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Independent media group chosen by Google to distribute news funding

The latest twist in the long-running soap opera that has been the Online News Act

Media Canadian Business

Photo by Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons

There’s nothing we at Canadian Dimension like more than a good collective. After all, Canada’s original socialist magazine has been produced since 1975 by a collective that includes members from across the country, although a Winnipeg-based group still functions as its hub. That’s why we’re intrigued by Google’s choice of the Canadian Journalism Collective to distribute the $100 million a year it has promised in funding to support news media here under the Online News Act (Canadian Dimension has not applied to the Canada Revenue Agency for status as a Qualified Canadian Journalism Organization eligible to receive federal subsidies and has not applied to receive funding from Google).

The other group vying to divvy up the loot, as law professor and news hound Michael Geist reported recently, was led by Big Media which were “trying to seize control over how Google money is allocated to Canadian media.” That didn’t work out so well the last time, as shortly after the five-year, $595 million news media bailout was announced by Ottawa in 2019, the feds handed over the purse strings to a group headed by News Media Canada, the newspaper industry association that had lobbied shamelessly for the money. After digital media were excluded from the eight-member panel that set the bailout criteria, a group of 45 online journalists, academics, and activists brainstormed at a three-day conference in Toronto organized by Journalists for Human Rights. They unveiled their rival group Press Forward in 2020 to “advocate for independent journalism organizations in Canada.” Included in its initial membership were online publishers such as the Sprawl, the Discourse, the Narwhal, Village Media, the Coast, the Observer and the Tyee. Unlike News Media Canada, noted J-Source, the new group was truly platform agnostic, as according to its website “members can be digital-only publications, printed newspapers, radio stations, podcasts or a hybrid of any or all of these or other platforms.”

The fact that Press Forward is only one member of the Canadian Journalism Collective is what makes it so diverse. Also represented on its steering committee are members from the Québec-based publication Pivot, BIPOC website The Resolve, community TV, Village Media, Indigenous news platform IndigiNews, online news startup support firm Indiegraf, news website The Breach and others. The CJC says it intends to “establish robust governance and distribute funding as swiftly and transparently as possible.”

Interim board member Sadia Zaman, CEO of the Toronto-based Inspirit Foundation, which has supported a wide range of journalism initiatives recently and last year published a report on philanthropic funding, was quoted in the collective’s press release. “The Canadian Journalism Collective is committed to distributing this funding in a fair, transparent & inclusive manner in accordance with the regulations,” she said. “We look forward to working with the full diversity of the Canadian news ecosystem including traditional print and broadcast organizations and independent local news publishers including those who serve Indigenous, Black and racialized communities and Francophone communities.” In a brief telephone interview, Zaman expressed surprise that the CJC had been chosen to administer Google’s contribution, but Canadian Dimension is not.

Google stated from the outset that its selection of a single collective to work with in Canada “would be informed by principles aligned with … diversity of representation, a robust governance structure, a high level of transparency, and assurance that as much funding as possible would go to news organizations.” It threatened last year during debate on Bill C-18 to block news in Canada if it passed, as Meta did on its Facebook and Instagram platforms shortly after it became law. The Online News Act, which was originally expected to extract $329 million a year from the digital giants, was then reduced to Google’s negotiated contribution of $100 million a year indexed to inflation. As a result, however, it will be cancelling its existing agreements with Canadian media outlets, which were worth tens of millions of dollars. “We have advised partners in our Google News Showcase program [that it] will cease to operate in Canada later this year as we transition to this new contribution model,” it said in a press release. Google’s secretive News Showcase is a global initiative it launched in 2020 with a budget of US$1 billion ($1.37 billion) to license content from news media. “We will be maintaining some Google News Initiative (GNI) programming in Canada,” it added. “This includes a range of collaborative tools and resources that can support the advancement of quality journalism. However, with our monetary contribution in Canada now streamlined into the new single collective model, these investments will be non-monetary in nature.”

The twist is just the latest in the long-running soap opera that has been the Online News Act. Bill C-18 was seen by many as a blatant shakedown of the prosperous digital platforms, which have all but cornered the market for online advertising by perfecting target marketing to computer users by using the mountains of data they collect on us all. News Media Canada ran a vigorous campaign for the Online News Act just two years after lobbying hard for the 2019 bailout in a campaign orchestrated by former Postmedia network CEO Paul Godfrey, who retired with more than $5 million in salary and bonuses once it was passed. As part of its campaign for Bill C-18, many NMC member newspapers ran blank front pages for a day in early 2021 except for a short message. “Imagine if the news wasn’t there when we needed it,” it read. “If nothing is done, the journalism industry will disappear.” The cultural lobby group Friends of Canadian Media also ran a campaign for Bill C-18 it called Newsthief and featured wanted posters of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg for the crime of Theft of News Content.

Meta’s blocking of news in Canada has hobbled online news media here, which relied on it for free distribution and promotion of their stories. London-based magazine The Economist recently published a stinging review of the legislation’s impact, noting that it has harmed news media outlets here instead of helping them. “If governments want to subsidise ailing news organisations, they should be honest about it, rather than imposing a spurious duty to pay on a more successful industry,” it concluded. “Publishers should drop the comforting fiction that the tech giants stole their advertising revenue unfairly and owe them millions for linking to their stories.” Other jurisdictions around the world which had been considering similar legislation, such as New Zealand and California, have been having second thoughts given what has happened in Canada.

At least now with Google’s financial contribution, our country’s emerging online news media have some hope for a change, and with the money being doled out by the Canadian Journalism Collective instead of Big Media, there is a better chance for them to compete for it on a level playing field.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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