Postmedia Columnist Andrew Coyne makes his case for subscription-based journalism at the 2017 Harold Innis Lecture.

Postmedia columnist and CBC At Issue panellist Andrew Coyne says that the story of the newspaper industry’s death is greatly exaggerated. Instead, he told a crowd of 214 Innis alumni and guests at an event last Tuesday that the industry simply needs to transform and evolve in the age of tablets and subscription-based services.

“The best quality television is on services you have to pay for, like Netflix and HBO, not free TV. The news should be no different,”

Ironically, in Harold Innis’ time, Innis was very concerned with the power wielded by print media. Today, rather, academics and commentators are worried that the industry is on the verge of collapse. Coyne believes that the crisis in news media should not be solved through a government bailout, but rather journalists’ efforts to sell content to readers.

“Nobody owes you the three minutes to read your column,” said Coyne.

Instead, he argues that you have to give them a reason to read to the end.

In Coyne’s opinion, any government subsidies to the industry raise a host of issues and compromise the objectivity of the media. Pointing to companies in the Canadian magazine industry and the CBC, one of Coyne’s own employers, he claimed the absence of incentive to circulate more copies means subsidies fail to promote quality.

Referring to outspoken and controversial Rebel Media head Ezra Levant, more concerning, according to Coyne, is what he calls the “Ezra test.” If the government offered the industry a paid subsidy, either the government would have to agree to support the contentious social commentary of pundits like Levant and others, or some government bureaucrat would have to make the troubling decision of who would and who wouldn’t be subsidized, raising questions about the objectivity of the media.

Coyne’s solution instead relies on what he calls “three constants”: the reader’s desire for the written narrative provided in newspapers; the reader’s belief that established print media companies are still the most trusted sources when the stakes are high; and the reader’s longing for the deeply pleasurable experience that comes from reading a continuous edition on paper or a tablet.

Recalling the recent popularity of the New York Times’ subscription tablet app, Coyne makes the case that with quality application and writing, Canada’s newspaper industry can end its decade-long reliance on clickbait and century-long dependence on paid advertising while returning to the strength that it enjoyed in Innis’s day. By relying on the ability of talented journalists to write high-quality content and the current generation’s preference for subscription based-services, Coyne believes that the industry can use the tools of the free market to rejuvenate itself.

Coyne’s talk not only generated a spirited discussion amongst attendees during the post-lecture reception, it also sparked controversy during the presentation itself. Simon Houpt, a Globe and Mail columnist also in attendance on Tuesday, took an opportunity during the Q&A to remind the audience that Coyne’s principle employer, the National Post, has often been criticized for its reliance on corporate subsidies. Indeed, objective reporting faces an equal, if not greater threat from the influence of corporations and media moguls, like Conrad Black, than non-partisan subsidies from the government.

Without question, Andrew Coyne remains a journalist in his own class and is perhaps one of the most well-known commentators in Canadian media. While his optimism about the future of Canada’s newspaper industry is admirable and reassuring, the success of his solutions has yet to be seen. Solutions aside, it appears that Canada’s healthy and vibrant traditional media will continue to be the gatekeepers of reliable information in the 21st century.

 

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