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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Journalism needs audience support, not a bailout

Federal funding is not the answer to the challenges facing journalism. —
Federal funding is not the answer to the challenges facing journalism. — 123RF Stock Photo

The beauty of it is that I can say this.

Maybe I won’t be able to for long:

Wednesday, the federal government announced that it plans to put $595 million of federal money over the next five years into a plan to protect independent journalism.

I don’t think that’s the solution — in fact, it could be a danger to the very independence the Liberal government says it wants to protect. Let me be clear, though — that’s my opinion, not necessarily the opinion of the company I work for, or even, necessarily, the opinion of my boss.

Journalism, especially print journalism, is changing, and either the change works and a new model arrives, or it doesn’t. It’s an exciting time; building a new model is nerve-racking, and the possibility of failure is certainly there.

But subsidies aren’t the cure.

The solution for the woes of a car company that isn’t selling enough cars isn’t giving it money so that it can keep on as usual, still not selling cars.

The particular problem for journalists is that it’s one thing for a car maker to be beholden to government; it’s something else for people who are supposed to provide a watchdog function for governments.

Are there models for government funding that can work? To a degree — but there are dangers. The model being proposed is to have an independent panel of people from the journalism industry decide how the funding’s going to work. It sounds a little like the Canada Council in that way — and make no mistake, the Canada Council is a fine organization. (Full disclosure: I have been a recipient of Canada Council funding in my literary writing, and it made books possible that otherwise would never have been written.)

In the Canada Council model, independent juries of artists decide who gets funding — but the inherent danger of that is that projects that artists like get funded, rather than, say, projects that are workable and sellable.

That danger would exist in a journalist-driven funding panel, too. Funding journalism that only journalists think is integral is not necessarily anything more than a sort of journalistic onanism.

Some people are aghast: “Are you willing to just let journalism die?” they ask.

Well, yes.

If we can’t find a new equation and new customers, there’s not much choice.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. And live by the pen, die by the pen.

If I’m willing to say in this column — as I have — that fisheries should close to protect stocks for the future, or that government cutbacks have to be made to protect our children from being buried by our debt, then there’s no way I can say, “But make an exception to all that and save my livelihood, pretty-please.”

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

And live by the pen, die by the pen.

I actually think we have a product to sell, and an important one at that. The old model isn’t working, and, unfortunately, will continue not to work, subsidies or not. But there are good people in this business, building new and innovative things.

Interestingly, the media is still very much valued in countries where democracy is new and strong; the sharing of information, ideas and commentary is seen as essential. Running a successful farm needs someone to manufacture farming tools. If you just let everything go fallow, you don’t need to buy a baler or a harvester.

In aging democracies where people can’t be bothered to even get out and vote, where having an informed hand in shaping the government you want is seen as a hassle, we become more like entertainers than anything else.

I don’t think it’s a good thing — especially not for me personally.

But there it is.

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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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