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Saving local news and why it’s vital for our union

There’s no question these are depressing times. News operations are closing across North America– but it’s happening very differently on each side of the border.

In the U.S., the crash has been all about newspapers. Time magazine recently published a list of the TEN next newspapers likely to shut down south of the border, following on the heels of the folding of the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado.

In Canada, the impact so far has not been on newspapers, but on mid- to small-market television. First, Canwest announced plans to sell the five E! Stations in Montreal, Hamilton, Red Deer, Kelowna, and Victoria Then CTV announced it was shuttering stations in Brandon, Manitoba, and Wingham and Windsor, Ontario, and cutting 118 jobs and news shows at its A-Channels in Ottawa, Barrie, London, Victoria, and Halifax.

Unlike in the US, Canadian networks allege that the model for conventional television is broken and these markets simply can’t support local news operations. But their logic is suspect. Those very same networks are part of some of the most concentrated media conglomerates in the world. In their buying sprees to become vast media empires, the companies did two things: they bought out the competition and they took on lots of debt. Their advertising focus became national, and they slowly gutted their local news operations to “monetize the synergies” of all their purchases. It was a made-in-Canada attack on our own media industry.

The Guild has been a voice against this trend for years– often alone or with very few other supporting groups. Why? We learned the hard way through Robert (“my son doesn’t watch local news”) Rabinovitch at the CBC how destructive it is to cut the very roots of news. It’s bad for communities and worse for the industry as a whole. It’s where the jobs are, to be blunt. And it’s unpopular with the audience. Many news studies show that local news is what people want when they turn on their TV.

So even amid all the layoffs and potential for more layoffs within our membership, the Guild must keep its eye on the bigger picture and continue to be one of the strongest voices advocating for local news– for our members who work in CBC stations and news services across the country, and our colleagues who do the same at the commercial broadcasters.

And we’ve had some success, even in this depressing environment. In a nod to our interventions, the CRTC introduced something called the Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) last October– which is a pot of $60M drawn from cable and satellite fees and destined for small-market stations to boost production of local news. The details are still being worked out, and we have to continue to argue for its original purpose: to support expanded TV news content in smaller communities.

We hope the money in this Fund– and Guild members’ advocacy in communities from coast to coast to coast– puts pressure on both the Harper government and CBC management to keep CBC operations (radio, TV and online) alive everywhere even during this time of funding restraint.

There are other efforts that need to be supported. Employees at CHCH in Hamilton, one of the E! stations up for sale, are trying to buy the station under a community-ownership model– hopefully with access to the LPIF. This, after the station’s news anchor and producer were among the few journalists in the country to bravely tackle the media crisis on their own show– even before the station was put on the chopping block– with panel discussions that were heavily informed by this union.

You can’t talk about protecting local news and information without mentioning a similar battle that the Guild has spearheaded– the fight to preserve the capacity for free over-the-air television in communities across the country, and not just the biggest markets where the broadcasters think it will be worthwhile. The two issues are heavily linked and vital for community identity and access to basic local information.

We think there are other supports for local operations too. One is a funding/structure model with roots in the UK and the US (where they’re called L3Cs) that can provide access to capital for low-profit, socially responsible projects and public services such as information services. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin is a champion of this type of corporate structure but word is that it’s a tough sell with the current federal finance department. We hope to connect to other groups to get more people actively thinking about L3C-type models in Canada.

So the work to protect news and information within the public broadcaster and outside it must go on in many forums. CMG members and staff are playing a vital — and sometimes lonely — role in these campaigns and it’s hugely important that the efforts continue.

Lise Lareau is the national president of the Canadian Media Guild. You can reach her at lise@cmg.ca.

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