This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
When Canadians need them most, media outlets are being forced to trim their budgets, and newsrooms, as the pandemic continues to hit the bottom line.
The pandemic, now almost a year long with many dark months still ahead, is both the cause of much of media’s immediate troubles, and one of the big reasons we need it.
Think about it. Newspapers and broadcasters across Canada play a vital role in Canada’s effort to stop COVID-19. It’s been the main way governments and health units reach out to Canadians to do their part to stop the virus’s spread, while also holding governments to account for their shortcomings.
Media reports have exposed the consequences of government neglect in long term care homes, told the heartbreaking stories of those who have been lost and the toll all that has taken on healthcare workers.
Story after story has told of the need for paid sick days to stop workplace spread - and the stubborn resistance of some political leaders who refuse to listen.
We all know so much more about communicable diseases, ICU capacities and what goes on behind the closed doors of LTC homes, thanks to the hard work of journalists across this country.
None of that comes cheap, however
The fact is, many of us consume our news away from the newspaper pages or on-air broadcasts where they originated. Much of it, of course, is accessed online. You may even be reading this very column online, having found it through Facebook or a Google search
That’s great. Glad you’re reading.
The thing is, finding stories through Facebook or Google puts money – a lot of money - in the pockets of the tech giants and does almost nothing to help pay for the news you need to get through this pandemic.
Google and Facebook have built business models around sharing the content generated by news outlets, but claim the vast majority of ad dollars raised by that content. Those paying to create that content actually get very little of the revenue it brings in – and that needs to change.
Add to all that the decades-long declines in revenues thanks to dropping advertisements, the near complete loss of classified ads, the shift online that predated Facebook, the 2008-09 financial crisis that slashed ad revenue that was never recovered, and much of the media sector is now reaching a breaking point.
Newspapers, for instance, have been hit hard, with with more than 50 publications closed and 2,500 jobs, according to J-Source. More than 141 news outlets have been forced to make cuts. Broadcasters, including Bell Media just this month, have had to make cuts that seemed unthinkable not so long ago.
A strong democracy relies on a strong media sector. Today, a healthy populace also depends on a healthy media sector.
There have been promises of help from government before, some small moves and a lot of good words saying the right thing.
Heritage Minister Stephen Guilbeault recently said addressing the power of Facebook and Google must be a priority.
“Like many Canadians, our government is concerned about the current imbalance that favours the web giants at the expense of Canadian businesses,” he said told a parliamentary committee last month. “The economic and social stakes resulting from the situation are too important for us to just stand idly by.”
Couldn’t agree more. Let’s get to work. Other countries are acting. We can, too.
France’s competition bureau told Google that it must start paying media outlets for displaying their content. Australia has told Facebook and Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, they have to share advertising revenue with local media companies.
The Australia model is far from perfect, to say the least, and yet it has led to both tech giants threatening to pull their services from the country altogether.
Such bullying tactics only further make the case for limiting the power of these tech giants and for them to be compelled to help pay for the content that’s generating much of their incredible revenue.
As vaccines roll out, stumble out in some places, the role and importance of the media will only increase. There is a light at the end of the tunnel thanks to vaccination programs, but we need the media sector to help to keep it burning.