Bell Globemedia/CHUM merger cannot leave journalists behind

First published: July 13, 2006

The merger of Bell Globemedia and CHUM Ltd. will certainly be debated around the subject of media oligarchy and concentration of ownership in Canada, but concerns around the quality of journalism may not get the same thorough airing. And, it needs to.

Canada needs a major foundation to fund excellent reporting and innovative projects done by journalists. While there are many awards honour excellent journalism, there are very few organizations to fund projects. The most visible is the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, which provides up to $100,000 to a full-time Canadian journalists to report on a policy issue. This pales in comparison to American charitable organizations, like the Knight Foundation with more than $2 billion in assets. It spent $92.6 million on grants in 2005, of which $25 million was given to 43 projects. These included innovative electronic and new media experiments, journalism training and education, newsroom diversity and press freedom.

With all the pressures journalists, producers, editors and news directors face with less resources, there is a serious question as to how journalists will fulfill their mandate, not to just report on what is happening, but to function at a higher level by holding government and institutions accountable. The type of investigative or enterprise reporting, that was once a hallmark of journalism, is not done to the same degree. Certainly, larger news organizations in major urban centres are able to support large projects. The number of Canadian newsrooms with a dedicated investigative team could be counted on one hand. Medium and small operations are often unable to undertake any substantial projects or investigative journalism due to a lack of staff and money.

The lack of this caliber of journalism only increases the levels of public mistrust and lack of credibility faced by news media. Falling readership in print and dropping audiences for radio and television news represent a continuing trend fuelled by the public’s sentiments. The recent battle between the parliamentary press gallery and Prime Minister Stephen Harper characterize these feelings. If politicians truly felt public opinion fully supported journalists, then they would not dare to treat them with such condescension. It is only because Canadians do distrust news media that this can occur.

If Canadian journalists are going to be able to continue to produce top quality journalism across all types of media and at all levels, from small community weeklies to major market dailies and from regional radio/television to national broadcasters, it is going to be vital for owners to make a financial contribution to a new foundation for Canadian journalism as part of this merger. And, other major media owners should contribute to this or create their own foundations so the future of journalism in this country remains the best in the world and serves Canadians.