25 April 2019
April Lindgren, Professor at the Ryerson University School of Journalism, Velma Rogers Research Chair and Principal Investigator of the Local News Research Project
Canada has recently entered into a discussion about the use of philanthropy to support public-interest journalism. Underlying this debate is growing concern about the future of news – especially local news organizations, 262 of which have closed in 190 communities since 2008. Montreal’s La Presse newspaper energized this discussion in early 2018 when it decided to become a nonprofit. La Presse’s choice highlighted a new path, while at the same time drawing attention to the potential for policy change. Canadian news organizations face barriers in undertaking “philanthro-journalism”. Journalism is not currently considered a charitable activity in Canada, which prevents news organizations from taking advantage of tax incentives for registered charities. But this could change soon: the federal government is considering whether to allow nonprofit media organizations to obtain charitable status (or, at least, qualified donee status).
To help unpack the unfolding discussion on philanthro-journalism, I spoke with April Lindgren, an expert on local journalism, about the future of philanthropy and journalism in Canada. The interview is included in this blog post, below a brief summary of our discussion.
April talked about the Local News Research Project and the data that it has collected, which shows that local news organizations in Canada are disappearing at a greater rate than they are being created. She also discussed the consequences of local news poverty, from lack of political accountability and engagement to the proliferation of fake news and polarization, as well as loss of community and information that helps us to navigate daily life.
Our discussion turned to the cause of local news’ woes – chiefly, that technological change has precipitated a disappearance of the fundamental revenue source for news – and potential solutions. April stressed that no single alternate revenue source can fill the $2 billion gap left by declining advertising revenue. Philanthropy has gotten a lot of buzz as a solution to journalism’s revenue woes, but it is unlikely to make much of a dent. As April noted, philanthropic support for journalism in the US is just $150 million annually. And the Canadian philanthropic sector is small in comparison. For instance, in 2009/2010 Americans gave $304 billion to charity while Canadians gave $11 billion. We can therefore expect philanthropic support for journalism in Canada to be much smaller than the $150 million figure for the United States.
Philanthropy is not the solution to journalism’s revenue challenges, but it can be one of many contributors. April and I talked about the shape that philanthro-journalism is likely to take, as well as ethical issues connected to philanthropic support for journalism. Philanthropic support is likely to coalesce around a few darling news organizations, as it has in the United States. At least some of these organizations are likely to have an ideological tinge, in either direction. Foundation support for journalism poses ethical challenges, in the same way that advertising did. Clear ethical guidelines will be important to navigating these challenges, and news organizations can always benefit from diversifying their revenue sources. As with advertising revenue, independence is in part predicated on being able to part ways from supporters with vested interests that may conflict with the stories an outlet is investigating.