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The Online News Act has been like MAiD for emerging media in Canada

Emerging online media and niche publications are in the emergency ward

Canadian PoliticsMedia Canadian Business

Cartoon by Greg Perry

The hare-brained Online News Act has only been in effect for a few months, but already it has proved a disaster for small and emerging news media in Canada, with the country’s Indigenous media perhaps the hardest hit. Just last month, Saskatchewan’s Eagle Feather News, which once covered Indigenous affairs across the province, announced that it was pressing pause after almost 27 years of publication. “Since June, we have seen an alarming and steady decline in ad sale revenue, which coincides with the introduction of the Online News Act,” wrote Editor-in-Chief Kerry Benjoe in an online update. “Ad sales is our bread and butter at Eagle Feather.” Dene journalist Betty Ann Adam, who once worked for Eagle Feather News, told the CBC that its loss will “leave a real hole” for Indigenous people because “it built community, it built pride.” Merelda Fiddler-Potter, a professor at First Nations University of Canada and a former journalist, added that its closure will stifle native voices which were being heard for the first time. “For Indigenous people, it feels like we finally just gained access to be able to represent ourselves … it’s being really ripped away from us.”

The Online News Act came into effect in December after an intense, years-long lobbying effort by News Media Canada, the newspaper industry association that is dominated by the country’s two largest chains, Postmedia Network and Torstar, which publish 17 of the country’s 21 largest dailies but are owned by private equity players and US hedge funds. Both are currently dismantling their newspaper empires by stripping their assets, cutting jobs and closing publications. Postmedia and Torstar ran blank front pages for a day in 2021 as part of the campaign to pressure Ottawa into passing the Online News Act. “Imagine if the news wasn’t there when we needed it,” read a short message on an otherwise blank page. “If nothing is done, the journalism industry will disappear.” The ads also ran in the dozens of newspapers owned by BC’s Black Press, which is now being sold to Americans. The chains also ran a constant torrent of one-sided editorial opinion favoring the legislation, which was designed to force Google and Facebook to subsidize newspapers in Canada because they now dominate online advertising sales. In several instances, columns which questioned the wisdom of the bill were spiked on orders from upper management. While Google has agreed to pay $100 million a year to comply with the Online News Act, Meta decided to instead stop carrying links to news in Canada, which has hurt small and emerging news media which relied on its platforms Facebook and Instagram for promotion and distribution of their stories.

“Facebook is a very Indigenous platform,” IndigiNews publisher Eden Fineday told the Toronto Star shortly after its ban was imposed last year. “It is where a lot of native communities come to connect with each other. So it hurts us.” Fineday estimated that IndigiNews had lost 43 percent of its traffic soon after the ban took effect. “Indigenous folks are the least thought-about demographic, especially by American companies. It’s sad to be just forgotten, and to have these companies not consider who’s being hurt by these changes. I feel completely cut off from our largest audience stream.”

The gaping self-inflicted wound to our already-suffering news media has attracted international attention, especially in countries that are considering or have passed a similar law. The Online News Act has “destroyed small media,” the co-founder of a local news outlet in Newfoundland recently told the Voice of America. “The Canadian government has done more damage to Canadian media than they were hoping to,” said Rene J. Roy of Wreckhouse Weekly. “As a result, our business will not survive six months. It’s certainly not a good feeling to know the Canadian government is responsible for this.” Roy estimated that Wreckhouse Weekly, which subsequently published its final print edition, had lost about 60 percent of its web traffic as a result of Facebook blocking news in order to comply with the act. “We don’t have anywhere near the reach we once had, and we’ve also found our print readership has plummeted.”

Another unintended consequence of Ottawa’s news law has been the rise of misleading viral clickbait, according to one journalism professor, which has replaced news in the Facebook feeds of Canadians. “A real-world, newsless Facebook turns out to be more toxic than I had anticipated,” Jean-Hughes Roy of L’Université du Québec à Montréal told the Guardian newspaper in the UK, where a similar law is in the works. “Viral content producers feed on news content, make it more sensational by adding misleading or false details and publish it on their Facebook pages or Instagram accounts. Such content isn’t blocked by Meta, while actual news is.” Roy pointed to a recent study which showed that 45 percent of Canadians use social media as a source of news and said he feared what Meta’s ban would mean for Canadian democracy. “I worry young citizens grow up in a digital world where news simply doesn’t exist anymore.”

The UK House of Lords is currently debating a Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill which could also compel Apple to pay newspaper publishers for news. After a failed attempt at the federal level, two US states are also considering similar legislation, Illinois with a Journalism Preservation Act and California with a bill that has met with fierce opposition. The current news crisis in Canada caused by Facebook’s withdrawal from news distribution is causing sober second thoughts in those jurisdictions, as well as in Australia, where the trend began in 2021 with its News Media Bargaining Code. Meta has let it be known that it does not intend to renew the three-year licensing agreements it negotiated there as it looks to dump news worldwide.

Big Media in Canada, which are ruthlessly squeezing every last loonie out of our once-profitable news media, used their remaining political influence to shake down the digital giants with the Online News Act in hopes of cashing in big on the runaway success of the platforms. They will instead have to settle for $100 million a year from Google, which is far short of the $329 million payday they were once estimated to reap. In the process, however, they have put Canada’s emerging online media and niche publications in the emergency ward. Instead of reviving our news media, the Online News Act has only cemented the dominance of Big Media and stifled the growth of what will inevitably replace it.

Our incubating new media, ethnic and Indigenous publications are now on life support, and thanks to Ottawa’s ill-advised cash grab from Big Tech, many are now receiving the journalism equivalent of MAiD.

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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