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Weekend reads: The collapse of Canadian media, part three
An interview with Holly Doan, publisher of Blacklock's Reporter
The state of Canadian media has been a topic of much discussion this summer at Lean Out, as we solicit different perspectives on the crisis — and different ideas for how we might dig out of this mess.
My guest today is clear in her view: “We have to save ourselves.”
During Lean Out’s special summer series, we have heard from The Line co-founder Jen Gerson and former CRTC vice chair Peter Menzies on the podcast, and media critic Marc Edge for Weekend Reads. (Stay tuned, next weekend’s Q&A is with University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist.)
Today, we’ll hear from Holly Doan, publisher of Blacklock’s Reporter and a former Lean Out podcast guest. In this lightly edited conversation, we touch on government bailouts, Bill C-18 — and the future of the independent press in this country.
TH: Holly, thank you for making the time. We’ve been doing a series here at Lean Out, which I understand you’ve been following, about the collapse of Canadian media, exploring questions on media consolidation, on the controversial new Bill C-18, on the death of the advertising business model for news, on government subsidies, and on low public trust in our media. You’ve been a journalist for decades, and you’re the publisher of a reporter-owned and reporter-run outlet in Ottawa. To set us up today, how would you describe the current moment in the media in Canada?
HD: I think we’ve just about hit bottom. I think it’s a car wreck, but I think we may have almost, almost reached the worst. We still have to know the fate of some of the mainstream media organizations that are in deep trouble, particularly Postmedia and The Toronto Star. And once those are determined — and I guess I’m speaking of Postmedia, which not only me but others have said is a dead weight on the industry — then we can find out how the rebuild will commence. So I’m much more optimistic now than I was, say, three years ago.
TH: Well, that is good to hear. Let’s start with Bill C-18. What’s your analysis of the bill, and how it might impact journalism in this country going forward?
HD: Bill C-18 has been, and will be, a failure. It’s not going to deliver enough money to save the publishers who need it most. And it will have the converse effect of suffocating smaller independents who might be the ones contributing to that rebuild I was talking about. Many of us in independent media have made presentations to the Senate; those are available on the Senate website. But the smaller publishers have counted on building businesses by delivering eyeballs to our products — whether we’re paywalled or not — to potentially 30 million Canadian eyeballs, by the Big Tech companies. I am not an advocate or a spokesman for Big Tech; there are a lot of problems there. But I think that C-18 has been a gift to the government’s friends in legacy media, because the subsidies didn’t work.
My opinion is that our government is afraid of the growth of independence. They don’t know what it’s going to look like. Canadians don’t know what it’s going to look like. But the answer is not to prop up the demonstrable failures. It is time to think about entrepreneurship, and to support entrepreneurship. C-18 is not the way forward. It is not for us in Lumber Town to be in a gargantuan, existential battle with Corporate America. Corporate America will always protect its own interests. It is not going to allow legislators in Lumber Town to create a legislation that can then be mimicked around the world, that might hamper their business model. Will there be some sort of arrangement with, say, Google? Facebook and Meta are out. I’ve always taken them at their word; indeed, it seems they meant it. Will Google arrange some kind of cap agreement, where they could operate under C-18 and compensate the publishers who feel they can’t survive without money from Big Tech? There might be. But my point is: It’s never going to be enough money to save them. We have to save ourselves. The future is user pay media.
TH: Recently, in an email to me, you said that you believe that the independent press needs to add to the news cycle and not just comment on it. What does that look like? And from your experience, what’s the business model that makes that kind of journalism economically-sustainable?
HD: There was a Member of Parliament for Hamilton Mountain named Lisa Hepfner, who commented during the parliamentary hearings on C-18 that all the independents were just a bunch of opinion — and that’s not going to be the future of news gathering. Who’s going to go to the city council meeting? Who’s going to go to the school board meeting?
Now, she was insulting in that she had not done a really thorough examination of some of the media outlets in the marketplace that are trying to do just that. So, a lot of independent media were insulted by those remarks, me included. We’re on Parliament Hill, covering her committee.
But there was a kernel of truth in what she said, in that a lot of the Substackers are — and I subscribe to many of them, including yours, and I support them, and I wish them growth and success — but they are writing columns. Some of them are informed with facts. They are publishing once a week, twice a week. Even if those opinion Substackers were to grow, they are never going to go to the school board. One of the independents remarked that if she could afford to hire four or five reporters that she’d be able to do [more news gathering]. I am willing to concede that perhaps that’s the case — that we are all small, mom-and-pop organizations. Why is that? Because the government has provided no incentive. And by that, I don’t mean we want government money. We want the government to get out of the way. We want them to get out of the marketplace, so that we can grow.
How can we expect opinion Substacks or interviews — as excellent as they are — to replace the news gathering culture? We cannot. But look at the tragedy of the time wasted in the last five years that we could have been working on growth and figuring out how to hire reporters and cover that school board meeting. The government has interfered in the marketplace to the extent that all they did was create pain, chaos, and delay the inevitable rebuild. What have they done? Well, they have sprayed money throughout the marketplace, by way of subsidies, that has left us with a media culture where we no longer know who is making money. We don’t know who could be a leader, or who could sustain growth and hire reporters, because of the subsidies. The intervention has interfered.
What else has the government done? The government has, in our case, been in court for years fighting a paywall, which is the only legitimate business model that many of us small guys — and the big guys, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail — have left. That’s regressive. In an era when we’re talking about artificial intelligence replacing reporters, the government of Canada has been fighting technological protection measures. Which are now ancient history; it’s a given that you can’t share a password, and that passwords are a technological protection measure.
So, all of these initiatives, if you want to call it that — I call it interventions — it’s a little bit like if the government had put their knee on Henry Ford’s neck and threw all the money into the wagon makers. That’s where we are.
TH: I want to ask you about some of your reporting on the lobby campaign that went into the subsidies. I know Blacklock’s does not accept subsidies. Blacklock’s reported on a significant campaign from Big Media, through News Media Canada and the Liberal lobbyist Isabel Metcalfe, which resulted in the $595 million bailout. This is something that Marc Edge and I discussed this week in a Q&A, and Blacklock’s is credited in his book. Can you summarize for readers what you found with that story?
HD: Right, and I’ll tell you some data from the government’s documents of what happened. So in 2017, then-Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly famously said: We will not be in the business of bailing out failed business models. And then the lobbyists came to town, along with News Media Canada, who hired lobbyist Isabel Metcalfe, a longtime former employee of a Liberal Prime Minister’s office. And presto, they got their money. Because the government saw some advantage in it for helping to prop up the dying properties. They called it “standing up for democracy,” although they don't really use that catchphrase anymore.
What has happened since those subsidies? In June of 2019 they introduced the income supports to publishers, which gave publishers $13,000 per head, per employee in the newsroom. $595 million in total was set aside. They wanted more; that’s all they got. Well, what has happened? In January of this past year, the Heritage Department reported in an inquiry of ministry, tabled in the House of Commons, that the income supports to publisher’s pool of money was 43% undersubscribed. What does that mean? That means that they couldn’t even give away the amount of money they set aside to the publishers. They couldn’t claim it, because newsrooms are so hollowed out that there weren’t enough heads in the newsroom to subsidize.
So, it’s been a failure in the terms of the numbers. Not only the political blowback that has harmed us all — with a group of cynical readers in this country now who believe we’re all bought off. We [at Blacklock’s] don’t take the subsidies, but we suffer from that too.
They didn’t expect that. Government believes that when they bestow a subsidy on somebody, the industry will be grateful and create jobs. They don’t expect to get grief, which is what they got. My opinion is they want out of the subsidy program when it expires in 2024. And that’s why they’ve been hitting up the publishers on C-18. So that’s one thing.
What happened after that? On March 3rd of this year, there was another document filed by the Heritage Department called Support for Journalistic Content. This is really interesting, I’ll read to you. Here’s what they said in this document. They said, “Since the beginning of the pandemic” — so, you know, three or four years — “78 news outlets closed, including 65 community newspapers. However, in the same period, 57 local news outlets have launched: two television stations, five radio stations, nine community newspapers, and 41 online news organizations.” Why is this important? This means that heavily-subsidized legacy newspapers cut jobs in this period, while the only significant growth in the media industry occurred amongst unsubsidized digital startups.
What does that tell us? That tells us there is scope for rebuild. There is scope for entrepreneurship.
The third thing, just to nail this and bring it home, was [in] April of this year, the Assistant Associate Deputy Minister of Heritage, Thomas Ripley, testified before the Senate Communications Committee and described the bailout as unsuccessful and said in this period of time, we have experienced a significant decline in journalism. This is why, when somebody says the subsidies were a failure, you don’t have to consider it to be an opinion. Government has sanctioned that opinion.
To repeat: My view is that C-18 was about extracting the government from this debacle.
TH: Two more points I want to get to briefly. One of the big pieces of the puzzle for Canadian media is the CBC. Former CRTC vice chair Peter Menzies has proposed — on my podcast and in The Globe and Mail — that the CBC needs to get out of commercial advertising. What do you think needs to be done about the CBC?
HD: I want to say, first of all, that I’m a supporter of public broadcasting. I would like to see the CBC survive. I’m not a defund-the-CBCer. CBC gave me everything I have, in terms of my skills. But that’s a different CBC than the one we see now.
Getting out of advertising would be one option. But then they are only going to ask for more endowment from Parliament. That’s going to go hand-in-hand. Others have suggested — and perhaps this will seem incongruous with a public broadcaster — that they can’t be shotgunning free content on the Internet. CBC [News] can’t be using their 1000 employees — this is their numbers [see Senate testimony from former editor-in-chief of CBC News, Jennifer McGuire] — to feed the Net. And shotgunning free content and competing with me, or The Toronto Star, or any other startup. I think they have to be paywalled, or they have to get out of online. Or they have to be a service where some of their data and content is shared with others — a pool, perhaps. They’ve done some experimentation with pool reporting in the UK.
I think the problem with the CBC is television. The CBC president famously said recently that they were going to be out of TV in 10 years from now. There was a big blowback on that, because all the grey hairs said, “Don’t take away my TV. I’m paying for you.” But I think that if there’s any place that the broadcaster has failed, it is a television product that no one wants and isn’t very good. That should die, with a special carve-out for French Radio-Canada. That’s a different issue; that is a cultural issue. And if they must stay online, because that’s the future, then they have to paywall or share content. They have to be a little bit different, a little bit better. They have to redefine their mandate, and they have to get out of the business of partisanship, and find a way to be arm’s length from the government.
Because, you know, it really doesn’t matter how you rebuild the CBC, whether you take a Peter Menzies proposal or mine, if they are not trusted by Canadians they will not garner the support they need to even exist. Maybe a new president — with a different attitude about what the CBC should be — might help.
TH: You’re touching on trust, which is something that I’ve explored quite a bit in this series. It’s a problem here in Canada. Jen Gerson from The Line was on my podcast, and she said the public is not going to get a reckoning on pandemic mistakes, either from the government or from the media — and she believes this will continue to erode trust. The British Medical Journal this week called for a pandemic inquiry for Canada. Paul Wells has also called for one on his Substack. Do you think we need one?
HD: Absolutely. I mean, forget about us pundits calling for an inquiry, the Opposition has called for an inquiry. The Commons Health Committee did their best. About a year or two ago, they subpoenaed all documents concerning pandemic management, and there were over 200,000 documents. Privy Council vomited up about 7,000 of them — and then Parliament was prorogued for the election in 2021, and then they never gave anymore. In those documents, which Blacklock’s fed off of for months, was a pretty clear picture of some of the mismanagement of the pandemic. People like to say, “Wow, look at this government, which brought us through a terrible time.” But the fact is that they don’t really know. Those people saying that know that there could have been more deaths, that the vaccine saved people. Of course, those things are obvious. But we don’t know, for instance, how much waste there was. How much pandemic contracting went to cronies. We don’t know exactly why the Public Health Agency made some of the choices it did, like throwing out masks and closing warehouses. Those things, without an accountability — it will happen again.
TH: Just to close, Holly, right now everybody is covering the story of media in our country, from the CBC’s Sunday Magazine to Paul Wells, who has an interesting series, to the Hurle Burly podcast, to a number of the podcasts you’ve been going on. The key question I have is: How do we begin to rebuild public trust in our media?
HD: Stop the subsidies. Government should admit those are wrong. Not only Mr. Trudeau has to do that, but Mr. Poilievre has to do that too. We have to know that, no, this government nor any future government will be in the business of subsidizing media. Because then the impression that we are bought off is never going to go away.
Rebuilding trust — I think that we have to do less opinion. We have to do less opinion podcasts, and devote more time, even for small startups, to just finding information, breaking stories. We know from our own experience that the more stories we break, the more subscriptions we sell. Why is that? When you have a conveyor belt of information, quoting sources — no “sources say,” just documents — that people will tell me, “We trust you.” Why do they trust me? It’s because they see that we are coming up with the goods. We are just a small player in the market. But even a niche, small player can win back trust if you follow those principles again. There are a lot of little things we can do to retool our copy, but I think it’s really about getting back to the basics of breaking news, and don’t take the government lolly — and they’ll find you. They’ll follow you. It’s possible.
Before I sign off, in Lean Out updates, podcast guest Andrew Potter has a new piece at The Line, responding to the much-discussed New Yorker essay, “The Case Against Travel.” Lean Out podcast guest Freddie deBoer has also responded to that piece. Plus, Lean Out guest Conor Friedersdorf has an excellent piece about the Tracy Chapman “Fast Car” controversy, over at The Atlantic.
See you all next week!
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