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Local news the victim in government, big-tech battle

Social media is about sharing. While some arguably overshare frivolous details of their lives, social media has become an important platform to share fun and often important community news and information.

But if you’ve tried to share a great article from a local, regional or national news outlet lately, you’ve undoubtedly found that impossible. You can’t even share the URL. Similarly, if you want to check out the Stouffville or Markham Review’s latest post on Facebook, sorry. You can’t do that either.

Either way, you’ve probably found a message simply saying, “This content isn’t available in Canada.”

But it’s not the news source preventing you from seeing its content. We wish we could share as much as possible with you.

“People in Canada can’t see this content” is the message people who want to share news on social media will see

In response to new, and some might say, misguided federal government legislation, the Online News Act will force companies like Meta (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp’s parent company), as well as other large digital social outlets like Alphabet (Google, YouTube) to compensate traditional media for news they create and then shared on social sites. In response, Meta has gone nuclear and erased all hint of news from its platforms – large and small.

Google has also said they will follow suit shortly, erasing all search results for Canadian news articles on their platforms. The upshot of this legislative stand-off is that your access to legitimate news content will be severely curtailed, and news sites will be unable to share even the most critically important information except on their site.

The backdrop to this story is a long-running erosion of advertising dollars from “traditional media” to trackable digital platforms over the last 15 years or so. Trackable is a keyword here.

Facebook and Google have exceptional data collection capabilities and know how to use it. They know where you go on the internet, what you like, when you are online and where you’ll likely go. They see what news interests you and where you go to get it and use the data they get from your behaviour and target ads your way and advertisers pay to access you through various means that the big two provide.

It’s been a resounding success. Over 80 per cent of all digital ads in Canada go to the big two at the expense of traditional advertising outlets — namely news sources. Traditional media have tried to adapt by putting all their content on websites and gaining what meagre digital ad dollars might trickle down to them, which isn’t much – even for more prominent outlets like the Toronto Star, CBC, CTV etc. Even these outlets don’t have the power to drive sufficient traffic on their own sites to live off the ad revenue as they once did when the content was delivered in print or on traditional broadcast mediums.

So, knowing that many people have become accustomed to accessing news via social media, most news outlets post links there, hoping to redirect the valuable eyeballs back to their sites.

On the surface, it seems like a win-win, doesn’t it? Facebook gets data and news sites get referrals through links they post. Over a third of Stouffville and Markham Review’s traffic has typically come from social media. We don’t complain. Sometimes we’ve even paid Facebook to boost our posts.

However many more prominent Canadian news outlets contend that the dominant market position Facebook and Google have has been achieved on the backs of traditional media as Meta, Google, et al, don’t produce any news content they display and benefit from. Also, they note, that ad dollars from local businesses go right back to a foreign jurisdiction and invest precisely zero back into local communities. And so, traditional media are demanding some of the ad money back from them even if Facebook and Google don’t make ad sales directly from news content.

Facebook outlines its rationale for banning news on its social platforms.

Facebook, for their part, says, ‘Don’t blame us for building a better mouse trap. If you want more ad dollars, build a better system.’ They also argue the millions of eyeballs they send to news sites are payment enough. If news outlets don’t think they’re valuable, don’t post on the platform.

That is a good point in principle. But do they owe Canadians nothing beyond well-targeted, increasingly expensive ads?

The Canadian government, allegedly in the interest of promoting a strong and vibrant domestic news sector, agreed with news content producers.

Following similar legislation enacted in Australia, it produced the Online News Act, which will force big digital to collectively negotiate with Canadian news outlets and distribute payment to them for any links used on their platforms.

Further, the Online News Act grandiosely claims the Act’s outcome will be the “sustainability of the Canadian news ecosystem, including the sustainability of independent news businesses….” The details about how the negotiating process will work are still to be determined, and assessing what each link is worth will be messy. But estimates from both the government and Facebook/Google suggest numbers totalling upwards of $200 million a year.

The digital giants will resist being squeezed, and even if they do buckle, any funds that do go back to media as a result of the Act will be sucked up by larger, lumbering, traditional, money-losing news organizations like the already government-funded CBC or struggling newspapers like the Toronto Star who support the Act.

Torstar, the parent company of the Star, has sought bankruptcy protection for Metroland newspapers which includes the Stouffville Sun-Tribune and Markham Economist & Sun despite already having a revenue-sharing deal with Facebook. Traditional news sources are losing money so fast, that whatever money is wrung from Facebook or Google will not change the trajectory of their business. The Online News Act is not doing anything to help build a more vibrant media landscape. It is merely a last-gasp attempt to shore up a failed business model and delay the inevitable.

While big traditional media suck up what they can, small, local, independently owned outlets like the Stouffville and Markham Review will get nothing from the Online News Act arrangement.

That’s because the Online Act contains a stilted and dated view of a news organization. It itemizes, that, among other characteristics, a news business must employ two journalists to be eligible. Many owner-operated news organizations stay afloat with the assistance of freelance reporters. Many of these small organizations wouldn’t qualify for this funding (unless Indigenous-owned).

That doesn’t square with the digital reality where many highly qualified and talented writers, photographers, and digital media producers,  having worked with big media, increasingly strike out on their own and provide much-needed and insightful local content, often online only.

In the Review’s case, a family-owned outlet whose two owners have collectively, more than 60 years of media experience doesn’t count as an independent news business no matter how many local stories we write or of what quality or worth they are because we’re classed as owners and not paid exclusively as journalists. The dozen or so contributors and freelance writers who write on our printed pages and websites don’t count either. Even though paid, they are not officially employees, so not classed as journalists for the purposes of the Act.

So here we are.

The federal government doesn’t classify us as a news organization, but Facebook and Google are punishing us like we are.

So, who’s looking out for local news?

Well, it’s up to us. I guess. But we’ll need your help.

First, pick up our print product and pass it on to a friend when done. They are available at local grocery stores, libraries, community centres and other high-traffic locations. Patronize the good advertisers that still spend money on local news. They are getting good results and helping pay for local stories to be told.

If you’re a local business, consider spending some of your local budget on local media directly, in print or online. We offer packages that combine both and you’ll be noticed as a business that cares about independent news.

Secondly, bookmark our website in your browser and any other local site you like. Go straight to the source often and don’t rely on Facebook to decide what can be shared with you. If you like the format, our print product is replicated on our site in an interactive PDF, but we update the site daily with more news and information than we can fit in print.

And then hope that common sense prevails, and the government looks to more productive ways of engaging digital reality than subsidising a dying business model and Facebook and Google stop acting like the schoolyard bully.

There are better ways forward. Maybe even call your local MP and let them know you expect more from the government than the misguided, news-killing Online News Act.

Tell them you read about the whole mess in a local, independent news outlet. Now, one of very few left.

 

Photo: Markham-Stouffville Review General Manager Duncan Fletcher, seen here with print and online versions of the paper, says that local media is being threatened by misguided government policy and combative tech giants.

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