Just when Canadians need strong news outlets to guide them through the pandemic’s second wave, those same outlets are facing extinction.
The sharp revenue drop resulting from COVID-19 comes after years of Google and Facebook, cornering the market on consumer data and digital advertising, bleeding much-needed revenue away from newspapers, magazines and TV and radio.
Since the beginning of the pandemic alone, 48 community newspapers have temporarily or permanently closed. More than 300 have closed in the last 10 years. As journalists are pushed out of work, the coverage their outlets have been able to produce has gone down, down, down.
Facebook and Google are true monopolies destroying a public good, not the water or air this time, but our democracy. Together the media giants own 80% of Canada’s $6-billion digital ad market.
They don’t pay taxes. Facebook employs only 83 Canadians, none of them journalists, all the while pulling billions out of this country - ad dollars needed to support quality journalism here.
Newsmedia Canada, the umbrella group of Canadian publishers, want something done before it’s too late. Its newest report, Sustainability of Journalism in Canada, tells the familiar story of a broken business model and news coverage decline.
Another report, another call to action. Will this one go anywhere?
To take Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault at his word, the federal government may force Google and Facebook to recycle some of those monopoly dollars into journalism.
The solution Newsmedia Canada wants, and the minister has warmed to, comes from Australia.
The Australians, however, have only gone for the low hanging fruit – and that’s the problem.
The undeniable fact in all this is that Google’s search engine and Facebook’s news feed are grabbing news content off the Internet without paying for it. Because of that, they can attract people to their platforms, and make billions selling our eyeballs to their advertisers.
Newspapers around the world want Google and Facebook to pay for their content, as they should.
The Australian model, on the verge of being implemented over the vigorous objections of Google and Facebook, sets up a collective bargaining regime between the news content providers and web-based media giants.
Under this model, stand-alone publishers can either negotiate directly with Google and Facebook (good luck with that) or combine as a group for more bargaining power.
Since alone or together the publishers have very little bargaining power - it would be suicide for them to “strike” Facebook and Google by quitting those dominant platforms - the Australian model offers binding arbitration if the web giants stonewall in bargaining, something as a labour leader I have seen powerful companies do from time to time.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has already responded by threatening to pull the plug on their Australian news feed altogether. As a labour leader, that looks a lot like a lockout.
Google has more finesse than Zuckerberg but still insists it provides value to publishers by giving their stories public exposure, even as it bickers over what “publisher content” is.
There’s a fundamental problem with the Australian model, however. Its focus on paying for content misses the real abuse of Facebook and Google’s monopoly power.
The real problem is that they have cornered the market on digital advertising around the globe by scraping our personal data to give advertisers an irresistible product.
Fixing that just takes a little political courage, but we do have a roadmap.
Three years ago, the federal government asked an expert panel to advise how Canadian media might survive the onslaught of global digital giants such Netflix, Facebook, and Google.
The report of the blue-ribbon Yale Committee in January 2020 proposed a news fund bankrolled by regular contributions from Facebook and Google, like a monopoly-license fee that funnels dollars right back into public journalism.
We’ve done this sort of thing before, and shown that it works. The 150-year-old Canadian Periodical Fund, the Federal Aid to Written Journalism program, and the Independent Local News Fund for non-network local television stations are strong precedents for Facebook and Google to pay their share.
If journalism is essential to democracy, and it is, it’s time to go for the best Canadian solution we can find.