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Should Your Taxes Subsidize Big Media?

As pressure mounts for bailouts, time to look at how bad traditional outlets have become.

Shannon Rupp 15 Aug

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

She had no intention of being “steal-y.”

That childish apology-of-sorts came from a food critic caught plagiarizing another reviewer in what may go down in history as one of the funniest incidents ever of professional prose pilfering. What was critic Elliott Shaffner’s problem: did she run out of opinions?

When the tale of the reviewer who sampled more than food came from the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia a few weeks ago, it was too funny not to go viral.

“It was not intentionally deceitful or steal-y,” Shaffner assures us in her apology, adding that she is just an admirer of the Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning food critic, Jonathan Gold, whose work she pinched most often. She keeps a “fan-girl” notebook of good lines, she wrote, and somehow they migrated into a number of her articles in several outlets. “But to see now, that I have taken words from one of the people I most respect hurts my soul.”

The newspaper fired her, which seems unduly harsh, and I suspect she may have grounds for a wrongful dismissal suit. She’s a career food blogger; why would they expect her to adhere to the ethical and professional standards of a journalist? In an era when the wife of a U.S. presidential candidate thinks it’s okay to steal her speech from the current first lady, I suspect no one but a journalist views plagiarism as anything but slightly bad manners.

But I digress. My point is that it’s stories like this one that have led me to be one of the few dissenting voices in the growing campaign for government to “save” for-profit newspapers with public subsidies.

I don’t believe there’s anything worth “saving” in for-profit publications that run bloggers-cum-floggers, plagiarists or shills for advertisers. Or the ones that do things like unpublishing journalism that offends advertisers. Or who run free articles by self-promoters. Or that promote health-threatening products — homeopathy, for example — because an advertiser buys editorial.

If the public wants to read this sort of thing, let them buy a subscription.

But I fear our government may be planning to force us all to buy a subscription to newspapers most of us don’t want.

In the spring, Blacklock’s Reporter reported that the Department of Canadian Heritage paid an Ottawa think-tank, Public Policy Forum, $130,000 to consult with media owners across the country to find out how government can help these poor, beleaguered millionaires.

Those meetings have begun. In an interview with Canadaland, Edward Greenspon, CEO of Public Policy Forum, says the meetings aren’t secret, exactly, since his group will eventually provide a public report.

But they are invitation-only and conducted under the Chatham House Rule — which is just as British public schoolboy as it sounds. Chatham House — or the Royal Institute of International Affairs — was founded in 1920 as a place where the elite could meet and talk about the world’s big, important issues without hoi polloi overhearing. All the attendees agree not to discuss who-said-what publicly.

Edward Greenspon’s name may sound familiar, as he is a former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail. His career includes time at the Toronto Star, where he launched the Star Content Studios department that does “custom content,” one of the many euphemisms for advertiser-funded projects designed to look like journalism.

It’s not clear who will get to be heard in this public policy exercise, which has upcoming roundtables and symposia, but call me skeptical. Will executives from for-profit media mention things like the recent report from the European Broadcasting Union, which finds a correlation between strong public media, greater press freedom in general and less right-wing extremism?

That would suggest the public good is best served by pumping more money into the CBC.

Thinkers outside of Canada have been grappling with ideas on how to support public interest journalism: will government hear from them? Julia Cagé, an economics professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, has just written a book on the subject, Saving the Media: Capitalism, Crowdfunding, and Democracy, which looks at how universities might be a business model for newspapers, since they combine public service and commercial interests.

“To put it bluntly, shares of news media companies should not be publicly traded,” writes Cagé. “This is particularly true in the United States, where publicly held companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders to maximize profits.”

Press barons leading publicly traded news chains certainly wouldn’t want government hearing that.

I hope the heritage minister, or her minions, will have a look at John Oliver’s overview of the nature of for-profit newspapering — the segment might be called Stupid Newspaper Tricks — which had Last Week Tonight audiences in tears of laughter. Except for news reporters of course: those were tears of despair.

There’s video of Sam Zell, who owned the Chicago Tribune (and related assets) from 2007 until its bankruptcy, telling one of his protesting reporters that he can’t afford to do news about Iraq until they make some money with clickbait like cute puppy videos.

“You’re giving me the classic journalistic arrogance of deciding puppies don’t count,” he tells her, and sets off on a rant punctuated with “fuck you!”

Tribune Media’s successor, the much-mocked “tronc,” comes in for a special skewering, featuring Oliver’s review of a corporate promotional video so bad that everyone thought it was satire when it premiered on YouTube.

Oliver’s whole hilarious spiel is capped off with a delightful three-minute spoof of the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight, with the ode to investigative reporting re-imagined as if it were set in any mid-sized city daily today. A frustrated Bobby Cannavale is cast as a political reporter trying to expose corruption while his ditzy colleague Rose Byrne gets the editor’s ear with her clickworthy cat video.

The Newspaper Association of America (which includes Canadian members) didn’t find Oliver quite so amusing; although it turns out they have a flair for comedy themselves. They released a statement putting Oliver in his place, and revealing why newspapers are in such trouble.

“Other than encouraging people to ‘pay for’ more news, he doesn’t offer any answers,” writes CEO David Chavern. “More particularly, he spends most of the piece making fun of publishers who are just trying to figure it out.”

I’m with all the Twitterati who pointed out that if the Newspaper Association of America is waiting for a comedian to solve newspaper business problems, these highly paid executives might just be in the wrong line of work.

As it happens, I’m pretty sure they are in the wrong business, since they seem to devalue their own product at every turn with churnalism and shilling. Then they wonder why their circulation falls like a hockey stick and few advertisers are willing to pay to promote their wares to an ever-shrinking pool of readers.

Still, since the Liberal government seems inclined to discuss the sorry state of media, Canadians may have a brief opportunity to get a better kind of newspaper. For example, this may be our chance to launch something like the American non-profit ProPublica, which is supported by a handful of foundations to do investigative journalism — they’re young, but they won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.

Or it could be an opportunity to find funding for what I call gruntwork reporting. That’s the dull-but-important doings in government committee meetings, or the courts, or public consultation hearings. You could call it click-death.

582px version of DavidSimonSpeaks.jpg
'The Wire' creator David Simon says media failings open door to corruption. Photo by David Kindler, Creative Commons licensed.

David Simon, creator of The Wire, used to be a Baltimore Sun reporter before taking up TV writing, and he hit on this problem in his testimony at a U.S. senate committee hearing on media last spring (a clip of which is in Oliver’s show).

“The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing is the day I’ll be confident we’ve reached some sort of equilibrium,” Simon says. “There’s no glory in that kind of journalism. But that is the bedrock. The next 10 or 15 years in this country will be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption.”

So there’s another question to consider. Do Canadians want public money directed to infotainment outlets that are “trying to figure it out” by running writers widely seen as plagiarists? Or running reviewers with fake bylines? Or running the misinformation known as native advertising or custom content?

Should the public be funding news outlets where the management seems to have gone right off the rails?

The story of the Toronto Star’s failed tablet app, which was created despite all the reports of tablets declining in popularly, takes a turn for the astonishing in light of the personal life of the editor who led the project. Jon Filson was having affairs with two of his colleagues — including the newspaper’s former managing editor. He was fired after the whole sordid business came to light in the spring when the other woman committed suicide.

You can read all about it, but I advise you not to. It’s depressing. And as the story unfolded, it was hard not to wonder how much of the tablet project’s failure was connected to a manager too distracted by his soap opera of a personal life to keep an eye on work. The Star just announced 52 jobs are being cut, about half of which are associated with the tablet app.

Still, there’s an argument to be made that these legacy news outlets are all we have, and they still employ some superb journalists who do toil in the public good. Perhaps it does make sense to work with the existing institutions?

But whatever you think about the current state of our media, don’t forget to tell the powers that be.

Greenspon invites people to comment and offers his email — [email protected] — should you want to contribute your two cents.

You can also write Liberal MP Hedy Fry, who is heading up the Commons heritage committee looking into the state of Canadian media: [email protected].

And don’t forget Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly is looking for your comments on media too: [email protected]

The public will never have better opportunity to tell the Liberal government what it thinks about providing more public subsidies for corporate press barons.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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