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An existential threat to online news in Canada

Meta and Google’s moves to block news in Canada undermine democracy. Now more than ever, we’re relying on readers like you to spread the word about The Narwhal

I’ll never forget the halcyon days of summer 2019. Yes, there were concerts, days at the lake and margaritas on the patio, but what sticks with me the most is the Saturday morning adrenaline rush I felt every time I posted a weekend feature from The Narwhal to Facebook. I’d try to restrain myself for an hour before hitting refresh to see how many times a story had been shared. Oftentimes, a post would rack up thousands of shares over the course of a weekend.

That summer’s blockbusters included Sarah Cox’s piece on Canada’s forgotten rainforest, Judith Lavoie’s on-the-ground feature about the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s decades-long fight against Taseko Mines and an in-depth look at how a West Coast fishing community is seeking to reinvent itself as salmon populations dwindle.

These are what I call “classic Narwhal” stories — stories we built our name and our audience around. Stories that allowed a tiny news organization with two staff and a few freelancers to build a regular monthly audience of more than 100,000 readers. There are no two ways about it: these stories and the audiences they reached via Facebook and Google allowed The Narwhal to get liftoff velocity. 

Four years later, The Narwhal has grown to 23 staff, has bureaus across the country, has won dozens of national journalism awards and is taking a stand for press freedom in the courts.

The Narwhal’s risk-taking, investigative environmental journalism never would have been possible without the audiences we reached via social media platforms. Indeed, many of you reading this probably initially discovered The Narwhal through Facebook. In 2019, Facebook drove 54 per cent of The Narwhal’s total traffic. By 2021, that number had been cut in half. And so far in 2023, Facebook has accounted for just six per cent of readers to our site. 

Traffic from Facebook has shrunk ever smaller as the platform has changed its algorithm time and time again to serve users less news. And now, Meta has completely blocked news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada, due to the standoff between tech platforms and the federal government over the Online News Act — which compels tech companies to negotiate financial compensation with news organizations for news shared on their platforms. And Google vows it’ll be the next to block news. 

An illustration of a phone with a dystopian, wired background. The phone screen shows The Narwhal's Instagram account, with a message that reads: "People in Canada can't see your content. This account is a news publication. Content from news publications can't be viewed in Canada in response to Canadian government legislation." The feed is blocked by that message and no posts are visible.
As of August 2023, news is no longer available to Facebook and Instagram users in Canada. Illustration: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal

These moves by big tech companies to block news on their platforms undermine democracy and represent an existential threat to online news outlets like ours that have relied on word of mouth via social media to discover our work. It also undermines the possibility for new, innovative online news outlets to find audiences. 

While the policy landscape is a hot mess right now, we are keeping our eye on the ball and focusing on continuing to produce investigative journalism you can’t find anywhere else. 

Investigating problems. Exploring solutions
The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.
Investigating problems. Exploring solutions
The Narwhal’s reporters are telling environment stories you won’t read about anywhere else. Stay in the loop by signing up for a weekly dose of independent journalism.

The Narwhal never would have existed without people like you sharing the word about us. Now more than ever we are relying on you, our dear readers, to share the word about The Narwhal with your friends, family and colleagues. Since you can’t do that on social media any more, can you commit to telling three friends about us via email, text, telephone or carrier pigeon?

Take care and don’t be a stranger,

Emma Gilchrist
Editor-in-chief

More ways you can stay connected with The Narwhal

We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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… which means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
… which means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
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