Canada should support journalism’s future, not its past

Ottawa should avoid the pitfalls of Australia's faceoff with Big Tech and instead take inspiration from the growth of innovative independent news organizations

This opinion piece first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

If you’ve been following the debate on whether technology platforms such as Facebook and Google should compensate news companies, you might be feeling a bit dizzy.

All hell has broken loose since Australia proposed a mandatory bargaining code in December that would force Google and Facebook to pay a fee for every link to designated Australian news services.

A high-stakes faceoff between the Australian government, Big Tech and big media ensued, prompting Facebook to temporarily pull news content from its platform in a bid to secure 11th-hour changes to the legislation. Now, tech companies are hastily cutting backroom deals with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and a handful of other Australian media giants in an attempt to stave off regulation.

In late January, meanwhile, Canada’s Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault vowed to introduce similar legislation this spring.

Amid the chaos, we fear that the most important thing is being overlooked: what’s best for journalism and the public?

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A February campaign by Canadian newspaper lobby group News Media Canada involved newspapers across the country publishing blank front pages, accusing Google and Facebook of unfairly profiting from their content. The ads featured this message: “If nothing is done, the journalism industry will disappear.”

The reality is much more nuanced.

Many new and innovative business models are succeeding. Village Media, a company based out of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was started by digital natives in 2013 and now employs 105 full-time staff. The Sprawl, in Calgary, is primarily funded by its readers and doubled its paying monthly members in 2020. The Vancouver-based Tyee has been a pioneer in the digital media sector since 2003 and increased reader revenue by 58 per cent last year. IndigiNews, launched in 2020 by The Discourse and APTN, has grown to a team of eight – doubling the number of Indigenous journalists reporting in B.C. in a single year. Canada’s National Observer and The Narwhal have amassed a tidy pile of awards reporting on climate change and the environment.

Toronto’s West End PhoenixHalifax’s The Coast, Quebec’s La Converse – the list of independent successes, most owned or led by journalists, is so long that Maclean’s recognized “independent media” on its 2021 edition of its “Power List.”

In December, nine of our organizations came together to launch Press Forward, a new association that advocates for innovation in Canadian media.

Our aim is to reinvigorate relationships with readers by publishing journalism people are willing to pay for. We’re also working to earn trust by attempting to tackle issues around diversity that many legacy newsrooms have failed to address.

And we are looking to provide quality journalism to the public more efficiently than traditional players. Without the burden of legacy operating costs, executive bonuses and debt payments, independent digital outlets spend about 70 per cent of their budgets on producing journalism. That stands in stark contrast to the roughly 12 to 20 per cent that traditional outlets pay on journalism production in the United States, according to media analyst Ken Doctor.

The growth of independent news should be seen as a sign of hope. Governments and tech companies looking to ensure the public has access to quality journalism should invest in accelerating this exciting trend.

Replicating the Australian approach to supporting journalism threatens to hinder this growth and innovation. The standoff between Big Tech and the Australian government has resulted in 90 per cent of what Big Tech has agreed to pay media so far going to the country’s three largest media companies. That means the vast majority of that cash is destined for purposes other than sustaining actual journalism jobs, and tilts the playing field away from smaller publishers – which is bad for democracy.

We’re heartened to see that Canada’s federal government is willing to show leadership and stand up to Big Tech to support journalism. To be clear, Big Tech needs to be regulated and taxed fairly.

We also applaud government initiatives that provide support earmarked to pay journalists such as the Local Journalism Initiative and the Canadian journalism tax credit. While there’s room to improve these programs to ensure large media don’t disproportionately benefit, we urge the government to build on this approach.

More clearly needs to happen to support journalism. But if our goal is to ensure the public gets access to more and better journalism, we shouldn’t look to Australia for the answer.

Emma Gilchrist is the chair of Press Forward, a new association for Canada’s independent news organizations, and co-founder of The Narwhal.

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