Keep print alive

In Canada, written media struggles without much help, while other countries find creative ways to boost industry

To say it has been a difficult year for written media is an understatement. For publications already teetering perilously close to the edge, the global economic recession was the nudge that sent them tumbling off the cliff. In the U.S., as newspapers and magazines from Seattle to Philadelphia cut corners and closed up shop, some 90,000 print jobs were lost. Meanwhile, in Canada, the future is not looking much brighter. According to a new report released by the Cultural Human Resources Council, the recession has not been kind to creative industries, but print media, it seems, has been hit the hardest. Thanks to a sharp decline in business advertising, written media is expected to see a 6.1 per cent drop in real revenues by the end of 2009. At the same time, it is the creative sector that benefits from the least amount of public funding—which raises the question: should government be doing more to save print?

Currently, Ottawa’s investment in written media is minimal. According to the Conference Board of Canada, which put together the report, “The Effect of the Global Economic Recession on Canada’s Creative Economy in 2009,” in 2006-07 the “literary arts” received a mere 3.6 per cent of the total $3.71 billion the federal government contributed to culture. While the broadness of the category—literary arts includes everything from books to newspapers—makes it difficult to determine precisely what each sub-category receives, according to Magazines Canada CEO Mark Jamison, government is responsible for a fraction of industry revenues. Of the more than $2.2 billion in total operating revenues Canadian periodicals earned in 2007, Jamison says only $80 million came from government in the form of postal subsidies and grants. Aside from small community papers, which also get a postal subsidy, newspapers are entirely free of government intervention.

Historically, the impetus for any government money that written media receives has had more to do with the promotion of Canadian content than propping up industry. Says Jamison, “A lot of our support for content creation in Canada is a way to try and balance the overwhelming impact of American culture in Canada.” (The same is true for broadcast media: while independent producers of Canadian TV shows and films receives hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and tax credits annually, aside from the CBC, which gets $1.1 billion in taxpayer funds per year, according to Tara Rajan, vice-president of research and policy at the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, broadcasters don’t get any direct government support.)

Despite the challenges facing print, Jamison says more government funding is not the desired path to financial security. Since pre-confederation, periodicals have operated “quite independently,” he says. “We’re not as quick to pick up the phone and find out where the government money is.” John Hinds, executive director of the Canadian Newspaper Association, echoes the desire to retain a sense of autonomy. “We pride ourselves on being a free press,” he says. ‘If you start to go too much to government, that does come with strings.”

But as the recession continues to hammer print media outlets the world over, other countries are finding creative ways to negotiate this very quandary. In India, for instance, government introduced a short-term stimulus package in February involving, among other things, a rate hike for government advertisements. (The package was extended another six months in July.) In France, meanwhile, the government is spending some US$22.5 million over three years to offer 18-to 24-year-olds a free newspaper subscription of their choice in a bid to increase abysmal youth readership levels. And in Germany, the new governing coalition is promising to shore up online journalism with more stringent copyright legislation.

It’s still too early to tell the extent to which any of these tactics can help to keep print media afloat. But in Hinds’s view, the most important contribution government can make is to keep from making policy decisions that contribute to the sinking of the industry. “We want to make sure that government isn’t doing things that will make life difficult for newspapers,” he says, applauding the Ontario government’s recent decision not to impose an additional tax hike on newspaper subscriptions with the introduction of the HST. As Jamison sees it, the government’s role “is about ensuring that Canadian voices can be heard and acquired through a variety of means,” he says. “It isn’t just about saving print.”