Wells: Politicians guiding journalism? No, thanks

Here’s what happened to newspapers.

In the early 1990s I worked at the Gazette in Montreal. In those days on a Saturday you’d pick up your Gazette, shake five sections of classified advertising and home and car ads onto the floor, and go straight to the City pages, which featured a loving summary of local restaurants’ health-code violations.

The really good stories featured tales of city health inspectors encountering rodents or poo, or both in combination. Often the stories mentioned restaurants frequented by young Gazette reporters on a budget, which was always good for a frisson.

Since those days, a few things have happened. First, just about all the ads in the classified sections – apartments for rent, articles for sale, homes and cars – migrated to the Internet. Now you can sell your jalopy with no transaction cost at all; my colleagues and I get no piece of the action.

This led to a collapse in newspapers’ revenue; endless hand-wringing by newsroom managers; and shrinking newsrooms. Today the Star has as many editorial employees as the Gazette had when I was there. The Gazette has barely any left, and will have several fewer next month than last month.

At my old paper, nobody troops off to the city offices to collect rat-poop restaurant reviews anymore. Nobody reviews jazz clubs. Nobody lives in Ottawa writing about the federal government for a readership that has always cared passionately about federal politics, and so on. Not because these things don’t matter, but because there is no way to pay for all this journalism.

This is a cause of great anguish for people in my line of work. And on Thursday it led the Public Policy Forum, on contract from the federal government, to come up with a report proposing remedies, mostly a bunch of tax changes to fund a very large pot of money that would support fine journalism everywhere.

But the collapse of advertising isn’t the only thing that’s happened since my youth. Another thing that has happened is that a 10-second Google search can take you to where the City of Montreal keeps its food-code violations. Yikes, Restaurant Beijing Inc. on de la Gauchetière St. W., it must have taken a lot of work to rack up $9,800 in fines in a single month.

So: When I was a kid, you had to pay me a little money when you had a car to sell, so I could go get you information about where it was safe to eat. Today you don’t need me for either part of that. This is not your problem. It’s mine.

Who will hold our politicians accountable? Well, their speeches, committee hearings and expenses are all online. The Canadian Press used to pay a reporter to sit in the House of Commons every minute it was sitting. This was long before my time.

Society is not poorer because it no longer happens. Any citizen has direct access to vast quantities of information that used to require reporters as intermediaries: Who’s playing at the Rex next Thursday, how this year’s Leafs starting lineup compares to last year’s, what Tom Mulcair said at the Maclean’s debate.

No, I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job, although check back next week to see whether I managed it anyway. I’m trying to talk myself out of a measure of your sympathy, and out of the astonishing campaign organized by the Trudeau Liberals to ensure that your tax dollars be made to fill holes left by the exodus of your advertising dollars.

“Canadians still seek to be informed,” the new Public Policy Forum study says in an unguarded moment. “New technologies have not only made this possible, but increased the supply of news and opinion dramatically.”

This rather lets the cat out of the bag: What’s at risk is not your right to be informed, but mine to earn a buck informing you.

There may be room for changes to tax treatment of businesses that seem different (newspapers and websites) but find themselves in the same business (news gathering). But government should be exceedingly cautious, and I see no evidence that it is at all.

Two thoughts.

First, if there’s a fund for good journalism, the Liberals should appoint Pierre Poilievre, the Conservative MP who was in charge of election rules in the last Parliament, to run it. And if they’re not comfortable doing that, there should be no fund, because one day, after some future election, somebody like Pierre Poilievre will run it anyway.

Second: ask any Liberal MP how much stock they put in stories about cabinet ministers showing up at party fundraisers, or about the prime minister’s vacations. I asked one this week, and she lit into me for “not telling the whole story.”

Put those people in charge of deciding what journalism rises and what doesn’t? No thanks.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer.

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