• Howard Law

Part one. News Journalism v. Google & Facebook: Why the Web Giants Should Pay

With an election on September 20th don’t be surprised if federal intervention on behalf of Canadian media emerges as a wedge issue.

The pro-regulation crowd will point to the unravelling business model for journalism and the making of Canadian news, sports and entertainment content.

The anti-regulation folks detest the very idea of “government” and “media” in the same sentence. They are fond of wrapping themselves in the Free Speech flag to get their point across.

Likely, we can expect an encore performance of last June’s Parliamentary drama, the “Netflix Bill” C-10.

An even more existential media issue may not get the attention it deserves: how to save Canadian news journalism from being put out of business by the spectacular success of “The Platforms,” i.e. Google and Facebook. Nearly 300 Canadian newspapers closed in the last decade, mostly in towns and smaller cities, while most local TV stations lose money.

Beginning in 2020, Liberal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault repeatedly promised that the federal government would legislate mandatory financial contributions by The Platforms to Canadian journalism.

However, the Conservatives’ filibustering of C-10 and the tar-heeled bureaucracy of Heritage Canada ruled out a Platform Bill this Spring. This summer, Heritage was mid-way through a second public consultation on the topic when the writ was dropped, sending everyone back to Square One.

Alive to the delay in federal action, the Platforms seized upon the financial desperation of news publishers to strike symbolic ---and cut-rate--- deals with some Canadian publishers (most notably the Globe and Mail) to increase the compensation they’ve paid when publishers voluntarily post news items (user generated shares of proprietary news content remain uncompensated). The two biggest newspaper chains Postmedia and Torstar spurned the offer.

Guilbeault responded by telling the Platforms their cherry picked series of publisher deals ---shielded from public view by non-disclosure agreements---- aren’t good enough to avoid legislation for more significant contributions to journalism.

So far, the Liberals are not facing much political opposition to this. In fact the Conservatives, who oppose the Netflix Bill (but say they would table a Bill that sounds similar), flogged the Liberals for lagging behind on a Platform Bill and their election platform seems to support one.

The few remaining opponents of a Platform Bill mostly hale from the pundit class and university campuses. Globe & Mail columnist Andrew Coyne recently denounced a Platform Bill as a publisher shake-down: “Stripped of its endless, shifting rationalizations, the newspapers’ position remains the same as ever: Facebook and Google have a lot of money. Make them give us some.”

This leaves us with the question: what is the case for a Platform Bill?

We’ll explore that in the next four blog posts:

Part 2 – The crisis in journalism: the crumbling business models of written and television news.

Part 3 –The Platforms’ unregulated market power in audience, advertising and data.

Part 4 – Why the Platforms should pay: other sovereign responses to the crisis in journalism and how Canada might do it.

Part 5 – If the Platforms pay, how do they pay?