Thirty-six hearings and 27 hours of later testimony from this parliamentary commission, where speakers who have similar problems have sometimes differed on the remedy to be applied to the media industry. One observation: the situation is complex and there is no magic solution. Let's take a few minutes to study the question.
Money, always money
This is the story that has often been heard in committee. In the midst of the financial crisis, media wanted to stop the haemorrhage by reducing the number of journalists in their newsroom. Over the years, the media present at the commission found that it was not a problem of expenses, but rather of income. Since 2009, advertising revenues have dropped dramatically in favor of GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft). These digital giants have the ability to target the customers of advertisers in addition to allowing them to reach young consumers. Businesses and governments have bought advertising from these giants, to the detriment of local media.
Not to mention that these giants relay the information produced by the media here without paying a dime. This is a paradox: the newspapers here find themselves feeding free information to digital companies that earn advertising revenues they need to produce their media coverage. The regional media are the first affected by the crisis, because they have fewer resources to withstand such a shock. In the case of Capitales Médias Group, the revenue decline was 50%.
Add to all that the digital transition has been slower for some media than others. In the long run, such a model can not hold water for the media.
Chronicle of a disaster announced
Groupe Capitales Médias created a shock wave Wednesday at the commission announcing that the pension fund of some 1000 employees has an actuarial deficit of 65 million dollars. The company, which publishes six dailies, including The Sun from Quebec and The Law of Ottawa-Gatineau, is on the brink of bankruptcy after reducing its journalistic workforce by 53%.
While the news about the pension plan could cool potential buyers, several voices have been raised that the disappearance of these regional newspapers would be catastrophic. The Quebec Federation of Professional Journalists fears a "montréalisation" of information if all the journalistic picking is done in major centers. Without a journalist implanted in the region, who will meet the mayors of small municipalities? Who will cover local events?
Faced with such financial precariousness, these regional media find themselves faced with three choices: shut their doors, be redeemed or survive by obtaining government assistance.
A closure for many is an infringement of the right to information. A buyout by a conglomerate opens the door to greater concentration of the press, worried some speakers. But it is better to concentrate more on the press than on the press at all, said Pierre Karl Péladeau of Quebecor Media. It remains government assistance, but it must be done under certain conditions. The director of the daily The Duty Brian Myles reiterated that this assistance must be balanced and equitable for all industry players.
A complex problem
Finding a just solution for everyone is a big challenge. The business model of each media is different and several variables need to be considered.
The Press has adopted the free model by offering its content on tablets and on its website. Some media like The Devoir have adopted a mode
paying who served them well. Quebecor Media's written media have adopted a mixed model that lies between the two.
If the different media each have their own model and their vision, all advocate for the right to information. At the same time, it will be difficult to please everyone involved in the industry.
The hearings of the commission have given way to a host of solutions. Everyone agreed that the digital giants, GAFAM, must pay taxes on Canadian soil and pay for this information produced by the local media and that they use. In fact, the federal government was often questioned by members of the committee and by the media. Ottawa must act and intervene. Quebec Premier François Legault wants to talk to the federal government about this.
The creation of a payroll tax credit for news media also reached consensus. Some spoke of a credit of 25%, others of 35%. In Quebec's cultural industry, the tax credit is an effective way to develop local talent.
The elimination of the contribution for recycling would allow regional weeklies to breathe a little more. Quebec's decision to no longer require cities to publish their public notices in the print media also hurt the weeklies. The return of the publication of notices would generate income that would be beneficial.
The idea of setting up a media assistance fund has often come back. Pierre Karl Péladeau blew hot and cold on it. It is against state financial support for the media here, but if it were to exist, it must be accessible to all in a fair way.
There are also other, more complex solutions, such as creating a publicity board. CBC Senior Vice-President Michel Bissonnette opened the door to extensive media collaboration.
The media, what does it give?
The character played by Yvon Deschamps at the end of the 1960s in his soliloquy "Les unions, queosse ça donne" said that in life there are two things that matter, a "steady job" and a "good boss". Subject to the power of his boss who drinks a cold beer, this worker is satisfied with a hot beer. In his statement to the committee, the editor of The PressGuy Crevier said that information should not only be accessible to the privileged. During the commission, it was also emphasized that the right to information is essential in a democracy. All members of the House agreed that we can not let the media die. Information should not only be the business of the owners of capital.
The Legault government wants to build on the work of the commission to give birth to a plan to help the news media. For some print media, the plan will have to arrive sooner rather than later, as time is running out. Several newspapers need help, especially from the Capital Media Group, which has just enough money to survive until the end of the year. The most pessimistic scenario says mid-November, the most optimistic end of December.
In the notebook: do more, always more
The backstage of the media coverage of the parliamentary commission on the future of the media was equally interesting.
While in the National Assembly speakers and deputies repeated that a health press was essential to a healthy democracy, the journalists who heard these comments were all working at a breakneck pace to respect the time of day. In the age of multiplatform journalism, they had to make the big splash to get everything done at the same time.
The time spent thinking before going to press continues to decline. This is an issue that has been tackled on the surface, but perhaps worthy of more attention. The sustainability of quality information also requires reinvesting and hiring journalists.
One of the pernicious elements of the media crisis, with the rise of false news and disinvestment in newsrooms, is that little by little nobody is making the difference between true and false. Media groups and experts who were present at the commission made an appeal to both levels of government, but also to the public.