Good morning. Thanks for inviting us to speak today.
I'm here with Michelle Hoar, who helped found The Tyee and led its business operations for 13 years. She can help answer questions following my statement.
You are studying the state of Canada's media industry today, the impacts of new media, and what the future might be. I hope that telling you about my experience at The Tyee sheds some light on that.
I feel fortunate to work in journalism. I graduated from school in 2011, when legacy media outlets in this country were already reckoning with the impacts of the digital revolution. My peers were wary, but since many of our journalism heroes still worked at the big papers, we were hopeful a plan B would emerge.
But it just got worse. Advertising revenues kept dwindling, setting off waves of layoffs at the big chains. Traditional beats, the expertise at the heart of journalism, dried up as thinned newsrooms tried to keep up with the 24-hour digital news cycle with fewer people. Facebook and Google relentlessly decimated ad revenue as a support for news production. Corporate newsrooms responded by blurring the line between real reporting and advertorial.
Meanwhile, the CBC was cutting back drastically. We watched as the reporters we admired took early buyouts or fled the industry.
A few of my friends did find good jobs, but many gave up. They couldn't make a living from the scant available work, or they couldn't stomach industry trends towards chasing clicks or writing bland sponsored content to serve advertisers. Twenty years ago, I am told, a freelancer was paid three to five times more a word than today. What other industry's pay scale is going so dramatically in reverse?
I say this because I want to be clear that it isn't just critical public interest journalism that has been lost as our legacy media outlets have struggled. Canada is producing a lot of smart people who want to do this work, to throw all their brain power and passion into informing our vital democratic conversation, but there are fewer places for them to hone their craft and fewer mentors with the time to teach them.
The result is that we are failing to nurture the next generation of journalists, the kinds of reporters who help manifest real and necessary change in the world, and that is a huge loss.
I was lucky to land at The Tyee, which, over 13 years, has built a healthy regional and increasingly national following based on readers' appetite for what concentrated corporate media were missing, but despite pride in all we've done, we worry about our industry. We don't want public interest journalists, regardless of who their employer is, to be out of work.
No one in Canada has yet figured out a digital-only online business model that easily supports a large number of full-time, paid professional journalists. None of the local digital outlets have the size and scale that legacy media outlets once had. We worry that there's a dangerous chasm that's opened up as legacy media fails, and digital media isn't catching up fast enough to bridge the gap and cover what's lost.
I personally don't think that bailing out big media is the answer. I prefer a future where Canada's monolithic media companies are broken up and the news and information outlets are bought by smaller regional entities that care about their communities and have strong relationships with local institutions that support them.
Barring that, I do think there's a lot that a government with some imagination and appetite for change can do to revive our industry.
Imagine that in Canada there was a recognized, valued, and well-supported sector for digital media outlets like ours. Imagine a flourishing of Tyees, of all different stripes and missions, with different business models behind them, a mix of charity, for-profit, co-op, and hybrid structures. It starts with some investments and it needn't cost a lot. It doesn't even need to come directly from government, but government can help make it happen.
I recently asked our founding editor, David Beers, how much it cost to launch The Tyee in 2003. It was $190,000. At that time, there weren't many models like ours, so he and our founding investors thought like this: “All Canada needs is a template, and all we need is $190,000. If it bears fruit in the first year, we'll put in some more. If not, we'll pull out.” That's how The Tyee was off and running.
Today, $190,000 is less than one-fifth the cost of a tear-down house in my city of Vancouver. It's also, from what I've read, a little less than what it cost to move two of our Prime Minister's aides from Toronto to Ottawa.
That $190,000 helped get things going. It turned into repeated investments of similar amounts as The Tyee broke stories, drew an ever-larger audience, and obviously mattered. That $190,000 kick-started the development of several other pillars of earned revenue that now support our operations, including advertising, event sponsorships, income from our Tyee master classes, and, increasingly, voluntary support directly from our readers.
Patient investor commitments and diversified revenue streams are what has sustained The Tyee and built it into a respected, award-winning platform for public interest journalism. True, that $190,000 that launched The Tyee in 2003 may be a little more today. Let' s say it's $350,000. Supporting the launch of 20 Tyee-like outlets across Canada would cost $7 million. In my town, that's seven houses.
This is the vision I am holding out here today. Canada needs some combination of policy innovation and wilful prioritization to make the $190,000 that launched The Tyee gravitate, over and over again, towards independent journalism experiments across Canada.
We need incentives such as tax breaks, matching grants, and lifted philanthropic restrictions to encourage stakeholders in our communities to seed-fund independent media. We need infrastructure to help single independent media efforts like The Tyee more easily mesh into a network of other such experiments, perhaps a recognized sector of independent media sharing core costs, revenue streams, reporting projects, technological advances, and audiences.
There is a role for government in this, not in directly funding content. With respect, The Tyee would not seek such funding from the government because we are in the business of reporting on your activities. However, there is much to be done in building out the now proven but still needlessly starved potential of the independent media sector as a complement to corporate media and the CBC.
Let me quickly return to the mention I made of changing philanthropic laws. The Tyee has benefited over the years from contributions from forward-thinking philanthropic institutions through a relationship with our sister non-profit, the Tyee Solutions Society. That demonstrates that great things are possible, but we've also learned how federal policy makes the collaboration of philanthropies and public interest journalists needlessly difficult.
When the Tyee Solutions Society accesses philanthropic investment, we do solutions-oriented journalism. Solutions journalism uses investigative reporting techniques as its bedrock, but it is not about dinging politicians. It's focused on how to fix seemingly intractable problems. It's worked out well. We've so far done nearly one million dollars' worth of solutions journalism over the last seven years, on critical topics like food security, indigenous education, affordable housing, and Canada's energy future, and we've done it despite Canada's incredibly restrictive philanthropic rules. It's the kind of journalism my generation is interested in.
In sum, again, we're not asking you to fund our content. We're asking you to find ways to loosen up the money. We're asking you to consider a start-up fund for new media outlets like ours. We're asking you to help us attract more core investment funding and encourage a better investment climate for media in Canada overall, whether it's supporting community trusts or perhaps offering tax breaks. Finally, we're asking you to make it easier for philanthropies, individual and institutional, to support our solutions journalism.
I'm so glad there was a place like The Tyee when I started my career, and I'm asking you to wrap your heads around helping to create and support other homes for people like me. Thank you.