By Cole Parkinson
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle for a large majority of Canadians since it first started last spring, and as it’s continued, frustrations and hardships have been prolonged. As a way to highlight what several weekly newspapers in southern Alberta have been dealing with since last March, Bow River MP Martin Shields rose in the House of Commons May 13 to speak about funding for the many papers spread across his riding.
“Speaking about COVID, there is an institution in my riding we call the weekly newspapers. They are Brooks Bulletin, Chestermere Anchor, Strathmore Times, Vauxhall Advance, Taber Times, Vulcan Advocate, Bassano Times, Milo Can Opener, Rocky View Weekly and Three Hills Capital,” stated Shields. “What does all this have to do with COVID? These weekly newspapers are the ones that cover those things in the community, so people know what is happening with COVID in their community. They also know what is happening with the municipal government, what is happening in schools, clubs and associations and the cultural activities in their communities.”
Shields questioned why more funding hasn’t been put into advertising in the many papers across Canada, especially during this time where purse strings have tightened for not only newspapers, but Canadians buying newspapers.
Another noted point from Shields came from the fact social media giants have been recouping plenty of money from advertising.
“At one time a few years ago, there was government advertising that went to weekly newspapers. It used to go to weekly newspapers. Now where does it go? The prime minister and the minister of Canadian Heritage complain about the social media giants, Google and Facebook, but that is where the government is putting its advertising dollars. They are taking Canadian taxpayer dollars and putting it in the social media giants, so the weekly newspapers in Canada, like those in my riding, are getting one-third of one per cent of what they used to get,” he continued. “These are the papers that are highly read. The percentage that are read in the communities, whether it is print, online or both, is huge because they are covering things in their local community. That is where people are getting their information about COVID in their communities, not from the social giants.”
“However, the federal government now complains about the social giant media and it wants to tax them, but if it had spent those taxpayer dollars in the weekly newspapers in our ridings, those weekly newspapers would not be going out of business. They are providing that media in our local communities, which is critical.”
Shields also touched on daily papers and how they don’t have the resources to cover many of the smaller communities weekly papers do.
“The local daily newspapers are not in my riding. Those big daily newspapers are not going to cover all of those local communities in my riding. The weeklies do. The government has shifted our taxpayer money to the foreign social media giants, the Facebooks and the Googles. That is where it has put our tax dollars,” he stated. “If we want to protect our culture in our rural communities, then we should be putting advertising dollars in those weekly newspapers, which pro bono support the cultural activities in our communities. However, the government prefers to put its advertising dollars, which comes from Canadian taxpayers, outside our country. They then want to tax them back. That is hypocrisy. We need those advertising dollars in our ridings.”
In response, Steve MacKinnon, MP for Gatineau, stated he agreed with Shields around the challenges facing weekly newspapers.
“I have no doubt there is a lively, colourful bunch of weekly newspapers in Bow River, just like there is right across the country. Heaven knows many communities rely on them for the things the member posited, such as coverage of local government, local events, retail and the economic sectors in all those communities. I share the member’s earnest desire for us to maintain that vitality. That is why the government has, through a variety of means that we could go on at length about tonight, supported our media sector. We have done so at arm’s length to ensure not only its continued independence, but also its continued vitality,” he replied.
MacKinnon also touched on the advertising aspect Shields brought forward.
“The member asks about government advertising. The Department of Public Services and Procurement does in fact contract with the central media buying organization for the Government of Canada and various departments access that service. I would point out for the member our department really has no operational view or direction it applies to these,” he continued.
“It is up to individual departments to devise their campaigns, plan them and, of course, purchase the media that goes with them. I know any one of my colleagues would be happy to look into any specific advertising buy-in — which he may be interested. I know we want to continue to support a lively and vital local media sector in Canada to the extent it is possible, all the while watching carefully how tax dollars are invested.”