Monday, September 25, 2023

When elephants fight

There’s something charming about a ride through the countryside in a horse-drawn buggy. You get to hear sounds. Cicadas. Birds. You feel the breeze. You see flowers. You become familiar with local sights and associated fragrances. The gentle pace is conducive to a contemplative state of mind. A peace that allows you to think thoughts.
A local newspaper is a little like that. You get your eight to ten pages about nothing but here. You spread it out on your kitchen table. You see stories about people you know or have heard of and are part of the fabric of your local community. You read a quote and you can almost hear the voice of the person quoted.
And it all happens at a gentle pace conducive to you becoming more intimately familiar with your immediate surroundings. Like traveling by horse, reading a newspaper can be a soul-nourishing experience.
But just as Ford’s automobile and Rockefeller’s oil companies disrupted the transportation sector and spelled doom for the horse and carriage, so are Google and Meta now causing serious disruption to traditional news media.
In both cases, what changed was technology. Automobiles did not in any way diminish the need for people to move from A to B. On the contrary, we became a society that is nothing if it is not moving, and moving quickly. Similarly, the internet enables the virtual transport of content seekers to new destinations faster than ever. Again, in both cases, it seems our fascination with speed may be leading us to pay insufficient attention to direction.
There is no doubt the internet makes acquisition of information a whole lot easier, to the point that readers are migrating in droves away from newspapers to online sources of content. Purveyors of that content, unlike subscription-based news sources, don’t even need to charge a fee to the information traveler because it is the gaze of that traveler that is the commodity they are selling to their advertisers. And it is nothing short of a tragic irony that, to a large extent, it is content generated by traditional news sources that is being used by the digital giants to lure their readers in ways that are undermining the viability of those same traditional news sources.
Enter Bill C-18 and the federal government’s attempt to reign in the digital mega corps, citing the need to protect Canada’s traditional news sources which play a crucial role in the democratic process in this country. At least to some publishers of newspapers, the government’s decision to withdraw its $10 million per year in advertising from those two platforms seemed to be a good move. It would make eminent sense for the government to stop feeding the beast that is destroying Canadian news institutions and start to reinvest its advertising dollars in moving Canada’s fourth estate off of life support and into the recovery ward.
Of course, the digital mega companies have countered with a threat to pull the plug on Canadian news sources. But it remains to be seen how their exclusion of Canadian news content from their search and social media platforms would affect newspapers such as this one which continues to survive in large part by virtue of its loyal following of people willing to pay albeit a small price for a subscription. At about 75 cents per printed issue delivered to your mailbox, and about 60 cents per digital issue emailed to you each week, it’s got to be the deal of the century. Our readers know full well, without any help from Google or Meta, where to find the local content they want.
It is also possible that in this clash of titans, some kind of a compromise will emerge between the government and the internet companies, one that finds a model for a slice of the advertising revenue that those companies harvest from sharing news content to be paid back to the companies that generated that news content in the first place.
But even if that comes to pass, it is hard to imagine that it would really help anyone other than the big news publishing companies such as TorStar, Post Media and Bell Media. It is hard to picture how any of the redirected revenue would ever trickle down to the small newspapers that do an indispensable job reporting local news at the country’s grassroots. We may be at risk of suffering from the opposite of the ‘too big to fail’ justification for the 2008 bailouts if we are seen as too small to save.
But that’s the thing about disruption, nobody really knows how things will shake out.
Rolling gently down a country lane, in a semi-autonomous vehicle pulled along by a pair of trusted horses, thoughts percolate. An old proverb from the Kikuyu nation of East Africa comes to mind: when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

Charles Dickson


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