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opinion

Jeanette Ageson is publisher of The Tyee. Matthew DiMera is the founder of The Resolve. Jeff Elgie is CEO of Village Media. Lela Savic is the founding editor in chief of La Converse.

When the Liberal federal government announced its intention to support Canada’s news industry, it said it wanted to sustain local journalism, support innovation in news and ensure diversity in the news industry.

Bill C-18, the Online News Act currently before Parliament, guarantees none of these things.

The centrepiece of Bill C-18 is a funding model aimed at mandating large web platforms such as Facebook and Google to compensate Canadian news organizations for posting content on the platforms.

Unfortunately, as it is currently structured, Bill C-18 does not specifically direct funding toward supporting the critical work of journalists. The bill also lacks robust transparency mechanisms and, most importantly, it risks leaving out small and medium-sized publishers, as well as independent ones.

Today, a coalition of more than 100 independent Canadian news providers published an open letter to the government, pushing for amendments to C-18 that would ensure the bill lives up to its promise to strengthen Canadian journalism.

Our coalition represents outlets serving dozens of communities across the country and collectively employing hundreds of journalists. It includes companies covering legislatures at every level, and companies building new business models with podcasting and video journalism. It includes French and English outlets, climate reporters, investigative journalists and newsrooms led by Black and Indigenous people, and by people of colour.

We are entrepreneurs who have spent personal capital, fundraised from our communities and built newsrooms from scratch to reach underserved, local Canadian audiences. All of us are united in our call for fairness in this flawed legislation.

Bill C-18 is modelled after Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code. It must not repeat the mistakes of that legislation. In Australia, an estimated 90 per cent of negotiated revenues flowed to the three largest media companies.

Yet even before Bill C-18 was tabled, the government’s signalling that tech companies would need to pay media outlets for news content has set out winners and losers in the news industry.

There have been a series of secret, backroom deals between Big Tech and the largest newspapers in Canada, along with a handful of individual small to medium-sized publishers. An unintended but likely consequence of Bill C-18 as currently structured may be to cement these inequities, which would threaten the public’s already frayed trust in journalism.

To be clear, we support the federal government’s goal of creating a sustainable news industry. We wholeheartedly agree journalism is a public good, and we want to see Canadian journalism strengthened and supported. Journalists play a critical role in a functioning democracy: They hold policy-makers to account, inform voters and elevate civic concerns. It is not too late for the current legislation to address the needs of the Canadian news media ecosystem.

To do so, the bill must commit to a universal funding formula that should be applied consistently to all qualifying news organizations. This funding formula should be disclosed, and the public must know which news organizations are receiving money from tech companies.

Compensation from tech platforms should be based on a set percentage of editorial expenditures or the number of journalists who work for an organization, including freelancers.

Finally, criteria for inclusion must not leave out news startups. As written, Bill C-18 may exclude dozens of important innovators by demanding employee thresholds that news startups often don’t reach until their third or fourth year of operation.

When we focus only on newsroom closures, we overlook the most innovative part of the journalism industry. Over the past five years, 106 local news outlets opened. While closures were majority print newspapers owned by large newspaper chains, the vast majority of the outlets that launched are digital and independently-owned. Bill C-18, as currently structured, threatens these burgeoning operations.

This new legislation is too big, and too important, to fumble. Bill C-18 will have a massive impact on the future of journalism and news in Canada. Let’s make sure we get it right.