Some thoughts on the newspaper industry from our outgoing chair

The below piece was written by Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and, now, former chair of News Media Canada. It was published here

For seven years I have been the chair of a board of a national association in an industry that is supposed to be dying.

You might imagine that would be a gloomy task. But, quite the contrary, I’m happy to report that Canadian newspapers are still very much alive and very much involved in developing sustainable models to deliver news and information in the future.

News Media Canada represents and provides services to daily and community newspapers, and other news outlets, across the country. Its board represents the range of news organizations from big ones such as the Toronto Star to tiny ones like the Gabriola Sounder, a community paper published on Gabriola Island in British Columbia. I stepped down as chair of the board this week, after taking the post in 2014.

A few years earlier, some bright thinkers on the future of media had come up with something called the newspaper extinction timeline. According to it, the Winnipeg Free Press should not be here today.

The timeline predicted newspapers would be extinct in the United States by 2017 and non-existent in Canada by 2020.

Someone should tell that to the New York Times, which this week reported it has 7.8 million subscribers across its print and digital platforms. Or the Globe and Mail, which has more than 170,000 digital-only subscribers and is aiming for 350,000 by 2023.

Newspapers still struggle — 10 closed in Manitoba alone last year. More and more communities are without reliable news reporting. I recently helped judge applications for grants to hire journalists in undercovered areas and was shocked at the number of places where there is no one to report on city council, courts or schools.

However, demand for the news we produce is high. We remain a trusted source of fact-based reporting, a bulwark against the misinformation, disinformation and outright lies that flow freely around the digital world.

And there is recognition and support for the essential role newspapers play that inspire confidence when I look to the future.

John Hinds, News Media Canada’s former executive director, and I went to Ottawa shortly after the election of Justin Trudeau’s government in 2015 to talk to people in the Heritage Department. Our message was simple: newspapers are important, and they’re in trouble. We were met with blank stares.

There was little understanding of the precarious position newspapers were in, or the potential impact on communities if they disappeared. Such phrases as “news deserts” and “news poverty” weren’t yet in common use.

Contrast that to today: the Heritage Department is led by fiery former activist Steven Guilbeault, who once climbed Toronto’s CN Tower to protest climate policies. He is planning legislation to implement what news publishers have long sought — a requirement for Facebook and Google to compensate them when their content is used on digital platforms.

The change in attitude came slowly. Unsurprisingly, the first thing the government did was study the problem. This included funding the Public Policy Forum to produce The Shattered Mirror, a report that concluded real news is in crisis and without it democracy is at risk.

Eventually, the federal government put money into hiring reporters in areas of news poverty — places that don’t get news about themselves. Then came a large program to support journalism — refundable tax credits to help pay editorial salaries, tax credits for people who buy digital subscriptions and another a provision to allow non-profit news outlets to issue charitable receipts for donations.

It took time. The first cheques from the journalism support program arrived earlier in 2021, five years after John and I first made the case for help.

Now there is a clear understanding that a strong and independent news industry is crucial to Canada’s democracy — and that government has a role to play in supporting this.

But government help is only part of the puzzle as newspapers develop new business models. Newspapers are creatures of the communities they serve, and they exist only with the support of those communities.

At the Free Press, we benefit from strong support from our readers. I had misty eyes more than a few times over the past year when I opened the mail to discover unsolicited donations from readers.

Many more signed up for our news. In March we had 8.6 per cent more subscribers than a year earlier. This is driven largely by growth in digital subscriptions. We now have 17,500 paid digital subscribers. We’re aiming for 100,000.

In 2022, the Free Press will mark 150 years of operating in Winnipeg. We’re not thinking about a funeral; we’re thinking about a celebration.