Saturday, October 16, 2021
Oct. 16, 2021

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Dudley: Canada saving its free press

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Canada is showing the U.S. how it’s done when it comes to saving local news reporting that’s essential to democracy.

Even before the pandemic accelerated newsroom layoffs and newspaper closures, Canada stepped up to address the journalism crisis.

Now the country has a newly elected government, led again by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that pledged to help publishers negotiate fair payment from the likes of Google and Facebook.

The government promised to pursue a media-bargaining policy, similar to Australia’s, before year end, according to Paul Deegan, president and CEO of News Media Canada, a publishers’ association.

“For this sector it’s certainly really urgent that this be dealt with in the next few months,” Deegan told me.

Securing fair compensation from tech giants is a cornerstone of the short- and long-term supports needed to prevent the extinction of local journalism and build sustainable business models.

In the U.S., temporary emergency support through tax credits is advancing as a small part of the $3.5 trillion budget bill now being negotiated. A policy to help publishers get fairly compensated by platforms is also proposed in Congress but moving more slowly.

As in the U.S., Canada saw much of its news industry evaporate since 2008. A total of 449 news operations closed in 323 communities, according to April Lindgren, a journalism professor leading the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University.

Over that period, 172 outlets launched, mostly online, but that’s not making up for the losses. “We do know they’re closing at about twice the rate they’re opening,” she said.

Both liberals and conservatives in the last election supported Australian-style bargaining.

The Australian model enables publishers small and large to get compensated by platforms that make billions of dollars from news content appearing on their sites.

This is comparable to copyright policy reforms that helped the recording industry stabilize and get compensated for music shared online.

Although some criticize the Australian model as mostly helping big publishers, I’d argue it does the opposite. Major publishers already have clout to negotiate with platforms. Smaller publishers must work together to secure a fair deal, and that requires a temporary exemption from antitrust rules.

Australia is proving this out. While some sites reportedly had trouble getting payment from Facebook, including one publishing academics’ commentary, deals were reached with large newspapers and smaller, rural ones that negotiated through a trade association.

Canada’s leadership sided with Australia when the media-bargaining rules advanced and platforms went ballistic in February. Google threatened to cancel its search service in Australia, and Facebook blocked news on its site there before relenting.

I hope platforms don’t have similar fits in Canada, the U.S. and other countries as this obvious, reasonable and overdue response to the journalism crisis takes shape.

A coalition of 18 media organizations, including press associations in North America and South America, last week called on governments to ensure news outlets can secure “fair and reasonable remuneration” for their work.

“Recent initiatives by companies such as Google and Facebook to pay media in some countries for content licenses are valuable,” they said. “However, these programs do not constitute a proper and comprehensive response. The industry needs to be compensated for the disproportions and restore some balance to the ecosystem.”

The U.S. version, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, has bipartisan support and is now being strengthened to reflect learnings from Australia.

Meanwhile the public is increasingly concerned about the trustworthiness of information on social media, with fewer turning to such sites for news, according to Pew Research.

So it’s in platforms’ best interest to fairly compensate, and ensure the survival of, publishers producing reliable information that increases platforms’ credibility and audience.

“We see this very much as a long-term, permanent solution that sort of levels it once and for all,” Deegan said. “At that point, it’s really sort of ‘how do we all work together.’ We don’t want to be adversarial with big tech, we just want to be treated fairly.”

Deegan favors payment based on the number of journalists employed. He believes compensation from platforms would work out to around 30 percent of publishers’ editorial costs.

Canada’s federal government already stepped up with temporary supports. It approved tax credits for news organizations in 2019, to incentivize hiring and retaining journalists, and for households that subscribed to newspapers.

Such credits were proposed in Congress in 2020, with the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. A pared-down version will hopefully survive the current budget negotiations.

Canada also created grants for journalism in 2018. It provided $50 million over five years to fund local reporting jobs, with the grants allocated by news industry groups.

These measures “have been helpful, they’ve been terrific, but they’re not necessarily sustainable and that can change from government to government,” Deegan said.

What’s now needed, in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere, is fair compensation from platforms.

“Australia was a really encouraging signal to publishers around the world,” Deegan said. “I think it’s only a matter of time before you see that model throughout the world. It makes sense, it’s clean, and it’s relatively easy to implement.”

O Canada! With glowing hearts we see thee rise.


Brier Dudley is editor of The Seattle Times’ Save the Free Press Initiative.

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