(Black Press files)

COLUMN: Is celebrity gossip your ‘local news’? Ottawa seems to think so

News Media Canada board chair reflects on heritage minister’s response to newspaper closures

Hockey news, fashion tips, TV and movie listings, retirement strategies, updates on Celine Dion – all of this information now constitutes local media, at least according to federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly.

This week marked a black spot in the history of Canadian newspapers with the closure of three dozen of them, taking out of circulation three million copies of printed newspapers each week and eliminating more than 300 jobs.

READ MORE: Torstar, Postmedia newspaper closures aim to cut competition: analysts

Joly’s response in Ottawa was a refrain that she has been using more and more lately, saying the federal government is already helping news providers. “We value the importance of journalism and that’s why we invest up to $75 million per year in local media,” she said.

This is true only if you use a definition of “local media” unlike any other ever attempted.

The minister was referring to the Aid to Publishers program, through which the government provides annual grants to printed publications – magazines and non-daily newspapers — primarily to help with distribution costs.

Many Canadians will be surprised by who is getting this support for “local media.”

Figures from the 2014-15 fiscal year show:

  • The Hockey News, which primarily covers the NHL, got $1.3 million.
  • TVHebdo got $1.5 million. It provides TV listings in French and is owned by the same company as the TVA television network in Quebec.
  • TV Week, which provides TV listings in British Columbia, got $1 million.
  • Allo Vedettes, which provides Quebec celebrity news and often features Celine Dion on the cover, got $218,721.
  • Good Times, a magazine aimed at retirees, got $588,531.
  • Flare magazine got $408,236; Chatelaine got $1.5 million for its English edition and $848,428 for its French one.
  • Movie Entertainment got $1.5 million. It is produced for subscribers to the paid TV channel The Movie Network, owned by Bell Media.

This is a snapshot of one year. The same publications get large grants year after year. Publications such as Macleans get the maximum $1.5 million annually. Chatelaine, which gets money for both its English and French editions, has received $19.3 million in the past eight years. Movie Entertainment has received $11.3 million in the same period.

The list goes on and on to hundreds of magazines that get federal funding. It raises all sorts of questions. Why does a TV book distributed by a broadcaster qualify for funding when a TV guide distributed in a daily newspaper does not? And how on earth does giving a subsidy to a promotional magazine for a TV channel qualify as support for local media?

The simple fact is that the Aid to Publishers program mostly supports magazines, an industry that for the most part does not have a viable business model without public subsidies.

Many weekly paid community newspapers get money, but relatively little. Those affiliated with News Media Canada got between $3,301 and $124,252 in 2014-15, and averaged $25,831 – less than two per cent of what The Hockey News received. Free community and daily newspapers are not eligible.

Overall, these community papers got about $7.8 million of the $68.9 million handed out. Some went to ethnic, farm and religious publications. The Catholic Register got $403,355; The Western Producer got $1.2 million.

The bulk — $53.4 million — went to magazines. Some individual magazine companies get more per year than all community newspapers combined. TVA Publications got about $7.5 million this year, as did Transcontinental Media. Rogers Media, publisher of Chatelaine, Macleans and other magazines, got $8.9 million in 2016. Reader’s Digest got $3 million this year for its related publications.

Aid to Publishers is being revamped. It’s unclear what the new qualification criteria will be or whether the program will get any more money.

However, the review is doomed to failure unless Ottawa understands that it is not currently supporting local news media in any meaningful way and that the current funding, even if redistributed, will do little to help reporting in local communities across Canada.

We have not heard this from Joly. In fact, her Tweeted response to this week’s closures suggested she still does not understand what is happening in local media, where collapsing revenues are forcing cuts in reporting across all traditional news outlets.

The closures this week were not cynical. There were inevitable in a challenged business in which print newspaper revenues have fallen dramatically. We will see more of them. What they mean for many communities is less reporting about what is happening in people’s backyards.

It’s unlikely that people in those communities will be comforted by Joly’s claim that her government supports local media.

Bob Cox is chair of the board of News Media Canada

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Air Canada extends suspension of flights in and out of West Kootenay Regional Airport until April 30

It’s still unknown if flights will resume at Castlegar’s airport on May 1

Nelson and COVID-19: everything you need to know

Check this page for every local story related to the outbreak

Ivy at Nelson Courthouse to be removed

The ivy is causing structural damage to the building

Q&A: Interior Health CEO answers questions on COVID-19 response

Susan Brown, president and CEO of Interior Health, answers questions regarding COVID-19

West Kootenay transfer stations and landfills will take essential garbage only during pandemic

Areas with curbside pickup should not use Grohman transfer station, RDCK says

‘We will get through this’: B.C. sees new COVID-19 death, but 57% have recovered

A total of 1,066 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus

Association launches French-language games, online tools for families learning at home

Games, culture and vocabulary included in new virtual resources

‘There can be no ambiguity’: Travellers brought home to B.C. must self-isolate

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the mandatory isolation must be abided by

Interior Health confirms five additional cases in Okanagan COVID-19 outbreak

The total amount of confirmed cases at Bylands Nurseries Ltd. is 19; no further cases expected

55+ BC Games cancelled amid COVID-19 concerns

Greater Victoria set to host 2021 event

ANKORS East Kootenay details concerns surrounding harm reduction amid COVID-19

Harm reduction providers are having to keep up with rapidly changing situation

BC Hydro offers three-month bill ‘holiday’ for those affected by COVID-19

Industrial customers can defer half of their power bills

Some April Fool’s Day jokes bring much-needed laughter; others tone deaf to COVID-19

Police are warning the public not to use the ongoing pandemic as a punchline

Canada’s 75% wage subsidy is coming, but not for several weeks: finance minister

Subsidy will cost Canada $71 billion, but push down cost of emergency benefit, Morneau said

Most Read