Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Media: Time for a Literal Fourth Branch

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Here in the Golden Horseshoe of Ontario, it's sometimes easy to forget that of the ten largest cities in Canada, three of them are located here. Toronto, at about 2.5 million, is the largest city in the country, Mississauga, at 668,000, ranks sixth, and Hamilton, at over 500,000, ranks ninth. One certainly wouldn't know that looking at the media. When's that last time that a story out of Mississauga or Hamilton led the news? Outside of CHCH television--which was put up for sale by Canwest Global this month and may be shut down if a buyer is not found--and CHML on the radio, both Mississauga and Hamilton are completely engulfed by Toronto media. Mississauga does have its own newspaper, the Mississauga News, but it is published only three times a week. Hamilton has a six day a week paper, the Hamilton Spectator. Neither paper is strong financially. Each city puts up with this lack of local media in classic Canadian fashion, just suffering through it without major complaint.

The rest of us may soon better understand how people in Mississauga and Hamilton feel. Newspapers across the world are folding under the advertising revenue strain brought on by the Internet and the economic downturn. Those that survive are shadows of their former selves, with much less content. The full stock market tables may not be missed, but how about that weekly column on one's own neighborhood? It's likely gone along the high school sports scores. The mainstream media are increasingly jettisoning expensive local coverage in favor of less expensive national pieces.

Few would question the value of vibrant reporting (the term "press" seems to be on its way to being an anachronism). Newspapers have been called the "fourth estate" and the "fourth branch of government" (after the executive, legislative, and judicial branches) for a reason--it's hard to have an accountable government without investigative journalism keeping it honest.

So, in the face of modern economic realities, how does one maintain the fourth estate, especially at the local level would it would seem to have no chance at all of being self-sustaining? It seems to me we already have the answer in the form of the public broadcasters in most European countries and other places around the world including Canada. The BBC and the CBC are government-funded, but the firewall between them and government is so profound that few would accuse them of significant bias. For $30 per person per year in Canada, Canadians get full-service radio and television networks.

Setting up another, competing news-gathering organization, likely out of the remains of a failing newspaper group, would probably be a bit more expensive than $30 per year in order to have an adequate degree of local focus in places like Hamilton and Mississauga, but it would seem to pay off in healthy democracy. People would still need to pay for a print newspaper that would be produced, but the content-gathering is the key and the content could be made available for free on the Internet, much as the CBC is free to those with a radio or television. By being a separate organization, competition between the CBC and this government-funded newspaper would maintain an active journalistic competition. Much as private broadcasters compete with the CBC, private newspapers and other media organizations could keep providing additional alternatives if they could afford to do so.

If that sounds too socialistic to ever take hold in the United States, there's another option to look at that already exists. The listener contributions that fund public radio could serve as a model for a non-profit newspaper. Those that could only afford to subscribe could do that, but those that believed in the newspaper could give more. Grants could serve as an additional source of funding. There are newspapers in the United States looking at this kind of model, with some hoping for an endowment from which they could maintain a stable source of funding that could not be construed to have a bias, as a way to keep operating in the present environment.

Some might say that even that idea is not viable. If so, it's time to come up with another idea. One way or another, the future of investigative and local journalism needs to be addressed.

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