(Black Press Media files)

Liberal changes to media aid plan hint at speedier spending, industry group says

Liberals first unveiled a $595-million, five-year package of help for the news industry in the 2019 budget

The federal government’s planned changes to its financial aid for news outlets in Canada should allow more of them to qualify for the financial help, a news-industry association says.

The Liberals first unveiled a $595-million, five-year package of help for the news industry in the 2019 budget, promising, among other things, refundable tax credits to cover one-quarter of salaries for journalists at qualifying outlets.

Some of the rules for the politically charged spending were worded in a way that, for instance, if one small paper in a large chain took advantage of a different program offering help for publishers, the entire organization was banned from the new aid.

John Hinds, CEO of News Media Canada, says the suite of legislative changes the Liberals have unveiled should capture a broader range of news organizations by dropping that prohibition.

Another change would remove a requirement for a labour tax credit that qualifying outlets be “primarily” engaged in news production, and instead allow newsroom employees to spend one-quarter of their time on promoting goods and services.

Hinds says the package of changes may also be an indication that the Liberals intend to speed up disbursement of funds to an industry that has seen demand spike in the COVID-19 pandemic, but revenues plunge.

“The industry desperately needs cash and this is a pretty good way of getting it,” Hinds said in an interview.

“This not something we can wait as an industry for months and months to get processed, so we do hope this is an indication that the government is going to fast-track this.”

Businesses forced to close to curb the spread of the pandemic have cut spending, accelerating a decline in newspaper advertising. Outlets that have diversified some of their revenue streams by hosting events, seminars or training have similarly seen declines, Hinds said.

He recounted the story of one small publisher that saw printing costs rise in the week after the crisis took hold in Canada, the result of increase demand and content, and yet the outlet had no advertising revenue to pay for it.

“Never have people wanted to read our products more, and yet we have a huge revenue shortfall,” Hinds said.

The result has been layoffs and pay cuts designed to shore up cash flows to keep paying the bills. One newspaper chain in Atlantic Canada shuttered weekly publications and laid off 240 people in March, saying it needed to preserve its resources in hopes of reopening later. In early April, hundreds of workers at the Winnipeg Free Press accepted pay cuts to keep their publication going.

In Britain, Culture Minister Oliver Dowden called on citizens to buy newspaper subscriptions to support what he called the country’s fourth emergency service. He also asked remaining advertisers not to block their ads from appearing next to stories on COVID-19.

In Australia on Monday, the government moved toward forcing digital companies such as Facebook and Google to share ad revenue with producers of Australian content, using the country’s competition law.

In Canada, the Liberals have also proposed a tax credit for news subscriptions, but now plan to allow the Canada Revenue Agency to publish details of eligible subscriptions and require organizations to tell their readers if their subscriptions cease to qualify for the credit.

It’s not just print and online publications that may soon be able to access the money.

The Liberals propose changing rules so that only broadcasters with “licensed” broadcasting undertakings can’t access the program’s tax credits. That would likely allow some community radio and television broadcasters to access the program.

Journalism partnerships with different organizations would also be able to qualify under the proposed changes, which would, if approved, be retroactive to last year.

The Canadian Press

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