Ownership (and profit) in Canadian news media has historically been concentrated in the hands of the few. TorStar (the company behind the Toronto Star), The Globe and Mail (the Thomson family) and Postmedia own 41 of the 74 daily newspapers listed by News Media Canada in their annual report. That number includes none of the community newspapers held by these companies, of which TorStar alone owns more than 70.
Only six dailies are listed as independent, and two of those come from The Epoch Times, an outlet that two federal postal workers refused to deliver due to what they characterized as racist coverage* (the workers were suspended). This is in addition to the consolidated power of Bell Media and Corus Entertainment in the broadcast space amidst the overarching presence of the CBC. There is also a smattering of smaller holding companies amidst an ever-growing independent media scene.
Even before COVID-19 wiped out or halted 3,011 jobs — according to J Source’s recent research — there was a clamoring for a collective independent media north of the border.
In 2019, Journalists for Human Rights brought together stakeholders for a conference to discuss the future of the sector. There was frustration at the Canadian government’s $600 million 2019 media bailout disproportionately going to legacy newsrooms rather than independent shops. Those involved saw the continual closing of local papers — to the point of creating news deserts in significant centers — while the Postmedias of the world (themselves owned by an American hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management) still saw profits rolling in.
Rachel Pulfer, executive director of JHR, said this led to a realization on her part.
“I realized, along with others that were part of that conversation, that the communication was really being slanted towards supporting large legacy newspaper organizations. … I realized that what was needed was what we did in other countries — when there was an issue affecting the sector, we help to organize the sector. And it seems like it would be better for these small independent shops to form a collective and be able to voice their perspective, their version of what’s been happening in the media sector, their needs, and how best the federal government and other potential media funders could help meet those needs.”
The conference eventually led to Press Forward, which launched as an independent nonprofit in December 2020 and now represents 13 independent media outlets from across Canada.
Press Forward’s chair, Emma Gilchrist — co-founder of The Narwhal, an environment-focused newsroom located in British Columbia — said the opportunities for independent outlets are bountiful.
“I think the landscape of independent media in Canada is really exciting right now. It’s growing more robust by the day,” Gilchrist said. “It has definitely lagged behind the sector in the U.S., particularly in the nonprofit space. But changes made to charitable laws in Canada in the last couple of years is now allowing for more nonprofit news models to come about.”
One of those changes allows qualifying nonprofit newsrooms to achieve qualified donee status, meaning they can issue tax receipts. Only two outlets, The Narwhal and Montreal-based La Presse, have achieved the status so far.
Erin Millar, who co-founded The Discourse (itself rooted in local work in six communities across the country) with Caitlin Havlak, was one of the members of Press Forward’s steering committee before launch. Millar said that the media landscape in Canada is “symbiotic” between independent and legacy media, in part because many journalists, including herself, come from a legacy media background.
This relationship leads to the two sections of the industry pushing each other, she said.
“I think it’s been pretty clearly demonstrated that the legacy system responds to competition,” she said. “I recall speaking to someone quite senior at the Toronto Star a few years ago when The Discourse was operating The Discourse Scarborough. She said to me, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s amazing. I’ve been on the receiving end of complaints from audience members in Scarborough for years because they thought overlooked by the Toronto Star. But now that you guys are there, the Toronto Star’s putting a bunch more resources in.’”
Millar has since added to her workload by co-founding — with Havlak — Indiegraf, a for-profit company seeking to assist the growth of independent media in Canada through a support and revenue-sharing model. (Disclosure: I occasionally write newsletters for Indiegraf, and have written for J Source.)
After initial support from the Facebook Journalism Project, Google News Initiative and the Inspirit Foundation, the company has received approximately $1 million in investment from U.S.-based New Media Ventures and Ontario-based Marigold Capital for an expansion into the U.S. Much like the rest of the Canadian business landscape, the connection between Canadian and U.S. media remains significant.
Gilchrist said that Press Forward’s “biggest policy position so far” has been focused on the tension between social media networks and media outlets when it comes to the use of journalistic content. The Canadian government recently announced that it will work to ensure Facebook and and other networks pay for the journalism content they use.
“We’ve been watching what’s been happening in Australia with regards to mandatory media bargaining code,” Gilchrist said. “And we’ve been working to make sure that whatever happens in Canada doesn’t tilt the playing field in favor of large legacy publishers, and that it keeps in mind the interests of smaller independent publishers as well.”
Gilchrist pointed to the success of the subscriber-based model used by many Press Forward members as one indicator of collective strength, reflected in how outlets have been able to expand despite the pandemic.
“We did a survey of Press Forward members and found that Press Forward staff grew by 40% in 2020. In a year that was a very challenging time for many newsrooms and businesses in general. The Narwhal membership grew by 130% in 2020. So, a lot of bright spots, particularly around the audience revenue side of things, and I think reinvigorating that direct relationship with the reader.”
As Press Forward expands and makes its presence felt, such as with Gilchrist’s recent op-ed in the Globe and Mail calling into question what the saving of journalism looks like, there is now deeper representation for Canada’s independent newsrooms.
*In a statement to Poynter, Epoch Times Canada publisher Cindy Gu refuted the Canadian federal postal workers’ characterization of The Epoch Times’ coverage:
The Epoch Times was founded by Chinese immigrants. There is no way we would publish content that is anti-Asian or racist. Some people may have erroneously conflated criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with criticism of the Chinese people. The Chinese Communist Party does not represent the Chinese people or China. Understanding the difference is vital and will eliminate racial tension, as people come to understand that the criticism of the handling of the virus is of the CCP, not the Chinese people.
Correction: News Media Canada lists six dailies as independent, not seven. We regret the error.