IT’S supposed to address a crisis, but the name of the legislation may just put you to sleep – Act Respecting Online Communications Platforms that Make News Content Available to Persons in Canada.

Opinion

IT’S supposed to address a crisis, but the name of the legislation may just put you to sleep – Act Respecting Online Communications Platforms that Make News Content Available to Persons in Canada.

In fact, many of us in the news business have pretty much nodded off waiting for the bill to be introduced in the House of Commons this week that would require digital platforms such as Google and Facebook to negotiate payments for content with news publishers.

News Media Canada, which represents daily and community newspapers across the country, started lobbying in early 2016 to get the federal government to force digital companies to support journalism. Six years later, we finally seem to be getting somewhere on what Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez described recently as "a crisis in the Canadian news system."

Crisis, indeed. News Media Canada representatives were met with blank stares when we first started using that word with federal politicians and officials six years ago. Even though a steady stream of newspapers had been closing for years and remaining newsrooms dwindled as staffing was cut, there was little awareness that public-interest journalism was in trouble in Canada, or that the government could play a role in helping it survive.

To be fair, the Liberal government eventually woke up to the problem and introduced unprecedented support programs for written journalism. The largest of these is a five-year program to subsidize newsroom salaries through refundable tax credits. There is also a consumer program, an annual tax credit for digital news subscriptions.

While welcome, many of us regarded these efforts as Band-Aids rather than cures for what ails the news business.

The macro problem for news is that advertising dollars have moved out of traditional media, especially newspapers, to digital platforms that are not in the business of running local, regional and national newsrooms to provide comprehensive reporting for communities.

Local auto dealers used to support local journalism by buying ads in local newspapers. Now they spend most of their budgets on digital ads, and most of that money goes to companies that produce no local news. Those ads often appear in conjunction with news and information generated by news publishers that aren’t getting paid anything for the content or the ads.

News Media Canada and others initially suggested that the Trudeau government tax companies like Google and Facebook and use that money to support journalism. The government took half the advice – it agreed to provide some support but did not get the money from the digital companies.

This was not surprising — Google and Facebook lobby hard against government regulation. In recent years they have also undertaken significant programs to support journalism and individual news outlets in an effort to demonstrate that government intervention is not necessary.

Canada seemed content to accept this. Then the Australian government took on the digital giants and passed legislation to address the huge imbalance in media created by the dominance of Google and Facebook. The Australian law requires digital companies to negotiate deals with news publishers – or have them imposed by a regulator.

It became the model for Canadian news publishers, and the Liberal government has adopted a made-in-Canada version.

It legislates what already operates informally. Google and Facebook have both signed deals with multiple publishers, including the Winnipeg Free Press. The new bill will broaden the number of recipients and influence the size and scope of deals.

Most importantly, it will enshrine in law the principle that the journalism organizations that originate news content deserve to be compensated for it as it is searched and shared on digital platforms.

That’s a key step in addressing the "crisis" in Canadian news, and suggests we’re no longer just sleepwalking into the future.

Bob Cox is the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and past chair of News Media Canada.

Bob Cox

Bob Cox
Publisher

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.