s Fish Creek, and — OMG — that was actually the Alberta Legislature the zombies broke into before Tess set them, it and her ablaze.
I am so old, you see, that I can recall when the #ableg was buzzing with a couple dozen reporters and columnists. The late, great Rod Love and — as best as I can recall — a communications staff of just two, ruled the roost, offering reporters scoldings and scoops. Martini’s was the off-the-record bar of choice and who will ever forget La Nuit des Milles Bieres? Those were halcyon days.
Today, near as I can tell, the Premier’s office has close to as many comms staff — if not more — than the Press Gallery has members. Martini’s closed years ago. There are no more nights of a thousand beers. The once-vibrant news organizations that dominated the place are nominally alive, but to all intents and purposes are dead. With few exceptions, they are zombies.
In Saskatchewan, there are maybe two reporters and a columnist covering the provincial legislature when it’s in session (which isn’t a lot).
At the time of my shift in the Alberta gallery in 1995, the Calgary Herald newsroom boasted around 150 men and women. The Calgary Sun had another 60 or so. By the end of this month, after Postmedia’s most recent round of tearfully announced layoffs, the combined Herald/Calgary Sun headcount will be closer to 20. The building which once housed the Herald has been sold for half of its original asking price. The Regina Leader Post offices are now an industrial mall and the landmark Saskatoon Star Phoenix building is for sale. What is left of its staff will work from home. All take their orders from editors in Calgary who take theirs from someone a four-hour flight away in the east. The few copies they bother to print for the Paris of the Prairies these days come off a press 450 km away in Weyburn.
Life in the once outrageously profitable — and fun — Canadian newspaper industry is not just dire; it’s pathetic and sad. Things are so bad there weren’t enough jobs left to absorb the full $119 million set aside in annual federal tax credits. Only 57 per cent of the money allocated since 2019 was actually accessed, according to Blacklock’s Reporter.
This is scheduled to be the final year (2023-24) for the $10 million annual Local Journalism Initiative (LJI). Sure, Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez has doubled the amount to fund journos in “news deserts” in the LJI’s final year to $20 million. He’s thrown another $40 million over three years into his “Special measures for Journalism” pot, but there’s no indication the LJI will be extended.
This month, the business’s very last hope for government salvation — the Online News Act — lurched into the Senate, where there is no shortage of former journos to help it on its way. Those include Edmonton Journal columnist Paula Simons, former broadcast anchor Pamela Wallin, Julie Miville-Dechene (ex of Radio Canada) and Marty Klyne, a past publisher (remember those?) of the Leader Post. In short order, there will be more journalists in the senate than in some local newsrooms.
There will be many calls for amendments. There will be pleading, urging and even begging from various parts of the industry. Experts will testify. But no amount of second-thought tinkering — no matter how sober — is going to make Bill C-18 into the saviour publishers once fancied it would be.
The legislation was first proposed by legacy print newspapers to force Facebook and Google to give them money. Starry-eyed predictions of $200 million or more annually were promised, and newsrooms filled with real people with kids, mortgages and dreams bought into it because, well, they needed to. Who among us, in their shoes, wouldn’t have done the same?
Problem is, people began to notice that the whole thing was built on a fantasy. And then the broadcasters, pleading poverty and miffed that they’d been excluded from previous taxpayer-funded schemes, shamelessly bellied up to the bar and damn near drank it dry. The Parliamentary Budget Officer has predicted the entire Bill C-18 shakedown will, as constructed, generate $329 million. Most of that will be consumed by broadcasters — primarily CBC and Bell Media — leaving a measly $80 million for the entire non-broadcast news industry.
That’s about $15 million more than guys like Steph Curry and Lebron James get paid each year to play basketball. It’s half of what Chelsea of the English Premier League just paid Benfica of Portugal for an Argentinian soccer player. It’s not, in other words, anywhere near enough to stabilize a horribly broken legacy news industry.
Then there’s the fact that U.S. politicians are becoming increasingly vocal concerning this and other Canadian legislation targeting American online companies. Billions in retaliatory tariffs seem a high price to pay for something that isn’t going to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
And if Facebook decides to simply get out of carrying news — which is highly likely — rather than pay the news racket’s fee, not only will the publishers’ once dreamy pot of gold shrink further, the entire industry will lose a vital — and free — delivery platform. That will include startups that have virtuously sworn off taking favours from government.
Bill C-18, in other words, isn’t going to make the old zombie papers whole again and could very easily mortally wound the news industry innovators we so badly need to keep journalism’s heart beating.
Unpleasant as it sounds, it might be best for everyone if the zombies — all that’s left of the last of us — just burn.
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