The iconic line from scripture should come to everyone’s mind this week. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and feed him for a life.”
The Capitales Medias Group (CMG), which publishes six daily newspapers including Le Soleil in Quebec City and Le Droit in Ottawa announced it was entering bankruptcy protection under the Creditors Arrangement Act. The Quebec government, through Minister of Economy and Innovation Pierre Fitzgibbon, quickly announced it would inject $5 million in investment aid from Investment Quebec. “Six newspapers cannot be closed,” said Fitzgibbon.
The minister also announced that Martin Cauchon had resigned as Chairman and CEO of Capitales Medias Group.
We all recognize the urgency of maintaining a healthy hard copy press. Digital alone doesn’t cut it, just yet. People will seek out sports and entertainment results much more than news. We need a front page that pushes in front of our eyes the news we need to know. We need to explore topics we didn’t even know existed. Thats how we grow.
But we must ask the question whether subventions are really the right way to maintain a healthy press which since the time of Napoleon has been called the “fourth estate of government.”
We have written many times in this space on this problem. Media cannot be in bed with the state. There cannot even be the perception of conflict of interest. And just giving money does not work. Look at the subventions to Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney as just two examples. Almost every time they are given millions to save jobs, within days thousands of jobs are cut.
But we have also written often on three issues that can permanently help hard copy media. Money may keep companies fed for a day. But if these issues are resolved, the government will truly have helped newspapers for life.
The first of these are the cuts to provincial government advertising. It was a matter of course that state agencies and departments advertised in newspapers In many cases it was a legal requirement. The reason was obvious. For citizens to know what their government was doing with their tax dollars — from programs to contract tenders — they had to have a regular place to find those announcements. For generations they had that. But in the past five years the state has allowed departments simply to put notices up on their own websites. Yes this cost newspapers an important source of ad revenues. But worse, it shut the public out of information. Can anyone truly expect citizens to go to every government website to check what latest yoke the state is imposing? Of course not. Newspaper advertising by Quebec Ministries and agencies must be brought back. Not only will it permanently help the industry much more than a bailout, it will strengthen our democracy by giving us a more informed citizenry.
On the same note, the decision by Quebec to allow municipalities to publish public notices only on their municipal websites instead of newspapers — as had been a legal requirement for over a century — caused the same harm. Perhaps worse in terms of democratic governance because it concerned local issues. People needed to know. They knew they could always find bylaws in the backs of their local papers. Now they don’t know when, or if, to go to a city website. This only helps buttress government secrecy.
The worst tort of all committed by Quebec was the recycling tax. This crippling tax instituted in the name of the environment — erroneously so since paper is a natural and renewable resource — imposed outrageous levies on newspapers. Bad from inception, it got worse and over the past six years this tax has increased almost 500 per cent. You read that right. From $20.96 /ton in 2010 to $107.40/ton in 2018. To make it even worse, when La Presse stopped publishing hard copy, Quebec simply allocated what that paper was paying to all others! It created a fiction. The tax itself was a back door tax grab cloaked in politically correct language. It should be eliminated.
If Quebec really wants to implement permanent solutions to keep the industry healthy for life — not just for a day — these three reforms will do much more than bailouts.