A Shot in the Arm for a News Media Sector on Life Support

The role of news media – to inform, to comment, to contextualize, to essentially be the first draft of history – is one that has always enjoyed political and institutional legitimacy here in Canada. From George Brown, who founded The Globe and Mail and was a father of Confederation, to Rene Levesque, who was arguably the most effective proponent for its demise as Quebec Premier, we have a long tradition of journalists crossing over from the media and becoming legislators. This migration to “the dark side” is a convincing testament to the fourth estate’s importance to public life.

Yet such a burnished reputation for the journalist’s trade occludes one central fact: the industry has relied on advertising revenues from its very beginnings in political pamphleteering. For generations, it was the classified ad section that kept most newspapers in business. It largely paid journalists’ salaries, kept the ink flowing and the presses rolling.

But advertising and the actual creation of content do not necessarily have to go together. Say you were to introduce a digital platform with the ability to track views of advertising on all the screens we look at during the day. You suddenly have powerful analytics to create value – to monetize content. And say you were to do this as the news media ecosystem undergoes a slow, painful transition to the online world. When you know what news gets clicks and for how long, you don’t even have to create the content, you just have to allow it screen space on your platform and provide the data on where the eyeballs are going. If you pitch this new data effectively, soon advertisers will come to you rather than the content producer and advertise on your web pages. You get richer while the news industry evaporates.

This of course is not a hypothesis or thought experiment. It is exactly what has happened over two decades. And not just in Canada but around the world.

Over the last five years, as local news gathering involuntarily and discretely performed a vanishing act and elected representatives began to realize that disinformation could be a potent political force on social media, a new appreciation for the civic value of journalism, besieged by the market forces of the algorithm, began to resonate with public policy influencers and decision-makers. For a good number of news media outlets actively engaged in addressing this existential threat, the one country that seemed to get this right with legislation was Australia.

The bill that was passed in the Australian parliament in 2021 contains some key components that can be adapted for tabling in Canada. It requires online companies that link to news content to negotiate for payment with these outlets under a new legal code. Functioning as a kind of licensing agreement, this new code will define eligibility, how bargaining works, and provide a “baseball style” binding arbitration system that applies if the platform and the outlet can’t agree on the terms of remuneration.

Australia’s code’s actually worked out well for industry and consumers. In efforts to avoid binding arbitration, with platforms negotiating contracts with outlets and providing remuneration, thereby leveling the advertising playing field. The actual terms of such negotiations are confidential – and Canada will likely maintain confidentiality as well. Some of these new deals are still being negotiated, but in many instances, the news media outlets can now say they can keep the lights on and local journalists employed. Smaller publications that normally don’t attract large advertising revenues have still benefited as well; last September, one digital advertising entity reached an agreement with Country Press Australia, which represents 180 independently owned regional and local newspapers and online platforms across the country. The civic value of local journalism has been given a breath of life again.

In an era of fake news, of siloed feeds and a coarsened public conversation, increasingly politicized, a small fix to level the advertising playing field for news content producers might just keep local journalism going. The collateral benefits – increased civic literacy, renewed and restored trust in public institutions – are far from guaranteed. But as legislators and journalists in Canada would likely agree, the bill will be a step in the right direction.