Fourth Estate: the Fifth Business of Canadian Democracy

Note: I’m back! Sort of! After taking some time off blogging to finish and (successfully!) defend my dissertation, then pick up and move from Vancouver to Ottawa, I finally have a bit of time to write about things other than conflict-mitigating political institutions in rural Bolivia. I’m not totally sure what I’ll use this space for going forward, but I am going to try and fill it more regularly. Likely it’ll be some combination of Canadian and international politics, including more foreign policy now that I’m back at Carleton University’s NPSIA, and more general responses to contemporary debates. Suggestions are welcome. Anyhow, on with the content.

In his column yesterday, Andrew Coyne used the Alberta NDP’s short-lived barring of The Rebel Media’s correspondent from legislature briefings to a more general issue of state-media relationships, pivoting from a (basically justified) excoriation of the Alberta government for barring a very partisan journalist to a larger debate about the role of the state in media, including whether the state should be funding a broadcaster such as the CBC.

Coyne puts forward a number of arguments, but I want to focus on two issues: one empirical, and one more an issue of fundamental values regarding whether the media is in fact a public good. The empirical issue concerns the claim that the presence of a state-subsidized broadcaster, particularly the written content it posts online, represents unfair and source of competition for newspapers in the country. Given parlous state of the industry, Coyne (and others) argue the additional competition for eyeballs is simply helping to dig the graves of Canada’s once great newspapers. Ergo, the CBC ought to lose its funding, along with any other pieces that fall off as a result.

Certainly, newspapers in this country are in a bad way. In the context of the CBC debate however, the question is how much that is a function of a decline in readership (credit to Robert Hiltz for pointing this out on twitter). According to figures on Wikipedia (I can’t independently verify these results as sources are waved at but not linked to, so take the following with a grain of salt) subscriptions for the top 25 papers in the country declined about 5% a year from 2007-2011. It seems safe to assume they have continued to do so since then. Unfortunately however, that’s not even the real problem. The real problem is the vaporization of advertising money.

A Statistics Canada newspaper publisher survey from 2006 (back when newspaper revenues were growing, if you can imagine) makes clear just how bad the situation is, and how little that decline has to do with subscribers. Table 1 (original found here) tells the story. Circulation accounted for just 17% of total revenues. Advertising, meanwhile, accounted for more than 75%.

Screenshot 2016-02-18 14.20.38

That puts the “CBC issue” in context. A 20% drop in subscriptions across the industry amounts to about 3.5% decline in revenues. In reality, any effect of CBC competition on those subscriptions is modest, constituting a marginal effect on a marginal effect. If newspapers are dying, it’s a decline in advertising revenue (for their wellbeing, any journalists reading this should definitely not click on that link and skip down to the chart displaying ad revenues from 2003-2014), perhaps helped along by Postmedia’s debt-fuelled quest for consolidation, that’s killing them. The instinct to blame the CBC is just that, an instinct—a solution in search of a problem. It’s like, oh, say invading a third country after suffering an attack from second country, to pull a totally hypothetical example out of the air.

This brings up the second point I referred to earlier—the more general idea that media is, in Coyne’s words, “not a public good.” This is a strange argument to make given the crucial role played by free media in a democratic society; on its surface it seems unsustainable. Robert Dahl, for instance, places access to alternative sources information among the definitional requirements of Polyarchy, and there is broad consensus that free and competitive media constitutes a necessary element of that access—that whole fourth estate business.  It is for that reason that democratic observatories track press freedom across the world. Indeed, the media does have some of that character of Fifth Business that Davies describes:

Those roles which, being neither those of hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were none the less essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement were called the Fifth Business in drama and Opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as Fifth Business.

The claim that media are not a public good really only makes sense in that it plausible—and useful, given Coyne’s point—to argue that no particular media outlet provides a public good, that the service to the public emerges as a sort of gestalt, the product of an industry as a whole. That’s fine, but when it’s the industry as a whole that is under sustained attack, then we are indeed talking about the loss of a public good—a Cornerstone of Democracy no less—and we must think seriously about the implications.

Certainly, as Coyne says the state ought not and in any case cannot fund the entire media industry, but the market is no longer doing so reliably either. It’s likewise fair to may question if the recently struck House of Commons committee will produce helpful solutions, particularly in light of the external source of the problem, but they do require thought. Canada cannot function as a democracy without citizens having access to multiple independent sources of information, and we cannot take for granted the idea that the market will provide that access going forward.

(For what it’s worth, I look to the smaller providers—lively locals like the North Shore News, niche online sites like Canadaland, and even smaller experiments like former Citizen comment editor James Gordon’s new startup The Ottawa Report—as potential future models for news media, offering targeted content that larger aggregators cannot (or don’t bother to) replicate, and surviving in return on some combination of local advertising and donation. Bigger may no longer be better in the news industry.)

Regardless, in the meantime, as the committee begins its meetings and for-profit sector continues its painful restructuring, one might even come to appreciate the stopgap role played by a stable news provider, even one funded in part by the state, until a new and more stable media industry emerges.

Perhaps it’s time to tweet Mark Zuckerberg, and ask for a billion dollar loan for Canadian newspapers. He at least has had something to do with their decline.

photo courtesy SimonP, via wikimedia.

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