News

Federal money's kept hundreds of journalists employed in Canada. But the program's set to expire

The Local Journalism Initiative launched in 2019 that currently supports more than 400 journalists in underserved communities. It's set to expire on March 31, and independent journalists and publications relying on the funds have no news about whether it will be renewed.

After mass layoffs across country’s largest news outlets, independent publications await news of their fate

Newspapers on a desk.
'We cannot today announce anything,' a spokesperson for the federal heritage ministry told CBC in a statement when asked about their future plans for the Local Journalism Initiative set to expire March 31. (Shutterstock / Trinet Uzun)

A federal program that funds hundreds of local journalists and underserved regions across the country is set to expire at the end of March, and the independent newsrooms that rely on it have no news about whether it will be renewed. 

The uncertainty comes amid mass layoffs in and uncertainty in some of Canada's biggest newsrooms, and at a time when politicians such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau express anger at their leaders.

The Local Journalism Initiative (LJI), created by the Canadian Heritage ministry in 2019, doled out $50 million over five years. News organizations could apply and receive money to hire journalists or pay freelance journalists to report on underserved communities and issues. 

The initiative was launched because at that time, the national media landscape was already dire. According to think-tank Public Policy Forum's Shattered Mirror report in 2017, 225 weekly and 27 daily newspapers had closed or merged operations since 2010.

But LJI funding is scheduled to end on March 31, and there are no answers on whether it will be renewed.

"In total, there are over 400 LJI reporters across Canada at nearly 300 media outlets serving some 1,400 local communities," said Paul Deegan, president and CEO of News Media Canada, which is one of six groups that administer LJI funding. 

"Frankly, there are no other current federal funding initiatives that can replace it. It is a world-class program that other countries are looking at."

The federal government isn't ready to tip its hand about the program's future.

"We cannot today announce anything," a spokesperson for the federal heritage ministry told CBC in a statement Wednesday.

"We will continue to support local journalism in substantial ways that tells our stories and informs our communities."

Layoffs have been recently announced at both CBC and Bell Media.

Bell Media's parent company, BCE Inc. cut 4,800 jobs, including some specficially at Bell Media. The company is also selling some of its radio properties. Trudeau publicly said he was "pissed off" by the news.

"It's a garbage decision from a corporation that should know better," the prime minister in Toronto.

B.C. Premier David Eby called the company and others like it "corporate vampires." 

WATCH | Trudeau calls Bell job cuts a 'garbage decision': 

Trudeau 'furious' after Bell job cuts

3 months ago
Duration 2:39
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was 'pissed off' at Bell's layoffs in its media division, calling it a 'garbage decision by a corporation that should know better.'

Without the Local Journalism Initiative in place, even more journalists' livelihoods and Canadian news coverage overall are under threat, according to Jeanette Ageson, chair of Press Forward, an independent media advocacy group.

"The Local Journalism Initiative, I think, is meant to provide some sustainability or assurances that like maintain a level of journalism output, but leaving it hanging in this way, often induces a lot of really unnecessary instability," Ageson said. 

"If I were to be asking for anything, it would be clear, more timely information that allows publishers to make informed decisions on what we know is going to happen."

'I don't want just words'

Michelle Gamage was hired by The Tyee, a Vancouver-based online news organization, last year as a health reporter funded by the LJI.

"The time and space that I get with the Tyee to be able to do this job and do it well I think helps us uncover some really incredible stories and helps us dig into so much nuance, which you don't get with a press release or with a 10-second video clip," she said.

Gamage said she regularly hears from readers and sources — many of whom are at-risk individuals recounting traumatic events — who are pleasantly surprised when she takes the time to meet them in person and when they read important context in her stories, particularly about B.C.'s toxic drug crisis.

She watched Trudeau and Eby's impassioned reactions to the Bell Media layoffs closely, looking for clues about her own job.

"I love how the government is stepping up and recognizing the importance of journalism and how essential to democracy it is for small communities to know what's happening," Gamage said.

"But also I don't want just words from them. I want action that shows that the government is supporting journalists."

WATCH | Indigenous newspaper in Saskatchewan on hiatus amid funding woes: 

Eagle Feather News on hiatus after Meta ban tanks ad sales

3 months ago
Duration 3:31
Eagle Feather News, an Indigenous newspaper covering communities across Saskatchewan, says it is taking a 'hopefully brief' but indefinite hiatus because it can't afford to pay journalists or print its next edition.

Continuing the LJI is one such action, but Gamage also wants more transparency from government — "Let me talk to people, don't just send me statements," she said.

Also on her wishlist are an end to fees for freedom of information requests in B.C., and for governments to take out advertising in independent media — an idea that Deegan also supports.

"I'd love to see them do a lot more than they've been doing, but at the very least, if they could let me know if I have a job in a month and a bit, that would be amazing," Gamage said.

The Online News Act and other funds

Officials with the Canadian Heritage Ministry cited a number of other initiatives in place to support journalism.

"On top of putting in place the historic Online News Act, we continue to support Canadian news organizations through a range of programs, including the Local Journalism Initiative, the Canada Periodical Fund, and the recently boosted Canadian Journalism Labour Tax Credit," the ministry said in its statement.

Because of the Online News Act, Google will have to pay about $100 million to news companies annually to keep sharing Canadian news online. But the process through which that money will be distributed has not yet begun.

"Google has not even done their open call, which is the first thing they have to do and then publications need to put up their hands and say, 'Yes, I would like to engage in this deal-making process,'" Ageson said. 

"This is all supposed to be wrapped up by June.… Meantime, the LJI contracts are ending [at the] end of March."

The Canadian Journalism Labour Tax Credit is a helpful initiative, Ageson said. The refundable credit was recently increased from 25 per cent to 35 per cent of the salary for qualifying newsrooms and journalists.

The Canadian Periodical Fund provides subsidies that news organizations can apply to receive, but one of these funds cannot be accessed at the same time as the tax credit, and another amounts to short term funding that cannot sustain a newsroom, Ageson said. 

WATCH | Heritage minister discusses $100M Online News Act deal with Google: 

Ottawa reaches $100M deal with Google on Online News Act

6 months ago
Duration 9:52
Google and the federal government have reached an agreement in their dispute over the Online News Act. The $100 million deal comes three weeks before Bill C-18 is set to come into effect. Google originally threatened to follow in the footsteps of Meta, which blocked news content on Facebook and Instagram in response to the legislation. Power & Politics speaks to Canada's minister of heritage.

None of these measures replace the LJI, which is not only a fund but also acts as a wire service that makes local stories from underserved communities accessible to every news outlet. 

"It's this centralized database that is managed by Canadian Press. All LJI stories are creative commons and they are free to republish by any other outlets," Ageson said.

"That has unlocked a whole new era of sharing and collaboration and getting good information out to even more readers."

According to Deegan, the initiative has been a "vital" and successful one. "Given its success, we are very hopeful that the program will be renewed," he said.

Ageson is bracing for the possibility that newsrooms will not know whether their contracts can be renewed until the federal budget is announced. Last year, the budget was announced on March 28. With LJI funding scheduled to end just three days later, the timeline would leave journalists with only a few days' notice.

"I'd love to know if I have a job past when my contract ends because right now, it sounds like I might find out when my contract ends and that's just not sustainable as a job practice," Gamage said. 

"Even if they're not going to continue LJI, just communicate that. Not hearing is really difficult for me to plan my life around."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that Bell Media is cutting 4,800 positions. Bell Media's parent company, BCE Inc. cut 4,800 jobs, a proportion of which will affect Bell Media.
    Feb 16, 2024 3:35 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brishti Basu

Senior writer

Brishti Basu is a senior writer with CBCNews.ca. Before joining CBC, her in-depth coverage of health care, housing and sexual violence at Capital Daily was nominated for several national and provincial journalism awards. She was deputy editor at New Canadian Media and has been a freelance journalist for numerous publications including National Geographic, VICE, The Tyee, and The Narwhal. Send story tips to brishti.basu@cbc.ca.

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