MPs will study local news media crisis


OTTAWA – Davey, Kent, Lincoln, Bacon.

Now Liberal MP and heritage committee chair Hedy Fry is about to add her name to the list of Canadians who have led federal studies into the state of the country’s news media.

The dismal record of action on those previous reviews notwithstanding, Fry said she’s convinced that this time around, any recommendations will lead to concrete changes.

“I know that our government has a strong will to deal with this now,” Fry said in an interview Tuesday.

“The thing about politics is that the time comes one day when stuff is facing you so hard that you have to do something about it. That time has come.”

The Commons committee will embark on an expansive study of “how Canadians, and especially local communities, are informed about local and regional experiences through news, broadcasting, digital and print media,” according to a motion passed Tuesday.

It will also delve into media concentration, and its impact on local news reporting, and how digital media fits into the whole picture. The MPs have committed to no less than 10 meetings for the study.

The latest raft of local newsroom closures and the financial struggles of large national media outlets have again raised interest in how lawmakers can help Canadian journalism survive — especially local news.

Here’s some of the recent grim headlines: the 149-year-old Guelph Mercury shuttered its print edition last month, the Postmedia chain has laid off dozens of reporters across the country, and the broadcast regulator has warned that half of local TV newsrooms are in peril.

The fear is that with the decline of a strongly Canadian news industry, any shared sense of national identity is also in peril.

Fry says the study will take a close look at the shifting information consumption habits of Canadians, and whether they are getting enough Canadian content online.

The role of the public broadcasters will be examined — already the CBC has prioritized its digital offerings over its radio and television platforms. The government had said it will increase the CBC’s budget, but has not specified when or by how much.

“With Shomi and Crave and things like Netflix, what we’re having is a whole lot of non-Canadian content coming into our homes, and we have a whole generation that’s not really able to see Canadian content,” said Fry.

“When newspapers and magazines are closing down, that adds to that.”

The Royal Commission on Newspapers, led by Tom Kent, was also “born out of shock and trauma,” with venerable old newspapers the Winnipeg Tribune and Ottawa Journal suddenly closing.

A decade earlier, Keith Davey’s Special Committee on Mass Media declared that “this country should no longer tolerate a situation where the public interest in so vital a field as information (is) dependent on the greed or goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen.”

Media concentration has only intensified since then — the idea of limiting a company to owning only five newspapers seems almost quaint.

MPs over the years have been reluctant to try to regulate the print media sphere.

NDP heritage critic Pierre Nantel sais he welcomes the study, and would especially like to see a recognition of the information needs of Canada’s linguistic minority communities.

But he said Commons committees have to become more nimble, and in this case report quickly on an industry that changes by the second.

“We have to go more quickly — not to rush headlong into it and make bad decisions, but have a process that is more expeditious,” said Nantel.

“We’re there because we’ve been given the responsibility to make sure the system is viable. We should do it quickly and well.”


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