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As Feds' Media Study Begins, Critics Question Timing, Direction

Panel head Hedy Fry remains optimistic, but journalism advocate says action comes too late.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 2 Mar 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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A national study determining whether Canadians are being well served by local news media began collecting testimony last week, but critics say the panel led by Vancouver Centre MP Hedy Fry may be too little, too late.

Fry says she is optimistic that Canadian news and media can be saved, but could not say how Monday.

The panel, established last month to examine print, broadcast and digital media, includes former Canadian broadcasters-turned-MPs Seamus O'Regan and Kevin Waugh. Journalism professor and J-Source publisher Chris Waddell said Ottawa is late to the issue and will have a hard time catching up.

So far the standing committee on Canadian heritage has heard from Carleton and Laval academics, representatives from the Competition Bureau, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Canadian heritage and industry ministries. No news professionals have yet presented to the panel.

Media concentration a priority: Fry

As Canadian media outlets shutter and the ownership of larger ones becomes more concentrated, there is fear less populated regions may be losing coverage of their communities because larger outlets don't fill the void, Fry said.

That could lead to ignorance of local issues and culture, she added.

Fry said the panel is also hoping to discover whether Canadian newspapers are really losing money, and probe a perceived lack of Canadian content available online.

Due to its size and sparse population, it is important for Canada to find a way to fix these media woes, she said.

But Fry said thus far she hasn't made any decisions or formed firm opinions on what is ailing Canada's media.

"I don't know what the answer is. We want to know what the impact is and what the answer could be," she said. "The government is looking at what it could do legislatively, policy-wise and program-wise to deal with these things."

Fry's accuracy charge

Last week Fry took some flak for asking the CRTC if the agency would explore how to ensure accuracy of online journalism, similar to the way it regulates broadcasters.

"Who is going to regulate, in terms of accuracy, the digital platforms?" Fry asked the CRTC during the panel. "Anyone can put anything out there and nobody knows if it's accurate."

Some expressed concern the government may go too far in its attempt to regulate accuracy, with ardent Conservatives insisting Fry is plotting an attack on free speech.

But she defended her comments and said she was referring to the number of blogs or less-reputable websites marketing themselves as news sites, but without the same established ethics as traditional press.

"All of the other existing media have ways of ensuring quality," she said. "Is this something that (the CRTC) is going to be looking at. That's all I'm asking."

Music industry as case study

Fry suggested borrowing best practices from a variety of countries to craft a made-in-Canada solution.

She pointed to the music industry as an example of a technology shift that makes her optimistic Canadian media can be helped.

Music has made progress dealing with the demise of its traditional model of buying an album from a retailer, she said.

Now, Fry said, bands grow their fan base and make money from people attending their shows, even those on the fringe of what's popular.

"They're still getting listeners and they're still getting people buying into what they do while they put samples out there for free online," she said "That is forming its own solution."

Look to start-ups: Waddell

Though Fry is confident solutions will be found and acted upon, not everyone is sure the panel has a chance at solving Canada's media issues.

Waddell said the feds should have been making efforts to protect journalism years ago.

Despite warnings and previous commissions into the state of media, Ottawa chose to do nothing and let large media organizations merge and dilute the diversity of ownership, Waddell said.

"They allowed all this concentration and consolidation to take place," he said. "No one seemed to think that maybe the guys who were doing the consolidating and concentrating, maybe their business model wasn't that smart."

He added: "When you've only got one or two [companies] left and they've both guessed wrong at the way the world is going, you're in big trouble."

To address media concentration, Waddell suggested the panel should look to encouraging startups rather than support established media.

For example, he said, offer tax incentives to media outlets that are growing or looking at how financial foundations can be encouraged to help journalism projects.

"Maybe if we thought a little bit about how we can make that easier it would be helpful," he said.

The panel continues March 8.  [Tyee]

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