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Opinion: Digital platforms and Canadian media are integrally entwined

Glacier Media signs deal with Google Canada's News Showcase
Google is expanding its News Showcase program to Canada.

As has been communicated extensively over the last while in Canada and around the world, the ability to publish credible and reliable news has become seriously challenged. Newspapers, television and radio have all experienced significant declines in revenue as advertising has migrated online.

The majority of advertising dollars have moved to Facebook’s social media platform and Google’s search platform. This has significantly impacted the ability of news media to employ the journalists required to publish news. 

This poses a problem for Canadians and citizens around the world. Credible and reliable news is critical to a functioning democracy. We have witnessed the impact “fake” news can have on elections. The 2016 U.S. election was a primary case in point and caused the U.S. federal government and others around the world to waken to the issue. Misinformation continues to plague both the United States and other locales. 

A healthy news media industry keeps people informed daily regarding matters important to their lives, be it issues regarding politics, health care, education, the environment, their local community, business, the economy and much more. It’s comforting to know that what you’re reading is true, has been researched and thought through in proper context. This is important for society to function properly. COVID has highlighted this need more than ever. 

Countries around the world are recognizing that a solid and workable foundation is necessary to ensure news publishing is viable over the long-term, and that changes need to be made. 

The solution is several fold. 

Legislation needs to be enacted that creates a fair and accountable long-term framework for the publishing of news. The legislation must ensure that publishers small and large are protected, as Canadians in all communities across the country need access to credible and reliable news. Large media chains need assistance as much as small, as they face the same challenges, just at greater scale. The reality is news has significant societal value and is more than a business. 

Both Google and Facebook have recognized the role they play in the news eco-system and the impact the internet has had on news media. They support paying publishers through products that increase awareness of news stories and direct audience to publishers’ websites through links. The publishers keep all the revenue derived from the content. 

But we cannot expect Google and Facebook alone to provide the financial support necessary for a viable digital news transformation. In many communities, the digital audience is too small to justify Google and Facebook paying sufficient amounts to fund news. The federal government recognized this last year and provided increased funding through the enhanced Aid to Publishers program. These funds were essential for the survival of news in many small communities during COVID when advertising revenues were significantly impacted. It is essential this funding continues. 

The good news is that change is beginning to happen. 

The Canadian government has recognized what is at stake. It has indicated its intention to announce legislation supporting the news industry. The need for this legislation is urgent. 

The government is providing assistance through other programs including the Local Journalism Initiative, which supports journalists in a variety of Canadian communities. These programs are helpful, but require the larger scale of the enhanced Aid to Publishers program to be sufficient. 

Google announced today agreements for News Showcase product and licensing program with publishers including Black Press, FP Newspapers, Glacier Media, Globe and Mail, Métro Media, Narcity Media, SaltWire Network and Village Media. The program will enable publishers to build deeper relationships with readers across the country and provide funding for news in these communities. 

Google also announced through its Google News Initiative that it will train 5,000 Canadian journalists and journalism students in Canada over the next three years to enhance their digital skills. It will be providing bilingual business-oriented workshops for small and mid-sized news organizations to help with audience development and revenue generation. 

These initiatives are part of Google’s previously announced intention to spend US$1 billion globally over three years to pay for news partnerships and Google News Showcase, or US$333 million annually. Google has in fact made significant efforts historically to support the survival of news. The Google News Initiative is a $300-million operation that runs a wide variety of programs worldwide helping local news. It also provided funding to help news publishers with editorial expenses during COVID. 

Google has indicated its desire to work with government towards a workable regulatory environment. 

Facebook also recently announced partnerships in Canada through which they will begin paying participating publishers for the ability to link to additional news stories not already posted on Facebook. It has also been offering programs to assist news media with digital publishing. 

These initiatives reflect market-based solutions. They are direct and practical. They reflect the fact that the digital platforms and news media are integrally connected. News is of significant value to Google and Facebook, which in turn generate significant audience for news publishers. The monetization of this audience by publishers through sale of advertising and lead generation for subscribers is as important as payment for content. 

These initiatives are part of the solution. A solution where content is paid for, a regulatory code of content enshrines a long-term governance framework, and government assistance through Aid to Publishers and other programs helps facilitate the transition to a healthy news ecosystem in communities across the country. 

We are seeing progress being made by many publishers in the digital transformation. But it takes time and investment. The challenge is one of scale. If the government acts quickly and agreements between publishers and the platforms expand and their relationship deepens, we can expect significant progress toward a future in which Canadians are assured access to comprehensive credible and reliable news. Technology moves forward continuously. We need to ensure that news content advances abreast of this march. This is important for our democracy and the impact on our daily lives.