Who pays for journalism? One way or another — you

People have long misunderstood who pays for news, and how.

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“I don’t need farmers; I get my food from the grocery store.”

Sounds ridiculous, right?

The Colorado Press Association used it as part of a recent marketing campaign, comparing it to the phrase, “I don’t need newspapers; I get my news from the Internet.”

I was reminded of that as I read Shattered Mirror, the report from Ed Greenspon of the Public Policy Forum (PPF) on the Canadian media industry.

(Disclosure: I attended one of the PPF’s roundtable discussions this past fall in Vancouver on behalf of the B.C. and Yukon Community Newspapers Association.)

It’s a comprehensive report that does an excellent job of describing and analyzing the challenges facing Canadian media in a global digital age.

More importantly, it has several recommendations on how to help support Canadian media and local news, including closing a tax loophole that gives advertisers a break when advertising in non-Canadian-owned online media (a break they don’t get for foreign-owned print advertising) and using the money generated from it, estimated at $300 million to $400 million per year, to fund local news and new media initiatives.

But what I think the report does best is make it clear why media outlets struggle in the digital age — it answers the question about not only how the food gets to the grocery store, but how much the farmer gets when you pay $1.29 for that tomato.

People have long misunderstood who pays for news, and how.

In the days of paid circulation, many believed they were supporting the entire cost of their local newspaper when they plunked down their pocket change for a copy.

In reality, reader revenue — where it exists — covers only a fraction of the real cost of reporting news, never mind the mechanical and logistical costs of preparing, printing and delivering it to readers.

Even the many community newspapers that deliver the news free of charge still hear the grumbling from unhappy subjects of coverage that we are just “trying to sell papers.” (!)

The advent of the Internet has made people more aware of the real way people pay for content — with their attention.

Sadly, this realization has come just at the point where the real money online goes not to the people who pay to produce what you read, but the people who organize and distribute it — primarily Google and Facebook, two U.S.-based corporations that between them employ a grand total of zero journalists in Canada.

However, readers are led to believe because they continue to be flooded with seemingly ever-increasing amounts of content for which they do not pay, and because they continue to be bombarded with marketing messages attached to that content, that somebody must be making enough money to pay for it.

They need to know the model has shifted entirely.

Advertising dollars online have become largely detached from content and those who package others’ news to readers get the overwhelming share.

Those who pay journalists to perform civic journalism simply can’t afford to do so off the dregs of digital revenue Facebook and Google have yet to siphon up.

The fundamental contract of media in the 20th century between reader, publisher and advertiser, when applied to the digital landscape, is as shattered as the mirror Greenspon uses to title his report.

People need to realize this contract has been fundamentally disrupted and that, if it continues without some form of change, those who pay to create local journalism, many of who have already been forced to cut back severely, will simply disappear from the landscape, to be replaced with nothing in the case of countless communities.

That’s the message we as media outlets need to take from this report and bring to public attention.

If readers want to keep getting news as they’ve been getting it — that is, without paying directly — the Greenspon report’s recommendations provide a workable answer. If those aren’t acceptable to the public, or to the government, then the choices are for readers to pay for that content directly or watch it disappear.

Greenspon is trying to keep that from happening and I salute him and the PPF for their work. But neither the PPF, nor the media industry in Canada, nor the government will have the final say. In the end, the reader will.

And, in the end, if the farmer can’t afford to grow tomatoes, you won’t find them at the grocery store.

Tim Shoults is the operations manager of Aberdeen Publishing, which publishes newspapers in B.C. and Alberta

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