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In Our Words: Cutting funds for community news, CBC a failing strategy

You may have noticed the federal Conservatives have a new leader. Erin O’Toole got the job and is now opposition leader and possibly a future Prime Minister. After O’Toole won, I went to his website to check his platform.

You may have noticed the federal Conservatives have a new leader. Erin O’Toole got the job and is now opposition leader and possibly a future Prime Minister.

After O’Toole won, I went to his website to check his platform. There’s some mistakes there - for instance, saying he’d support building a port at Churchill (where there is already a port) - but I did see one thing there that troubled me, something that, if Tories pursue it in the future, will cost them my vote and possibly ruin Canadian community news.

The platform vows to cut back government funding for media, including calls to privatize big portions of CBC - English TV services and its 24-hour news network - and to cut subsidies for other media outlets, something the platform falsely calls “Trudeau’s $600 million media bailout”.

Let me be blunt - whoever wrote that knows nothing about Canadian community news.

First off, there’s no “bailout” - it’s a grant. There’s up to $600 million that can be applied for, but not every dime will be allocated. It’s supposed to take place over the next four years and most money was earmarked for large publications.

CBC is a key part of Canadian culture. The broadcaster has far more local bureaus, editorial staff and journalists than any other Canadian media group. They’re also the only major media organization to have bureaus in the north, including in the territories. CBC also maintains the most investigative units of any media group in western Canada and more people watch CBC than any other news company in Canada.

Many conservatives want to defund CBC for one of two reasons - because it “costs too much” or because it reports news they don’t like. The CBC publishes its full financial info online - the company had an operating funding level of just over $1 billion for the 2018-19 fiscal year, about $26 a year per Canadian. That is far less than the budget of other national broadcasters - the BBC, for instance, got $4 billion from a conservative government in 2018-19.

That’s federal funding at arms-length. I know plenty of people who work at CBC, people I trust. Nobody I know there has ever been told to keep political motivations in mind. They’re reporters, not press flacks. Most of them would likely be left jobless if CBC privatized.

Research has shown that people prefer local media to national or international groups. CNN isn’t covering what goes on up here. That's us and, occasionally, the CBC.

Full disclosure. The Reminder received a government grant last year - not part of the “$600 million”, but funds from a different program. That money wasn’t necessary for our survival, but it gave us comfort - room to breathe. Once COVID-19 hit, that money was very good to have.

That money came with no strings attached for content. We’ve never received orders from any government anywhere for our work. We serve our readers, not suits. I don’t think I’ve ever written a single non-critical column about any federal figure. I’ve got authority issues. Made no difference.

If our trophy chest is any indication, we do good work. We’ve won more provincial newspaper awards in the past four years than I can count. If you come into our office, we have walls covered in plaques. I’ve got a bunch more at home for my own work - I’m still not sure how I got them, but I ain’t sending them back.

We’re one of the few community newspapers around western Canada that’s both made a profit and saw its number of subscribers go up in the past few years - for our online editions but for print as well. How have we done that? By working our butts off.

Early during COVID-19, newspapers and news staff all over Canada with chains like Saltwire, Postmedia and our parent company held mass layoffs. Entire papers were shuttered, some for good. A volatile industry was now explosive.

Businesses suddenly didn’t advertise as much. Our revenue cratered. What would have happened to us without that grant?

Who else is going to tell Flin Flon stories every week? Who else shows up to local council meetings? I’m there every other week - I know almost all you don’t go. How would you know what’s going on? Word of mouth? In Flin Flon? You know, the place where you ask 10 people about something going on and get 13 different stories?

Someone’s gotta shovel the crap and we can’t work for free. Neither can CBC.

Every community with a media outlet should know that it’s both a privilege and a right. Every community deserves to have someone whose job it is to share what’s going on. That right isn’t free.

There are large portions of Canada, in both urban and rural areas, that are gradually becoming news deserts, places without newspapers, radio stations or any consistent media coverage. People in these places are not informed on what impacts their lives.

The CBC and community newspapers are essential. We report as much as we can and CBC is there to provide a larger audience that would not otherwise exist. To my knowledge, CTV, Global and most newspaper chains (Winnipeg Free Press aside) have only sent reporters into northern Manitoba once since I moved back in 2016 and it took a national manhunt to do it.

O’Toole’s platform includes some measures meant to offset the loss of funds, including making subscriptions to Canadian publications tax-deductible - which the Liberals already did, at least temporarily, last year.

That does little to keep our lights on, a paper printed and you informed. They do nothing to assist the CBC, a public service we should all be proud of. Cutting grants for newspapers and privatizing CBC will not help Canadians. They’re band-aid solutions for problems that don’t exist.

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