Honderich’s hypocrisy

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Honderich and GodfreyIn late January, the Toronto Star published a lengthy opinion piece by board chair John Honderich, titled, “We should all be very concerned by the crisis facing quality journalism.” But just in case you thought this was really just about journalism and not a political screed, there’s the telling subhead: “The Trudeau government has either ignored or rejected virtually all the recommendations proposed to help support newspapers. What particularly stings is that the vast majority would not cost taxpayers anything.”*

Honderich is the chair of the board of the TorStar corporation. His Wikipedia page says he worked at the Ottawa Citizen a year or two after I left. He was a reporter at the Star – the publisher then was his father, Beland Honderich, so no stench of nepotism there, eh? – around the same time I worked for the corporation. He rose in the ranks to become publisher, and, despite being the “author of the largest layoff, at the time in print media history,” he was awarded the Order of Canada in 2004 and the Order of Ontario in 2006. Savvy Canadian readers will recognize those years for the Conservative governments in both Ottawa (Harper) and Ontario (Eves). Conservatives recognizing a plutocrat for laying off a record number of workers was not out of step with the party line.

And, of course, the piece re-appeared in dozens of TorStar-controlled publications, like our own Collingwood Connection. Whether this was rammed down the editorial throats of local papers – a dictate to publish or else – I can only suspect. But replacing local content with this screed is very hypocritical and self-serving (especially when it appeared as it did here on the front page: opinion is not news).

Community papers have limited space that should be dedicated to local news, opinions and events, not to the bloviation of the big cheese. (Even more ironically, in late 2015, Honderich himself penned a criticism of Postmedia for dictating what political endorsements its chain would carry)

I remember the umbrage in the media community in the mid-1990s when Conrad Black demanded a letter of his – a much shorter letter than Honderich’s piece, but no less a personal political opinion – on the editorial or op-ed pages of papers he controlled under Hollinger. The outcry over corporate control, over media independence, over freedom of the press and editorial rights. Anyone see a difference here? Neither do I.

Honderich’s piece isn’t entirely self-serving claptrap. I agree with some of it and want to address his points. It opens,

Canada is facing a crisis of quality journalism.
Reporters are being laid off in droves, many smaller communities are now “news deserts” with no local newspaper, and the amount of serious investigative journalism is declining sharply.
And if you believe, as I do, that a vigorous, investigative press is essential for a strong democracy, we should all be very concerned.

Which is true. I’ve been lamenting the devolution of journalism here – especially locally – for years. But Honderich doesn’t take any credit for that wasteland. Instead, he blames it on the Trudeau government. A convenient memory loss, since it was only last November that TorStar and Postmedia made a backroom deal to “swap” community newspapers and close 36 on them in Ontario without so much as notice to the communities, or even asking for local input as to which should remain in cases where two papers competed (like Barrie, where a thriving, respectable daily was closed so a more modest, smaller weekly could survive).

Sorry, John, but I see you and co-weasel Paul Godfrey as part of the problem, not the solution. A big part. Rich, entitled kids lamenting the decay of journalism after decimating it is like bullies kicking away another kid’s crutches then expressing concern he can’t walk, then blaming it on the hall monitor. Take some responsibility for your own hand in the process. But no, instead, he blames the Trudeau government.

That’s unfortunate because his shifting blame undercuts the credibility of his ten recommendations, some of which are very important for the survival of all Canadian media. Let’s look at them.

1. Copyright protection for newspapers.

He’s right. Most copyright laws – Canada is not alone in this – are outdated. They were originally written to deal with print, then belatedly topped up with newer technologies like radio and VHS. Most can barely grapple with photocopiers, let alone the internet. As such, aggregators like HuffPost and Yahoo can reproduce entire articles without payment, sometimes – not all aggregators do this – citing or linking back to the source. That’s a huge gap in copyright law that needs to be addressed.**

2. 2. Facebook and Google: Under Canadian tax law, companies can deduct the cost of advertising only if ads are placed in Canadian publications. Yet this law does not apply to the internet.

Okay that’s true but tricky because it involves globalization, NAFTA and other international trade agreements… is the Trudeau government to blame for this? Hardly. It’s been built over decades. Changing our law may interact with those trade agreements and should be made in conjunction with out trade partners, not unilaterally.

The issue may be big now, but where was Honderich’s outrage when the Harper government ignored it? Oh, right, he was standing in line waiting for his medal.

3. Federal government advertising: …Ottawa’s “digital-first” strategy in placement of federal ads…. has led to a reduction in the proportion of federal spending for daily newspaper ads by 96 per cent and for community newspaper ads by 21 per cent.

I’m a print guy. I started working in newspapers when they still used hot type. But technologies change. Print media was slow to get into digital, and when it did it fluttered about trying all sorts of modes like paywalls, limited access, and subscriber-only content. Commercial advertisers followed the tech trend very quickly – they followed the audience. Ottawa didn’t change to digital until much later. You can’t blame Trudeau for changing technology or the industry’s failure to adapt quickly to it.

More than a year ago, a piece in the Financial Post talked about the same report Honderich mentions. That story noted,

…advertising with foreign-owned websites should no longer be deductible under the federal Income Tax Act. This is already standard for print newspaper and broadcast advertising… by extending a 10 per cent withholding tax on advertising in foreign digital media, the government could create a new revenue stream of $300 to $400 million annually.

Yes, the federal government should be taking action, at the very least create a task force to come up with some ways to implement such recommendations as are appropriate and practical. But to expect any government to act on the basis of one report and implement every recommendation is naive . The parliamentary library’s shelves bulge with reports that were commissioned (and paid for) then ignored in part or whole by whatever party was in power at the time. Liberals are not unique in this. No government is (our own town hall has similarly aged and ignored reports on local issues).

And while this is the latest study, it’s not the first. The Canadian Senate published its interim report on Canadian media back in 2004 and published the final report in 2006. TorStar itself submitted this to the report:

We believe the Competition Act should apply as developed through the legislation and its jurisprudence and we seek no special treatment of any kind under that statute. … In applying the Competition Act, the question is always: What is the relevant market? In a world of media where radio is competing against community newspapers or television is competing against radio, with all the different forms of media competing for the same advertising dollars, we believe it is a matter of the proper application of the Competition Act. The market should be defined broadly in the competition for the advertising dollar rather than being limited to just daily newspapers or community newspapers or radio or any particular medium.

Honderich appears to be silent on the Harper government’s lack of action on this report. Probably nothing to do with that Order of Canada medal.

The borderless nature of the internet is problematic for not just newspaper advertising. A recent Financial Post story described the problems Bell and other cable media are having with Canadian substitute advertising during Superbowl broadcasts. Just think of the impact Amazon has had on retailling, on postal services, on the music industry. The software industry has pretty much retreated from direct sales to subscriptions, online sales and streamed services, but it’s not a foolproof solution. No one has found new models or paradigms to mitigate any of these impacts.

4. Digital tax credits: The heritage committee recommended that newspapers be given a temporary five-year tax credit for a portion of the labour and capital they spend on digital innovation.

Well, maybe. But the way corporate media are slashing jobs and reducing the number of people working in print media, it would make sense to offer credits for keeping any job in media. And conversely, to remove corporate credits when jobs are cut or papers closed. It’s all fine and good that CEOs get a new yacht every year, but what about the hundreds of men and women working in those 36 community newspapers who now have a very limited, very competitive career path if they want to stay in media? Honderich’s crocodile tears don’t move me.

5. Canada Periodical Fund: Both the Public Policy Forum and the heritage committee recommended that daily newspapers be included in this fund.

Another mouth at the public teat: money for nothing. I am unwilling to hand out public money so corporations like TorStar and Postmedia can connive to kill community newspapers freely. They have toi give back something in return – something concrete. Any public money should only go to those publications themselves – not their corporate masters because it will only float to the top as executive bonuses – which remain in operation and keep the jobs. Make Honderich and Godfrey wait another year or two to get their new yachts.

But the government already announced it would help newspapers and periodicals through this fund and would announce details “soon.” As the Financial Post reported, Jan. 26:

..the government wants to correct some of the problems with the fund “to adapt it to the digital age” because it was created before the advent of the internet. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Quebec Le Soleil last week he was preoccupied with the financial crisis facing media in Canada and that the decision on federal funding would come in the next budget.

6. The Canadian Press: Canada’s national wire service, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, has had a pension problem for several decades.

Yeah, I agree: CP is important and without it, Canadian media would be much weaker (I briefly worked for CP in the early 1980s). But what is CP? It was, “created by an act of Parliament (in 1917) … to help newspapers cover and distribute news across the vast country.” It’s a news, information, sports and PR provider and a subscription/pay service: a commercial entity. It shares content from its members with other members, and has its own reporters and broadcasters as well.

For most of its 100-year-old history, it was a not-for-profit organization but that changed in 2010 when it changed its business model to a for-profit company. It used to be a cooperative, but CanWest pulled out in 2007 and SunMedia in 2009 (two forerunners of Postmedia) causing a financial crisis. The three biggest stakeholders – TorStar among them – decided to make it a for-profit business. Now Honderich is bemoaning the result. It wasn’t Trudeau’s business model that failed. Change it back, merge it with CBC as the national media source for Canada, and then help it.

7. CP and local journalism: To help provide news coverage in smaller communities, the Public Policy Forum suggested The Canadian Press be given the mandate and resources to fill the gaps.

And do what? Restart the 36 community papers TorStar and Postmedia closed last year? Sure, give CP a mandate to cover and spread through community papers. It might provide a few more jobs in the industry, but it won’t help the predatory behaviour of companies like Honderich’s TorStar.

8. CBC and cbc.ca: … Parenthetically, just 1 per cent of Ottawa’s total funding to the CBC would pay for more than half the Toronto Star’s newsroom. In today’s digital world, the greatest competitor to Canadian newspaper websites is cbc.ca. It is an excellent website, flush with resources and funded, of course, by the public. Not only that; it is free. Furthermore, it is out in the market competing for digital advertising.

Flush with resources? After years and years of Conservative cuts? Not really. Only some of the cut funds have been restored.

Honderich bitching about the CBC is ironic, given that the Toronto Star has been resolutely in favour of funding it and railed editorially against the funding cuts of the previous Harper government. In 2009, in a TorStar piece, Sarah Barmak asked, “Might Canadians need government-funded media like the CBC more, not less, in the future?” In 2014, Star writer Thomas Walkom wrote,

“…under Flaherty’s watch as finance minister that the latest cutbacks in federal government funding to CBC occurred… he was also an integral part of a government determined to smash or cripple much of what makes Canada a livable country. His death is a reminder that good people can do bad things for the best of motives.The Conservative government’s dislike of the CBC is long-standing and, at the core, ideological.

And where was Honderich’s voice when the CBC asked for increased funding in late 2016 so it could go ad free? TorStar reporter, Jackie Hong cited a report that said, “approximately two-thirds of the CBC’s current advertising revenue, or roughly $158 million, would “migrate to other Canadian media companies, giving them an additional influx of revenue as they adapt to industry changes.””

In 2015, TorStar reporter Mark Knelman encouraged the Trudeau government to, “Fire CBC president Hubert Lacroix, disband the current board, and encourage the public broadcaster to abandon commercials and reinvent itself for the new multi-channel, multi-platform universe.”

9. Non-profit journalism and philanthropy: In the U.S., Germany and other countries, non-profitable journalism ventures are funded by grants from foundations. Under their laws, such grants are considered charitable donations.

Okay, I’m with him on that. Maybe he and Godfrey can contribute some of their own considerable wealth to the project.

10. Investigative journalism support: To help promote investigative and civic journalism, the Public Policy Forum recommended the creation of a legal advisory service. Large newspapers, such as the Star, have in-house counsel who provide essential legal advice on difficult investigations or articles. For smaller publications, these costs can be prohibitive.

I first have to wonder how many “smaller publications” remain outside corporate control? My suggestion is to embed that service into the Canadian Press mandate (see number 6, above) and make it a group subscription service, like small municipalities do with Integrity Commissioners and closed-door meeting investigators.

Honderich closes by saying, “I believe this country and its journalism and democracy deserve better.” Well, I agree with that, but closing community papers is not going to help achieve that. I agree with Terence Corcoran, who wrote in the National Post that, “The Toronto Star should step off its high horse” and stop being so hypocritical. Corcoran adds,

John Honderich, the official representative of the Star’s current owners, Torstar Corp., still mounts his steed for an occasional condescending ride around the media circus tent via a personal column in the paper that he and his family have more or less controlled since his late father, Beland Honderich, became editor-in-chief 60 years ago.

Funny, isn’t it, that what once seemed two media juggernauts – TorStar and Postmedia – pissing on one another from opposite political sides now looks like a cozy media bromance between the one-percenters who own them. Both bemoaning the Trudeau government as part of the shared ideology.

Sure, I think government can – and should – do better for Canadian media. I’d like to see it do something about the copyright law that allows aggregators to steal content, about unfair tax provisions, and I’d really like to see more government intervention to reduce corporate control of the media. But is any government responsible for the decaying quality of media in our country, and the death of investigative journalism? It’s not like Trudeau forced Honderich and Godfrey to shut down 36 community papers in Ontario. That was their choice.

And it’s not like the current government is any worse than previous ones in avoiding the issue, and they certainly didn’t lead anyone into this mess. The people whining the most about it are generally those responsible for making the mess in the first place. Maybe they should take responsibility and put some of their own personal fortunes into the pot to help.

~~~~~
* Let me be clear: I’m a political agnostic, not a supporter of any particular party nor a subscriber to any particular party ideology, neither right nor left. My personal views share something from most every platform and division. Call me an equal-opportunity skeptic and humbug.
** Fair use provisions allow users to copy material if “the copy is for one these purposes: research, private study, education, parody, satire, criticism, review or news reporting.” The Canadian Copyright Act is here. Copyright law is complex, confusing and contentious. It’s a dog’s breakfast that fails to protect adequately in many areas. Not to mention copyright in one nation may not apply in another, and is hard to enforce beyond your borders; a significant boon for internet companies with offshore addresses.

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One Reply to “Honderich’s hypocrisy”

  1. https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2018/03/14/internet-giants-should-support-local-news-culture-melanie-joly-says.html

    Internet giants like Facebook and Google should play a direct role in investing in “trusted local journalism” and Canadian culture, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said Tuesday.

    Yeah? Well so should print media corporations like The Star. But the Star got into bed with Postmedia to close down 33 community newspapers across the province, thus de-investing from local journalism and culture. The Star is blazingly hypocritical not to acknowledge their part in the disruption of communities across Ontario.

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