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Report | Indiegraf, Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD U and DemocracyXChange Workshop on the Future of Independent Journalism

Report | Indiegraf, Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD U and DemocracyXChange Workshop on the Future of Independent Journalism

Prepared by the Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD University

A hand holding a mobile phone.

On April 12, 2024, Indiegraf, the Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD U and DemocracyXChange partnered to deliver a workshop on the future of independent journalism. Attended by a group of 25 independent journalists, news publishers, funders, philanthropists, researchers and policy-makers, the group generated concrete ideas for the conditions and supports that are needed for a robust news media sector—and independent journalism—to thrive and fuel a healthy democracy.[1]

The discussion was facilitated by Kelly Wilhelm, Head of the Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD U, and was broken down into three parts:

  1. A scene-setting conversation with Erin Millar (Indiegraf), Jeff Elgie (Village Media), and Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours (Pivot) followed by a discussion with the group;
  2. Group work to examine:
    1. What is needed to support journalism and independent media at the start-up and scale-up stages;
    2. How to ensure that vulnerable and equity-deserving communities have access to adequate benefits and conditions to scale their impact;
    3. How to ensure that the next steps in the implementation of Bill C-18 positively impact independent journalism; and
    4. How workshop participants can work to mobilize around the contribution of independent journalism to a healthy democracy.
  3. A wrap-up discussion to identify priorities for action and further policy work.

This summary report provides a brief overview of the major points coming out of these discussions.

I. Scene-setter conversation:

  • While some of the recent initiatives introduced by government to support journalism have had a positive impact, others have been less effective or harmful;
  • The Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) and Journalism Labour Tax Credit are designed to benefit legacy media, and don’t take into account the operating reality of small, independent media—for example, the eligibility requirement for permanent full-time employees, when the norm is increasingly freelance or part-time;
  • The industry needs continuity and predictability in government measures; for example, the LJI was renewed in early March for the 2024-25 fiscal year, but no indication has been given yet on the guidelines or process for application. This has resulted in additional precarity for small media companies and their journalists who are funded through this program, many of whom have had to be let go because no cash flow exists to bridge the gap;
  • The Registered Canadian Journalism Organization tax status has been received by 11 news outlets since it came into force, which demonstrates a limited impact;
  • The impact of C-18 has been negative for independent media. In the words of one participant, “we are worse off now than if C-18 had never existed.”;
  • This negative impact was described in two main ways:
    1. The uncertainty around the legislation and regulation over the past several years has had a cooling effect on private investment in media organizations, to the point that several outlets lost deals that were well-advanced and lucrative
    2. Facebook’s removal of news from Canada has effectively eliminated a major distribution channel for independent media to their audiences. Without the connection through Facebook, many companies have lost as much as 80% of their audience and have no means of regaining them at previous numbers. This disproportionately impacts Indigenous and ethnic media. Start-ups in particular have lost the main on ramp for new audiences.
  • As the environment for news gets harder and job cuts continue, the labour force cools, and finding journalists willing to take even well-paying jobs has become a challenge;
  • The level of personal risk assumed by independent media owners/publishers is very high and often includes personal financial risk as they leverage personal assets, take on personal debt or don’t pay themselves in order to finance the business;
  • Support to local media must also come from outside of government, for example, social finance: foundations interested in a joint fund or scaled-up approach to local journalism;
  • There is need for collaborative action to benefit the industry as a whole, and in particular collaboration within local communities across the variety of players available (e.g. CBC/Radio-Canada, community and local radio and television, print and digital news companies).

II. The results of the group discussions are summarized below.

Start-up and scale-up—What is needed?:

  • Simplify and change criteria in existing measures to facilitate entry by new players (first priority: freelancers should be included in the eligibility for LJI and Tax Credit);
  • Provide core funding at early start-up stage, before a company is able to access other federal supports (e.g. add an accelerator program to the LJI);
  • Assist with cash-flow management during gaps, particularly for outlets receiving retroactive funding through tax credits or applying for LJI;
  • Providing access to knowledge and process sharing opportunities (i.e. collaboration model with a large-scale established organization) and resources (i.e. industry playbooks, content and editorial controls)
  • Support for audience development, particularly in absence of Facebook;
  • Ultimately need sustainable, long-term solutions to ensure diversity of high-quality news media at local and national level that is fit for purpose in digital world;

Support vulnerable and equity-deserving communities

  • Supports for media representing vulnerable communities, and in particular for Indigenous journalism, which benefits from Indigenous journalists reporting on their community’s stories, and often requires journalists to report on or experience trauma;
  • Support community-driven news reporting and associated events (i.e. a sponsored journalism program on uncovered topics such as hyper local neighborhood-specific news, volunteer initiatives, coverage for seniors, community-builder awards etc.)
  • Internship / mentorship programs need to bridge to paid professional opportunities;
  • Greater access needed for BIPOC and media by and for other under-represented groups.

Bill C-18—Next steps:

  • The single collective that will be selected by Google in the next 30-60 days to administer the $500 million over the next five years will force the industry under a single umbrella;
  • Imperative that this group work now to influence how the collective comes together, including its governance and decision-making structures, and how it can best benefit the industry as a whole;
  • Collective’s structure must include strong representation from new digital and print business models, under-represented groups, start-ups that are succeeding, and those that represent the future of the news media business as it continues to evolve;
  • Benefit of $500 million must go beyond benefits to legacy players, including strategic thinking and organizing around the collective itself as a voice for the whole ecology, including smaller independents;
  • Look at options other than the FTE-based formula to inject innovation funding into building distribution channels and innovation into advertising tech/methods. The lesson from Meta’s actions is that Canadian media companies need to own the distribution channels;
  • It is essential that C-18 funds are administered in an effective way that minimizes cash-flow uncertainty for publishers as soon as is feasible;
  • Quantify and better understand the chilling effect of Meta’s ban on news to help inform policy directions (one example: for one media outlet, 5.2 million Facebook followers in the 18-40 years old range);
  • Government has a responsibility to act ASAP with respect to Meta—either by incentive or regulation/penalties;
  • Look at opportunities to fund innovation including in audience development and reach within the $500 million.

Mobilizing support for independent journalism / health democracy:

  • Shared goal is a robust, diverse, fit for purpose news media industry that supports a healthy, transparent democracy;
  • Current political discourse has undermined credibility of news media and journalism and damaged perception. A concerted effort is needed by partners, many of whom attended this session, to change this;
  • Time for a collaborative effort led by experts in mobilizing and movement-making, and linked into networks, including local media outlets.

III. Further Action and Policy Work

Participants agreed that they will continue to discuss priorities and organize in smaller groups around priority actions. The Cultural Policy Hub at OCAD U will continue to support policy-making in this area, to convene discussions like this one that connect industry practitioners, researchers and policy-makers, and to mobilize data and knowledge to help inform decision-making.

[1] This work comes on the heels of a coalition of publishers that first mobilized in spring 2022 to provide amendments to Bill C-18, and is now engaged in ensuring that the voices of independent media are heard in its subsequent implementation. In total, 140 local news publishers participated in such organizing and focused on four key features that need to be taken into account: transparency, representation for small and digital in negotiations, a formula that works for all business models (e.g. journalist expenditures), and fair criteria.

An editorial calling for these points can be found here.