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Union leaders share ideas to rebuild collapsing media industry

With several huge North American media companies facing bankruptcy, about 150 people from the three media sectors of the Communications Workers of America met for three days in Baltimore to look for creative ways to deal with the crisis and to develop new business models for the private-sector media industry.

“It was very sobering and yet inspirational at the same time,” says Lise Lareau, president of the Canadian Media Guild, who attended the Future of the Media Industry conference along with 12 others from CMG.

“We heard how people are dealing with bankruptcies, re-training and alternative ownership. And ? perhaps most importantly ? we heard from the front lines of the political battle to get bills important to workers passed through the new Obama administration in the United States. Much of this was very applicable to our situation in Canada, given our political landscape.”

There were several recurring themes. Internet ad revenue is nowhere close to making up the ad revenue that newspaper-centred media companies are losing from their traditional publications. The current recession is exacerbating the decline in both classified and display ad revenue and no one knows when or if that lost money will be recovered.

Many media conglomerates (Tribune, Gannett, Canwest, Quebecor) greatly expanded over the past decade, buying up smaller media properties and amassing huge debts in the process. Regulators ignored warnings from community groups and unions about this trend and the dangers more concentrated ownership could pose. Their debts kept climbing and, despite layoffs and content cuts, revenues have declined and the value of their holdings has tanked. Now, the market crash has pushed some to the brink.

The participants at the conference agreed a better way must be found to ensure the news media, which forms one of the cornerstones of North American democracy, don’t disappear.

“We need new capital strategies,” said CWA president Larry Cohen in the closing speech of the conference. “We need an investment in quality reporting and information and to treat information as a public service.”

“We need to discuss the severing of advertising from content,” Cohen added, suggesting a mix of public and private funding for media properties as one of the answers. “Management is not going to do it. It’s up to us to lead the way.”

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