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Ottawa should play a role in funding new journalism

Alfred Hermida is director and associate professor, Mary Lynn Young is an associate professor, both at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism

Buried at the end of the Heritage Committee report on how to address disruption in the media is perhaps one of the most important sentences. On page 80, the final recommendation calls for startup funding for digital media companies.

After 15 months of work, much of the committee's report seems focused on finding ways to prop up a 20th-century for-profit media industry economic model that has been slow to shift to the realities of a digital present.

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Read more: Report details recommendations for sustainable funding of Canadian media

Journalism has been disrupted for more than two decades now. It is a little late to think about correcting the missteps of the past, given how much journalism has changed and continues to change in the present.

There certainly is a need for debate over the role of the federal government, the appropriate support mechanisms and subsidies to fund Canadian journalists and journalism, and the deficits of media companies to adapt to digital journalism. But the report is a missed opportunity to commit to the future by fostering a plurality of approaches to journalism, as well as the training of editorial professionals who will engage, respond to and serve our 21st-century information needs.

The recommendations for startup funding and changes to the income-tax laws to include not-for-profit journalism organizations as registered charities, however, are welcome first steps. But they are only the start.

We speak as researchers who study how journalism is changing and as entrepreneurs who have been working for the past two years on developing a new media not-for-profit, The Conversation Canada, which will be launching next week.

Our journey towards launching a journalism startup has highlighted both opportunities and significant challenges to media innovation in Canada.

The Conversation Canada aims to improve access to independent, high-quality explanatory journalism, something that the Heritage Committee describes as "a pillar of Canadian democracy." However, the road to launch has exposed the lack of adequate structures and support mechanisms to create a new media entity.

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Our contribution to journalism is simple and proven in five other markets: match expert academics with experienced journalists to encourage wider sharing of research and analysis for use by the public.

Raising the funds to pay for and support high-quality digital editorial operations – which are cheaper than legacy media cost structures – is just one issue.

As academics, we were able to apply for and obtain competitive federal research seed funding – something that is unique to the higher-education sector and a gap for private-sector peers. The funds enabled us to conduct a feasibility study, support partner outreach and fundraising activities, and invest in journalism students to work on the project and develop their skills.

We were also able to access legal expertise within the University of British Columbia to guide us through the process of setting up a not-for-profit, and we benefited from being able to license an existing technology platform. We did not have to create our own digital publishing system or design our web and mobile sites, as the project is part of the global Conversation network.

All of this highlights the need for mechanisms to enable new journalism organizations to get up and running as a means of encouraging transformation and innovation, the sustainability of quality journalism and a plurality of voices.

This is where government can help by underpinning Canadians' capacity to incubate ideas and initiatives in an environment that encourages the piloting of new journalism projects. Areas that need buttressing are competitive seed-funding mechanisms, not-for-profit journalism models, technology tools and training to develop and implement digital publishing systems. Imagine media incubators in every province, along the lines of the MaRS urban innovation hub in Toronto, to seed the journalism of tomorrow.

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Oxford research fellow Robert Picard, a global expert in media economics and one of 131 witnesses quoted in the report, noted in his briefing paper that "although established legacy media have historically been the backbone of quality local journalism, it is important not to focus only on their contributions or believe that only they can service informational needs in the digital age."

The Heritage Committee acknowledged that Canada has the highest levels of media concentration of any major comparable country, but the recommendations do little to cultivate the conditions for a multiplicity of media and new journalism forms that we know are emerging.

The main beneficiaries of this report are the small and homogenous group of Canadian media executives and owners who are in part responsible for the current precarious state of the industry. And that's effective lobbying – not future-focused policy making.

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