March 30, 2020

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Newspaper publishers, CBC urge tax on web giants

OTTAWA — Canada’s newspaper publishers and the head of the CBC are calling on Parliament to tax web giants, regulate their algorithms and close loopholes on paywalled content.

"The entire industry is in a crisis," said Bob Cox, chair of News Media Canada, who is also publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press.

"The big, digital companies have devastated our business models, and the government hasn’t acted in a way that tackles the problem, not in a comprehensive enough way," he said.

Cox is among publishers of 11 newspaper and digital chains who signed a letter released today that outlines proposals for federal party leaders to strengthen news coverage in Canada.

In November 2018, the Liberals promised a $595-million subsidy package for media companies.

Instead of asking for a top-up to that funding, the coalition is calling on Ottawa to review regulations so that the government and media companies can raise more revenue and sustain news coverage.

"This is not an effort to go to the government with our hands out for more money; this is an effort to bring about real, lasting change in policies and laws that will create a better environment for news companies to operate in Canada," Cox said.

According to an ongoing Ryerson University research project, almost 300 local-news outlets have closed across Canada since 2008, while 120 outlets have launched in that time period.

Today’s letter, representing media that publish in both official languages, repeats previous calls for Ottawa to close tax loopholes, and channel some of the new revenue into programs that support journalism.

The coalition wants copyright laws updated so that publishers have similar rights as software firms and music companies, to crack down on sites that evade paywalls and republish news articles without permission.

"What we need is some form of payment for what we do, or we can’t keep doing it," Cox said, describing newsrooms as "the poor cousins" who pay journalists to find and generate news only to see aggregators and search engines take up much of the profits.

The letter also asks that news aggregators like Facebook, Google News and Apple News report their algorithms to the Competition Bureau.

That regulator is exploring if digital companies are freezing out competitors, whether they’re favouring their own business partners, and if larger online firms have an unfair market advantage due to the reams of data they hold.

However, those companies don’t have to report as much as other industries to regulators. "They need more teeth to be able to bring about change," Cox argued.

In addition to publishers, the letter is also signed by Catherine Tait, president of CBC-Radio Canada.

Newspaper publishers have sparred with the public broadcaster in recent years over the CBC’s foray into everything from concert reviews to local news in cities already served by numerous media. They’ve bemoaned that the publicly-funded broadcaster — which does not operate with a paywall on its website — is competing with newspapers and luring away advertising eyeballs.

However, publishers are shifting their tone, after the CBC proposed collaborating with them last summer on news reporting.

"Local news is in jeopardy and we have to act in ways we haven’t acted before," Cox said.

"The old rivalries need to be re-examined. And we should see one another as partners in this quest to preserve local news, rather than rivals."

Last December, the managers of CBC Manitoba and the Free Press started a pilot project to share some news stories on each others’ websites on weekends, to save costs for more original reporting.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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