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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

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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Our newsletter subscribers are the first to find out when we break a major investigation. Want in? Sign up for free to get the inside scoop on The Narwhal’s reporting on the natural world.
Hey, are you on our list?
An illustration, in yellow, of a computer, with an open envelope inside it with letter reading 'Breaking news.'