Evidence of meeting #27 for Canadian Heritage in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was newspapers.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

John Honderich  Chair, Torstar Corporation
Martin Cauchon  Executive Chairman, Groupe Capitales Médias, La Coalition pour la pérennité de la presse d’information au Québec
Brian Myles  Editor, Director, Le Devoir, La Coalition pour la pérennité de la presse d’information au Québec
Pierre-Paul Noreau  President, Publisher, Le Droit, La Coalition pour la pérennité de la presse d’information au Québec
James Baxter  Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

12:15 p.m.

Editor, Director, Le Devoir, La Coalition pour la pérennité de la presse d’information au Québec

Brian Myles

The fact remains that five years of assistance would enable us to continue what we've already started. We have seen the results of ongoing assistance in France, and they have not been good. The government assistance in France is continuous. It's ongoing. It hasn't encouraged innovation. It has reinforced the media's position. We think a request for ongoing assistance would be detrimental and would be frowned upon by taxpayers.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Pierre Breton Liberal Shefford, QC

Thank you. I'll share my time with Mr. Fergus, who wanted to ask you a question.

12:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Larry Maguire

Mr. Fergus.

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Greg Fergus Liberal Hull—Aylmer, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair, and thank you to my colleague, Mr. Breton.

Thank you to all the witnesses for being here.

My question is along the same lines. I'm a proud subscriber of Le Droit and Le Devoir, which I receive six times a week. I love that, because we don't have television at home. We listen to the radio and read the newspapers or visit your websites. It's also a way for me to keep track of news developments during the day.

Imagine that the government accepts all your recommendations and provides assistance for five years. Can you tell us how that would affect the number of journalists working for you? Would it stabilize the number of journalists, or would there still be cuts?

12:15 p.m.

Editor, Director, Le Devoir, La Coalition pour la pérennité de la presse d’information au Québec

Brian Myles

I want to specify that no cuts have been made at Le Devoir. We are maintaining our employment plateau. We even hired someone. I will soon be announcing the hiring of a journalist to operate our mobile application. We're stabilizing the number of journalists. In addition, when Le Devoir manages to break even, it will be a happy newspaper. Our idea of profits is very modest. We also reinvest in our future development.

What would the assistance change? Instead of using our own funds at this time for development, for the user experience on the mobile version and its development, I could create some room to manoeuvre with the tax credits. I know it would compensate for development costs. It would also allow me to hire staff. We're talking about hiring resources for journalism, videos and data journalism. We could also hire developers. We always see the journalist side of things because it's the most visible, and we see the names and signatures. However, an invisible army supports the journalists and consists of researchers, system operators, and others.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Larry Maguire

Thank you very much. That's interesting.

I let this go quite a while because I think it's been a very interesting panel. I want to thank the witnesses today for providing such clear recommendations—the number of issues that you spoke on—and supplying the answers to all of these questioners who have done a great job here this morning.

We'll just take a short break while we move to the next witness. As we do that, I'd like to announce that both Google and Facebook have indicated that they won't be able to appear before our panel.

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Larry Maguire

Perhaps everyone could come back to their seats. I'd like to begin this next session.

I want to thank our witness, Mr. Baxter, for being here as the founding editor of iPolitics Inc. We look forward to your presentation. As I've said to other witnesses, there are about 10 minutes for your presentation and we'll do as many questions as we can. We may change the format of the timing to five minutes from seven, if my colleagues agree to that, and maybe then we can have a second round.

Mr. Baxter, I'd like to turn it over to you, please.

September 29th, 2016 / 12:20 p.m.

James Baxter Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for having me.

Before I jump in too far, I think it's probably worth my explaining how I moved from an ink-stained wretch to a digital publisher. I started my career in the late 1980s, following my father and grandfather into journalism, initially in radio but soon moving to newspapers and magazines. I was born in 1964, the very last year of the baby boom.

As much as publishers would like you to believe that they've been blindsided by the disruptive effects of the Internet, this downward spiral has been going on my entire career. As a journalist, my job security and that of my entire cohort have been governed by LIFO, last in first out. Journalism was never stable employment for anyone under the age of 50.

Over the decades we have moved from one advertising recession to another, never quite recovering from one before the next one hits. Publishers have known all that time that their model was fundamentally flawed. Very few publishers appear to have taken these warning signs seriously, and then came the digital revolution. For those of us in the news media, this is nothing short of an ice age, a catastrophic change in our ecosystem.

I had the privilege and luxury of spending a year at Harvard in 2007-2008 as a Nieman fellow. At that time, the economic situation was deteriorating in the media industry, particularly in the news media industry.

Of 30 fellows, 15 American and 15 from around the world, some of the very best journalists in the world, eight of us had been laid off in the previous year.

I use this imagery of an ice age. Why? Because I believe everything that is big and slow-moving will inevitably perish, and that only once the existing media civilization is allowed to perish can renewal truly begin.

I'm not here asking for a handout. I'm here with my hand up, asking you to stop. Fundamentally, I believe that preserving the old media is not an option. I want to suggest that you save your money by asking you not to bail out my competitors.

I also ask that the government stop funding the CBC's massive expansion into digital-only news in markets where there is already brisk competition or the potential for such. The CBC was created with two purposes: to provide a bulwark against American cultural imperialism, and to fill a void in rural areas where commercial news was not viable.

While the CBC has done many wonderful things, it is important to know that from my vantage point it is not some wonderful benevolent entity. It is an uber-predator. Because of the nature of its web content, the CBC is not out there competing with The Huffington Post and CNN. It is competing directly with The Globe and Mail, Postmedia, and yes, iPolitics.

Funding the CBC has a profoundly chilling effect on would-be entrepreneurs in this country, particularly when there are no undertakings on how and where that money is going to be spent. Investors are justifiably reticent to put their money into a market, even when there is a clear void in that market, because of the likelihood that once they prove the viability, the CBC will begin shifting funds there to compete against them. That is the biggest single obstacle to there being a vibrant and innovative marketplace of ideas in the media space.

I am eager to get to your questions, so I'll jump to a lightning round.

I don't believe the advertising market will revive in any meaningful way to be what it was before. Would tax incentives help? Perhaps, but it's a blunt hammer. Subscriptions are the only viable way forward, and that demands that publishers invest in quality. But it requires other things too.

Please, toughen copyright protections—I know you've heard that from the previous group—that come with severe penalties and potentially even community service for serial offenders.

Ban for-profit aggregators, which draw from a very limited advertising pool without generating any original content, and instead encourage competing media to work together.

Require CBC/Radio-Canada to refrain from posting digital-only content. Their content should first be created for TV or radio. This is done by other public broadcasters in the world, including the BBC, and would go a long way towards levelling the playing field.

I am on the record as suggesting as well that any CBC content, because it's publicly funded—video, audio, and digital—be available in real time in the public domain for any other approved new sites to use, as long as certain key branding requirements are met. ProPublica in the United States works this way and ensures their stories are extremely widely disseminated.

I would also suggest that the CBC do joint ventures with for-profit companies to ensure investigative journalism and other comprehensive coverage are sustained and that the CBC's wealth of experience is shared.

For the purposes of news, I would say to focus your attention on public interest journalism. I realize there's no real definition of “public interest”, but as Justice Potter Stewart is known for saying, “I know it when I see it.” It is the kind of journalism that is community building, that convenes and alerts the population, that is democracy preserving, and that holds those in power to account.

Create a way for charitable foundations to support the creation and dissemination of news and opinion in the public interest. This needs to be done at arm's length and should be limited to only broadly based news and opinion, not to supporting specific causes, as that runs the risk of lobbying.

If you really, really want to spend money, I will admit, as you heard earlier, that the most useful program we've ever encountered was the ill-fated Ontario digital media tax credit, although, as designed, it was far too slow to be useful for anyone who is really an entrepreneur. It was great for the Toronto Star and Postmedia, which could wait for the payout for 18 months or for two or three years later, but for an entrepreneur who was bootstrapping, it was not a useful tool. That said, we're not turning away the money. Also, it was very poorly designed, allowing anyone who had a website, whether it was a funeral home or Walmart, to claim against it, and that also made it unworkable.

I'm certain that other ideas will pop up over the course of our discussion. I look forward to exploring them with you.

I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Larry Maguire

Thank you very much, Mr. Baxter.

I will turn it over to Ms. Dabrusin—

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Julie Dabrusin Liberal Toronto—Danforth, ON

Thank you, Mr. Baxter. That was—

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Vice-Chair Conservative Larry Maguire

—for five minutes.

12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Julie Dabrusin Liberal Toronto—Danforth, ON

Then I'll just jump in, because I don't have much time for a prelude with five minutes.

We heard from The Tyee at one of our last meetings. They talked about how much money it had cost to start up. I think it was $190,000 to start up about 13 years ago. They were proposing we fund start-ups in the digital field.

Do you have any thoughts about what the best structure would be if we were to do something like that?

12:30 p.m.

Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

James Baxter

Since The Tyee is showing you theirs, I'll show mine.

We've been running iPolitics for almost six years now. We employ 23 people full time, and our entire operation has been funded with just over $3 million. We travel, at times, to the major conventions. We try to be as much of a presence as we can. We're nimble, and we employ a lot of young people.

My feeling is not that the digital tax credit did this. It rewarded those who invested. It wasn't just free money. It matched you. If you could convince someone to give you $1 million, and you spent x percentage of that on development and on journalism, they would refund you a portion of that. That was very helpful, and it allowed you to reach scale.

I think creating innovation funds that don't require the hard work of first coming up with an idea, and proving the viability of that idea, is mostly going to end in heartbreak.

That said, I think when David Beers started up The Tyee, he bootstrapped it amazingly well and found a lot of very interesting voices, and has developed some quite good journalism along the way.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Julie Dabrusin Liberal Toronto—Danforth, ON

All right. You talked about how over the course of your career as a journalist there was never any type of job security along the way, so that's not a new issue. But we did hear also, when we were speaking to the reporter from The Tyee—and I'm sorry, I just can't remember her name off the top of my head—that young journalists are struggling trying to find work in the current market.

I have two questions on that. One is on the composition. You said you hire young people. What's the age category? Are you hiring people straight out of journalism school? Are they staying with you for the six years?

12:35 p.m.

Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

James Baxter

No. Well, I am hiring out of journalism school and out of master's programs particularly, partly because they're the people who are most drawn to covering public affairs.

Hopefully no one else who's heard this before is listening. I've always used the analogy of Saturday Night Live in our operation. Saturday Night Live takes in young comedians, puts them in a writers' room—some of them are stand-ups; some of them are improv masters; some of them are sort of longer, dry-comedy writers—and they hope magic happens. But each of them is building a bridge to whatever is the next thing, whether that's a movie, a sitcom, or back on the Just for Laughs circuit.

My view of iPolitics was that if nobody jumped into the void that was being created in 2007-08, when Canadian media were really worried about what was happening and started cutting experienced journalists out of their newsrooms.... I went to family members who have supported the Michener prize in the past and said that if we don't create something that employs young journalists and gives them the skills, then when the last remaining journalists leave the Toronto Star.... I think when we started, iPolitics had a bureau of at least eight, and is now down to four here. As people leave the bureaus, they're not being replaced. There will be nobody to cover public affairs. There'll be no one who understands how to look at a budget, how to go through an AG's report.

12:35 p.m.

NDP

The Vice-Chair NDP Pierre Nantel

Thank you.

We'll move on to Mr. Waugh, who has five minutes.

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

You're a breath of fresh air here. Where have you been? Everybody wants to be on the government payroll receiving, and here you are saying, “Whoa, let's stop.”

We have talked about that, that industrial revolution here that these guys are.... The Toronto Star and all the newspapers want to go back to yesterday, and you've hit it right on.

Yes, yesterday was pigs in the trough.

12:35 p.m.

Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

James Baxter

It was pretty funny.

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

I enjoy your stuff. How are you doing? It says 18 bucks or $17.50 a month. I enjoy your stuff. I get up early, and you tell me what's going to happen in Parliament. I find you refreshing, to be honest with you.

12:35 p.m.

Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

James Baxter

Thank you.

Everyday's a slog, but I wouldn't still be doing it if I thought it was a bad idea, that it would never survive. I'm not a glutton for punishment. Our news side in and of itself is not yet profitable. We don't have enough subscribers. We have too much material being ripped and read, and given away. We have some serial email forwarders in the morning who send our morning brief out to 300 of their closest friends.

12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

The government does that. They just found black stock.

12:35 p.m.

Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

James Baxter

There's that too, but in our case the government buys a site licence and they've.... We have no complaints with the federal government sending it around, but there is a government, a provincial government out there, that has one subscription, and yet we get many emails back complaining about things that may or may not have been in the coverage. Clearly, more than one is seeing it.

I could pull my hair out worrying about that. I would like to see stronger copyright measures, or if you opt for the side of funding, then only fund original content creators, and anyone who ventures into the aggregating role would not be eligible. You could do different things like that.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

We often talk about the Internet. The quality of journalism is not as high as regular newspapers. What are your thoughts on that?

Maybe the public doesn't mind that. Let's start there. You have 23, you said. Many of them are young. Many of them are starting out. They're not as experienced as others across this country, but you know what? Maybe around here that's okay. Maybe in the country that's okay.

12:40 p.m.

Founding Editor, iPolitics Inc

James Baxter

I should be clear that I have 11 full-time reporters, and there are other editors and columnists. I don't have 23 reporters. I wish I did.

12:40 p.m.

Conservative

Kevin Waugh Conservative Saskatoon—Grasswood, SK

You'd have a lot of people, a crowd.