By Bob Cox
If the federal government set up an agency to publish publicly-funded newspapers to provide news and information across Canada, the move would be met with almost universal opposition.
There’s no need to pour tax dollars into something that the private sector is already doing without a subsidy, unless the goal is propaganda.
So why is the CBC promising to turn itself into something that looks a lot like what newspapers are already doing in every community across the country?
CBC President Hubert Lacroix could have been mistaken for a newspaper executive when he outlined the public broadcaster’s dilemma and its solution. The traditional model of broadcasting is broken and the new model of digital media doesn’t generate enough revenue to make up for lost funding. The solution is a leaner organization that does mobile first, targeting smartphones and tablets to find an audience.
Perhaps Lacroix missed the first few lines in the document outlining the changes, entitled “A Space for Us All.” It spells out quite clearly – and correctly – that “CBC/Radio-Canada was created to ensure that this country would have a place on its own airwaves.”
The CBC was started to ensure there was a place in the scarce resource of the airwaves for Canadian content and that it was not drowned out by dominant American broadcasters.
Personally, I love the CBC as a broadcaster, think that Canadian radio listeners are among the luckiest in the world to have CBC radio and that CBC TV does a good job and would be even better if it tried to provide more of the unique content we hear on radio.
The thing is, CBC was not set up to be a publicly subsidized media company. It was not set up to compete with newspapers that existed 80 years ago, or for that matter any media that have come along since that time that do not do over-the-air broadcasting.
Yet it is now proposing to do just that – exactly the same thing the Globe and Mail or the Winnipeg Free Press is doing, only we do it without a public subsidy.
I totally understand the problem for the CBC. It once had a special and publicly subsidized part of a scarce resource – the airwaves – but that position has become a smaller and smaller part of the media world. Cable now provides space for a massive number of television outlets. Satellite makes radio universally available. The internet makes unlimited media available all the time to anyone with a connection.
Lacroix says the solution is to provide news, information and other material for digital first, that Canadians need a space of their own in the crowded media universe and that CBC will be at the heart of that space.
You have to wonder how much time Lacroix has spent studying new media. The main characteristic of the modern media world is that each one of us is at the centre of our own media space – we build our own personalized use of media, much of it built around our own space on any number of social media platforms. Individuals provide their own content, take things from an unlimited number of sources, share with friends, watch shows in a variety of formats when and where they want to, etc.
The idea that a single media provider could be at the heart of that space is laughable.
All media companies are trying to find their own place in this new universe. Newspapers such as the Free Press are adapting by doing what we have always done – providing strong, quality coverage of what is happening and what is important in our community – and using old and new media platforms to reach our audience.
There is, in fact, no shortage of news and information being provided digitally all across Canada, no danger that this unique content won’t be available. By focusing on this area, all the CBC will be doing is expanding in an area where this is little justification for it to be, and less reason for public support.
And that’s the real danger with the CBC’s new focus. There’s still a huge need for distinct Canadian public broadcasting. It deserves robust public support, which will be lost if all the CBC does is try to become less of a broadcaster and more of a digital content provider.
Bob Cox is the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chair of the Canadian Newspapers Association.