Is democracy under threat?

Reaction to the implementation of a media tax credit for newspapers has been mixed, with diametrically opposed views in some cases.

The program was developed to assist publishers of the printed word under siege by a degree of disruption few industries have seen in recent memory.

Traditional strong suits, like classified and national advertising, migrated to the internet. Kijiji, Facebook and numerous other platforms offered cheap or free alternatives. Other industries, like real estate and cars (remember Auto Trader magazines?) have found a place to list their wares cost effectively. Essentially, marketers have so many options, it has placed a strain on legacy operations, whether that be newspapers, radio or television for that matter.

With all of these marketplace commotions, many news outlets cut back coverage in a quest to right-size their operations. For many communities the result has been either the outright loss of a newspaper or a very thin version of its former self. Less revenue equals less news – it’s that simple.

The Canadian News Media Association represents daily and community newspapers from across the country. Not only is the Wellington Advertiser a member, but in the interest of transparency I sit on the executive of that board as well as the Ontario Community Newspaper Association. It certainly has been a learning experience.

Although our newspaper does well, there are hundreds across the country doing well just to stay open. The newspaper industry is in calamitous times. Rarely a day passes that we do not consider our good fortune to operate in a county where business-people and local governments understand a strong newspaper makes for a good community. People support our efforts and that is the difference between a viable publication continuing to grow and other places where papers appear anemic, without a future.

There is a larger picture however, identified by Mr. John Liss in his thoughtful letter two weeks ago. Democracy and a free press have been under siege for some time in the free world. It isn’t a Liberal or Conservative issue, since successive governments have taken provincial and federal advertising budgets and fed it to online corporations. Citizens, much like weary shoppers having targeted ads shoved their way with every click of the mouse, get government ads now too. In many respects, government procurement is a big part of the problem, where price is about the only consideration.

The inside skinny on this issue however, is that certain government departments are gravely concerned that democracy is under threat. Everyone understands the perils of fake news and the deployment of social media activities to disrupt the message of opponents. All of that occurs and is known as an undisputable fact, yet our own governments continue to advertise with them and help such multi-national corporations flourish without taxation of benefit to Canadian taxpayers. It truly is bizarre.

To further the argument about the fragile nature of democracy, consider this. At meetings held in Queen’s Park last fall, current occupants of government seats (previously outraged by the Liberals not advertising in community newspapers) had the gall to let it be known that if our reporters can’t stick to government talking points, they don’t need newspapers – they have their own news channel now.

That language spilled out in three separate meetings, including one with a minister of the crown, where we were present.

Is democracy under threat?

You bet.