Americans' general cluelessness about about all things Canadian is legendary. But we should definitely pay some attention to our northern neighbors' latest move to increase government support for journalism, to help support their country's democracy.
According to the Toronto Star, Canada plans to implement a package of tax incentives worth CAD$595 million over the next five years targeting news organizations and journalism nonprofits.
I think something similar might actually work in the U.S. as well, for a couple of reasons.
First, it would obviously be a big help to our struggling news industry – and thus the democracy that relies on it. While I don't think public support will ever be a one-size-fits-all kind of silver bullet for U.S. journalism, it can serve as one tool among many to help the public get the news it needs.
Second, increased public support in the form of tax breaks – not new spending directly out of the government treasury – might be politically feasible in the current U.S. environment, divided though it is. There's a long list of other industries and causes we "support" this way, so why not the press as well?
There's also some precedent for it in the U.S., since the Post Office has long given newspaper and magazine publishers discounted mailing rates as a way to facilitate dissemination of news. That de facto subsidy, which dates back almost to the days when Ben Franklin served as America's first postmaster general, was worth almost $500 million annually as of 2016, according to the Postal News blog.
A new package of tax breaks akin to Canada's would carry a much higher price tag in the U.S., if it were to have a truly comparable effect on the news industry here. If we adjust for the currency exchange rate, plus the much larger population that the U.S. media has to serve, I'd estimate the U.S. would have to offer tax breaks of about $3.9 billion to have a similar effect as Canada's new five-year plan.
If that figure causes sticker shock, keep in mind that (a) it's arguably warranted by the new threat that oligarch-sized technology companies pose to our free press in the twenty-first century. And (b) it's still a tiny portion of our overall federal budget, dwarfed by other things that are arguably less important than a functioning free press.
The Department of Defense, for instance, spent more than four times as much ($16 billion) a few years ago on ammunition it acknowledged it didn't need. So it's all relative depending on one's priorities.