Dispatch from the Front Line: Someone put a firecracker up the canary's ying-yang
On vaccines, Canada's rapidly collapsing media and the writing on the wall.
Welcome to the weekend, Line readers. Another week, another dollar, as it were. Big thanks and welcome to all our new subscribers. To those who haven’t opened your wallet yet, we suspect some of what’s below may change your mind.
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A brief note first on vaccines: we still don’t have many. And while this is mostly a problem for the people who will die for want of vaccination before supply becomes available, it’s a growing problem for the Liberal government. We might have detected the first whiffs of panic in the air this week, and this poll tells you why.
Your Line editors haven’t entirely given up hope yet. It remains possible that the Liberals are going to at last accomplish the feat that has generally eluded them during Justin Trudeau’s time in office — they might finally underpromise and overdeliver. If Canada has favourable contractual delivery terms for the three vaccine candidates Health Canada is currently reviewing — AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax — we could still be pleasantly surprised this spring to find ourselves back to worrying about how inept the provinces are at distributing the sudden bounty of miracle doses the federal Vaccine Fairy/Fée du Vaccin has blessed them with.
But again, this would require the Liberals to do better than they’re promising, instead of what they normally do: make a promise, fail to deliver and then blame Stephen Harper, or just refuse to answer questions about it. They’ll thank you for the question, but answers are for losers.
In the meantime, we’ve been treated to the sight of Mr. We’re Canadian And We’re Here To Help ripping vaccines out of the hands of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people so that we might be spared yet a third wave of carnage in our own country.
We support said ripping. The PM’s job is to save Canadian lives, not preen for the cameras at the UN … he may be late to realize this himself, but we at The Line have never had any doubts about this. (Others disagree. See below.) But let’s just all agree that this isn’t something that the PM would be doing if he thought things were going well.
They aren’t. Not at all. And we still have a long, cold winter ahead.
Earlier this week, we at The Line opened our Internet browsers to a truly shocking sight: pictures of blank front pages from newspapers across the country. Multiple newspaper chains, including Torstar (and its Metroland Media Group properties) and Postmedia, published ostensibly blank A1s to force Canadians to contemplate this horror: "Imagine if the news wasn't there?"
"Facebook and Google use their monopoly power to pocket 80 per cent of advertising revenues," explained News Media Canada, a kind of lobbying group for legacy media outlets. "Ottawa needs to act now to protect the future of your local news."
Admittedly, we expect that this advertising campaign would have had more of an impact on us if we hadn't spotted it solely on Twitter.
On behalf of every local journalist laid off as part of these chains' relentless grind of consolidation — a grind that has proven massively lucrative for the executive class at its helm, if not the plebes actually producing the #content these ads are now so desperate to save — there is some rage here that is going to need to be expressed.
Firstly, it's a little rich seeing newspapers whining about monopoly power. They, too, once had near-monopoly power over the advertising market, and they failed to maintain that power. They could have invested in competitors to Craigslist and Kijiji; they could have spearheaded innovative new news delivery methods back in the '90s; they could have found better ways to microtarget affordable advertising models. Instead, all of these companies maintained a state of delusion and denial about the movement of the world around them well, well into the 2000s.
Technology companies created in dorm rooms back when these mammoth newspaper chains roamed the earth with impunity came up with ideas while our over-compensated newspaper C-suite failed helplessly to even perceive what was happening, let alone react. When the papers came to terms with the mushroom cloud on the horizon, it was far too late, and the only play they had left was to strip local news to the masthead and oftentimes more cruelly than that. And now Big Tech is eating their lunch — not because it is "using its monopoly power" but simply because it is more popular and frankly better for advertisers trying to get their message out. (More on that in a minute.)
We’re also sorry to be the ones to break it this news: News from legacy media organizations actually comprises a relatively small fraction of the content shared on these sites. Local news could disappear tomorrow and it wouldn’t put a dent in Big Tech’s biz.
And so now we expect Ottawa to step in to save the legacy outlets from 20 years of short-term decision making by taxing some of our primary online distribution networks? Or risk losing local news?
Better question: What local news is left to save? And why is it the taxpayer's responsibility to save a product that they clearly no longer value enough to buy?
Let's also stop and reflect on terms like "protect the future of your local news." Because what those words really mean is "protect the future of our dead business model and legacy media brands." Nothing News Media Canada has ever proposed will ever help any startups in local markets because this lobbying firm exists only to protect legacy structures. Operations like The Line, and other similar local news outlets, don't even meet the eligibility requirements for a verified news source set out by Ottawa.
These campaigns aren't about protecting the news; they're about protecting the profits made off the news. And these existing legacy outlets are perfectly happy to use whatever power their fractured monopolies still have left to lobby on their own behalf, crushing whatever competitive opportunities might naturally arise for smaller outlets in the process of their own decline.
And here's the hypocrisy that takes the whole damn cake: Any newspaper man who looks at this government's record to date and thinks: "Gee, whatever cockamamie bailout the Liberals come up with this time will be great for journalism" either hasn't been paying attention, or doesn't deserve the title. You can buy another few years of operating costs, but you cannot buy back your credibility, dignity or self-respect. Journalism is not a business model. If legacy brands can't compete, they should at least aspire to die with some dignity.
Further to the above, it’s not just newspapers that are struggling. The axe fell heavily at Bell this week. Hundreds of jobs were eliminated. Two entire newsrooms, those for radio stations CJAD 800 in Montreal and NewsTalk 1010 in Toronto, have been eliminated. CTV's television news operations have been heavily hit, as has TSN's sports coverage.
Your Line editors feel these cuts. We know some of these people. We also understand, and share, the anger of many Canadians at Bell, a company with a healthy balance sheet that also took financial support from the taxpayer during the pandemic. (Credit to CTV reporter Rosa Hwang for reaching out to her own bosses to firm up the numbers — it was $123 million in support from the wage subsidy, to be precise.)
But we're probably more alarmed at the big picture. Bell still has money. It has access to taxpayer support. This isn't about Bell's bottom line, per se. This is about Bell showing its hand — it has read the trendlines for broadcast journalism's future revenue, and it's getting ahead of the coming reckoning. There is no future for TV or radio journalism under the current economic model, either.
Many of these trends have been clear for years. The problem isn't that journalists are partisan or that people are turning off or cancelling subscriptions out of disgust with the content. The problem is simply that new companies are more attractive options for advertisers looking to spend their money. As noted above, they have scale far beyond what any Canadian company can reach, but deadlier still, Google and Facebook can more precisely tailor an ad's demographic targeting while reaching those bigger audiences.
Traditional media outlets were once the best — in some cases, the only — place to advertise if you wanted to get your word out any way other than tacking flyers to telephone poles or putting up your message on a billboard or on the side of a bus. In the social media age, media outlets are in a fierce competition for ad dollars, and probably don't even make the top-20 most effective places to put an ad. The revenue migrated, and since producing journalism is expensive, the crisis began.
The crisis was felt first by the smallest outlets, in remote places. Local news vanished all across North America. It crept up to the mid-markets next, and then even the big cities. Remember — the two newsrooms that Bell nuked this week were in Toronto and Montreal. Further, they were radio newsrooms, and radio has been the most resilient medium in terms of the revenue armageddon, with advertising revenues at Canadian radio stations holding mostly steady between 2009 and 2018. (Daily Canadian newspapers, on the other hand, went from selling $2.2 billion in ads in 2009 to $946 million in 2018 — a 57-per-cent decline.)
It's easy to dismiss Bell's moves as driven by the pandemic. There's no doubt it contributed. But COVID-19 is an accelerator of existing trends more than it is a creator. Companies as rich as Bell deciding there is no future in journalism outlets as efficient as radio rooms in cities as big as Toronto is a signal. The canary in the coal mine isn't just dead, it's obliterated — blown to bits by a firecracker up the ying-yang.
We need a new model, as fast as possible. Most of the legacy companies are too big and shellshocked to transform themselves in time. It will be up to smaller, newer outlets to find a way to sustain themselves through other means, including direct support from readers. Meanwhile, the big legacy players, broadcast and print alike, will continue to die slow, ugly and undignified deaths.
But you knew that already. That's why you're here. And if you haven't become a paid subscriber yet, well, look up, read that again, and tell us you don't feel a trickle of fear at what a future without journalism looks like. Commissioning more reported pieces is absolutely part of The Line's long-term strategy, but we need to grow to get there. Help us grow. Subscribe today.
You may have noticed Jonathan Kay, an occasional contributor to The Line, in heated battle with Canadian comedian Seth Rogen. (Yes, we’re weirded out at having just written that sentence.) If you have no idea what this is about, The Line has got you covered with this handy Q&A with Kay, in which he offers his thoughts on Rogen, mobbing and … hair care.
Max Fawcett, apparently a sucker for punishment, stepped up to rebut Conservative MP Michelle Rempel-Garner’s recent article here at The Line, and offer a defence of Twitter. That’s right. It’s madness. Kind of leaves us wondering what kind of shampoo he’s been using, if you know what we mean. But here he is in his own words: “Twitter may be where the idea of ‘fake news’ first took root, but Facebook and YouTube are major contributors to its continued spread. These latter social media platforms are clearly major drivers of the production and distribution of deceitful, deceptive, and dangerous information. And unlike Twitter, where everything generally happens out in the open, the worlds that people can create on Facebook are far more opaque.”
Read the rest here. And stay off Twitter. Unless it’s to promote The Line. In that case, tweet early and tweet often.
Rob Csernyik wrote a very interesting piece for us on something we admit we don’t know much about: the management of Canadian casinos, and why they should be brought back under public ownership. “Though governments often get a bad rap for running commercial enterprises,” he argued, “there’s no need for a Canadian casino to aspire to being the Bellagio, Encore or MGM Grand. Instead it needs to focus on striking a fine balance between generating revenues and mitigating social impacts like gambling addiction.”
Also, as he notes, if the guys running the places currently would stop being such gigantic dinks, that would also be good.
Speaking of dink moves, our buddy Kareem Shaheen was back in action here, decrying what he sees as a pretty dinkish decision on Canada’s part: we’re tapping a supply of vaccines intended for the poor to compensate for our own lousy vaccine procurement efforts. “Lebanon, where 300,000 people were rendered homeless by an enormous explosion in Beirut last August, and where the economy has collapsed and is undergoing hyperinflation, has 300,000 cases to a population of five million — a million of whom are refugees,” he wrote. “…None of these countries has had a single vaccine dose. None of these embattled countries can afford Canada’s restrictions for any length of time, or afford to order the vaccines. Many of them don’t even have the uninterrupted electricity supply needed to keep the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines cold enough to be usable. And now, because Canada is panicking about EU export controls, its own botched rollout, and delays to its vaccine deliveries from Pfizer and Moderna, there’s going to be an even smaller piece of the vaccine pie for these countries that cannot afford to wait.”
That’s it for us this week, dear readers. We’ve already got a ton of content lined up for next week, and we think you’re going to like it. But in the meantime, rest up, enjoy the weekend, and if you’re still dallying, subscribe today.
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