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Tackling web giants should be a federal priority

Posted on December 3, 2020 by Vauxhall Advance

Weekly newspapers in communities from coast to coast dot the nation’s landscape like a media mosaic. From the Bay of Fundy to the Strait of Georgia, small-town journalists are on the job telling the stories that matter most, stories that remain part of the vital fabric of the communities these newspapers still serve.

Today in Canada, the survival of these media institutions is far from guaranteed, and many are in danger of disappearing altogether. In recent decades, this media mosaic has become more and more of a patchwork quilt. Technology has evolved, external influences have exerted pressure on advertising revenues but most recently the rise of social media giants like Facebook and Google have seen more newspapers buckle under the powerful influence of these omnibus online organizations, which monopolize advertising revenue in Canada to a degree that is unprecedented while failing to adequately compensate those who actually write and produce the content. Beyond business concerns and profit margins, these newspapers are often an integral part of the history of the communities and regions they serve. If they disappear, it will abruptly end a continuous historical narrative for small towns and rural regions that has been ongoing for decades, and in some cases — like the Taber Times — for more than a century. They are a living, breathing repository of local memory.

And whatever might step in to fill that potential media vacuum will be a far cry from what readers now receive. Not unlike newspapers, broadcast media is also under significant pressure in Canada, and there will be no immediate expansion of resources or coverage areas to take up that slack. To put it bluntly, if your local weekly newspaper is forced to throw in the towel it is unlikely your community will again see the level of coverage it now enjoys on local issues, at least in the foreseeable future. It’s that simple.

Journalism in Canada has always been supported and sustained by advertising revenues. But with global giants like Facebook and Google now eating up 80 per cent of advertising in the country, the outlook for those who actually produce the news that is consumed is increasingly grim. These organizations use their monopoly control not just to divert advertising from newspapers, but also to divert millions in advertising revenues that they place on newspaper sites.

Even when advertisers pay specifically to advertise on newspaper sites, Google and Facebook use their market dominance to keep the lion’s share of the advertising revenues which should go to the owners of the sites. They accumulate data on newspaper site readers and advertisers for their own purposes – and to solidify and strengthen their monopolistic positions.

Simply rolling over and accepting defeat is anathema for newspapers, which still take great pride in serving their communities and regions. So we won’t go down without a fight. To that end, this week print media organizations like News Media Canada and newspapers across the country are calling on the federal government to implement a series of measures based on the approach the Australian government has taken in order to effectively address these monopolistic practices.

There is a way to sustain and foster a flourishing news media ecosystem in Canada once again, one that includes multicultural outlets, local newspapers in regional markets and in-depth coverage of the stories that matter to all Canadians. Under the Australian model, newspapers can band together in a collective bargaining unit to negotiate compensation for the use of their content and intellectual property.

It is only through this collective approach that the immense monopoly power of the web giants can be countered, and the digital playing field levelled. A long-term code-of-conduct needs to be in place to ensure that web monopolies don’t try to use new algorithms and other proprietary technology to expand their market domination and entrench anti-competitive practices, and make web giants subject to multimillion dollar fines. Critically, under this model no new government funding, consumer taxes or user fees would be required.

“It is about fairness: those who benefit from the Canadian ecosystem must also contribute to it, whether they operate in the broadcasting sector or are involved in news content sharing,” Minister of Canadian Heritage, Stephen Guilbeault, said recently about the need to address these challenges. “This means ensuring that our online environment does not unduly disadvantage Canadian news publishers and allows them to continue to do their essential work which is to empower and inform our communities, in times of crisis and beyond, for the benefit of our democracy …”

While this certainly signals a departure from the status quo on the part of the federal government, words are one thing while actions remain something else entirely. Newspapers aren’t looking for a handout; we’re asking the federal government to implement key legislation to level the playing field for all media in Canada. Preserving Canada’s media mosaic includes the hundreds of weekly newspapers in small communities across the nation that are under threat from web giants like Facebook and Google.

And make no mistake, it’s not just about revenues and jobs and the importance to the interwoven fabric of communities. It’s about accountability and democracy. Without a vital and healthy news media ecosystem in Canada free from monopoly, those values and institutions will only be further eroded.

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