Wednesday, July 17, 2024
Fair CommentHighlights 2

Community newspaper publishers deserve a seat at the table

Google and digital upstarts should not be allowed to dictate the terms of funding provided under the Online News Act

Local newspapers in communities like mine have been challenged by several factors. The internet has democratized information and made it much more abundant, but that can make it hard for consumers of information to separate real news from fake news. Where local papers, like ours, and radio stations competed and reaped a pretty good profit, today companies like Google, Meta and Amazon dominate, and the economics of the news business is challenged.
As a small-C conservative, I generally don’t like the idea of government intervention in the economy, but I recognize that sometimes government needs to step in when a market isn’t functioning. That’s why I supported the Online News Act. Big U.S.-based companies like Google and Meta have been benefiting from the content our journalists produce, yet they weren’t paying for it. As News Media Canada — which represents big publishers like the Globe and Mail, Postmedia and Torstar, and “mom-and-pop” publishers that are much smaller than my own operation — started making noise about the need to force these tech companies to pay us, the big online platforms started cutting content licensing deals with the big publishers.
Smaller community publishers like me didn’t think that was fair. And, to their credit, the big publishers agreed that we needed legislation to lift all boats in order to have a healthy news media ecosystem right across Canada. Of course, they too would benefit from a legislative framework that would guarantee payment for content, rather than just hoping these companies would renew their deals.
So, we pushed parliamentarians to do something about it. What they came up with was the Online News Act, which will see Google paying news businesses $100-million annually.
There are those today who seem to want to pit new digital native publishers against “legacy media.” They argue that policies like the Online News Act only benefit large publishers. That gets the back up of community news publishers like me. They say that we’re dinosaurs who can’t innovate. They say we are holding onto the past with our print product. A smart publisher in a large market, like La Presse, can make the leap successfully from a printed newspaper to a digital-only product. Scale and audience are limited in smaller markets.
The price of programmatic advertising has tanked so dramatically in recent years that you cannot make a buck covering local news well from digital advertising alone. On the other hand, our print ads — from the local car dealer and local real estate agents — keep the lights on and allow us to invest back in the business.
Local print ads allow publishers like me to cover everything from the cops, courts and city hall to celebrations. We don’t simply take a news release from any of those institutions at face value. We gather facts, we research, we interview people to get multiple perspectives. Our stories are fact-based, and they are fact-checked. We don’t do click bait carousels; we do real news. It may not be Woodward and Bernstein covering Watergate, but we hold the powerful to account in Wellington County, and we are awfully proud of that. By the way, the vast majority of smaller publishers have had websites for decades, but there just isn’t enough revenue to sustain them without print.
For reasons unknown to me, Google has decided to award the administration of the proceeds from the Online News Act to a single collective made up largely of digital native publishers. Looking at the composition of the board, Lana Payne, the head of Unifor, has expressed concern that six of the directors of the Canadian Journalism Collective (CJC) are clients of the board chair’s business. I too share that concern. And, it appears from the CRTC’s notice of consultation that it wants to make sure the CJC is acting independently of Google and will protect the interests of the news businesses, like mine, that will receive compensation.
The board must be reconstituted to make it more representative of the industry at large and make it more competent with independent directors who have deep expertise in accounting and law. With $500 million at stake over five years, this has to be done properly and professionally.
And the CRTC needs to ensure that the integrity of the act and its regulations is honoured to ensure that compensation flows only to eligible news businesses — based on the number of full-time equivalent employees, and from my perspective an employee is someone who works for an employer regularly and receives a T4. Creating good jobs with benefits, rather than gig jobs, is something we should all want. Corrupting this process by massaging the eligibility criteria or not following the act and the regulations will mean less funding for legitimate news organizations to maintain and grow permanent journalism jobs.

Dave Adsett is the second-generation owner of the Wellington Advertiser, a community newspaper serving Wellington County, Ontario, founded in 1968 by his
late father Bill Adsett

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