As news organizations across Canada suffer major revenue declines due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and reporting on the quickly shifting story of the virus puts extraordinary demands on the industry, Justin Trudeau offered help Wednesday — but industry leaders said it was nowhere near enough.
A day after newspaper publishers in Quebec and Atlantic Canada laid off hundreds of employees due to the impact of the pandemic on advertising revenues, “it’s more important than ever that Canadians have access to the latest news and information,” Trudeau said.
“To ensure that journalists can continue to do this vital work, our government is announcing new measures to support them,” he said.
Later Wednesday, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault announced that Ottawa would spend $30 million on a COVID-19 awareness advertising campaign, and was moving forward with a previously announced tax credit plan.
Beyond the ad campaign, the lack of an emergency cash infusion for the struggling industry came as a disappointment to John Hinds, president and CEO of News Media Canada.
“I think this is our fundamental issue: We’re confused,” said Hinds, whose association represents print and digital news media members across the country, including Torstar, the Star’s parent company.
“We hoped he was going to announce something new. Instead, what (the government) did was rehash a couple of announcements that were very good with dealing with the crisis we were facing a year ago, but have nothing to do with the (pandemic-related cash crunch) crisis we’re facing today.”
Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, was more blunt.
“I’m profoundly disappointed. The prime minister lied,” said Cox, who’s also News Media Canada chair.
“He stood there and said they were going to have new support for journalism and gave hope to an industry that desperately needs it … (but) didn’t announce a single new thing.”
The state of print and digital news media made headlines this week when SaltWire Network said it was laying off nearly 40 per cent of its employees — about 240 people — and suspending all weekly newspapers in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador for 12 weeks.
In Quebec, 143 jobs were lost across a co-operative that owns daily newspapers outside of Montreal, including Le Soleil in Quebec City.
Quebec, like Ontario, has declared media an essential service during the pandemic.
In an open letter to readers, SaltWire Network CEO Mark Lever said the business lost nearly two-thirds of its revenue because many advertisers ceasing operations temporarily.
“Like many industries and businesses, the economic ripple effect of COVID-19 has hit our local newspaper media industry faster and far more aggressively than we could have ever planned for or anticipated,” Lever wrote.
Cox said the journalism industry realizes the effects of COVID-19 on the workforce go well beyond the media.
“We didn’t expect to be singled out but we also didn’t expect to be shunted aside, and that’s what’s going on here,” Cox said, noting the federal program in place to aid the industry still hasn’t started operating.
“We haven’t got the (program) money so we don’t actually have this cash to operate our businesses (and) until we get that, we’re screwed,” Cox continued.
“We’re all facing the same extinction level event, as they say, and most of us have looked at our books and said, ‘It’s months for us and not necessarily many months before we’re out of money to pay staff, to operate and keep doing the valuable job the prime minister thanked us for today.’”
A news release from Canadian Heritage on Wednesday described the media as “an indispensable communications link between different levels of government and the public.”
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The ministry also stated it was “taking action to support our publishing and news sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic” and that these efforts “will help ensure Canadians can continue to get reliable news and information related to COVID-19, so they can make the right decisions to stay healthy and safe.”
The Canada Revenue Agency confirmed that the Independent Advisory Board on Eligibility for Journalism Tax Measures had been finalized. The board’s role is to make recommendations to the CRA on “whether a journalism organization meets certain criteria” to qualify for new tax relief measures.
The details of the program were introduced in the November 2019 federal budget.