The NDP and Tories are set to make changes to the federal government’s online news bill to help hard-pressed community newspapers that are too small to qualify for compensation from tech giants.
Bill C-18, which is now being debated in the Commons heritage committee, would make tech giants Google and Facebook compensate newspapers if they reuse their work, or post links to their articles.
But papers employing fewer than two full-time permanent staff would not be eligible for compensation under the bill.
The Liberals have indicated that they will support amendments to Bill C-18 to help papers employing only one full-time journalist, or relying on freelancers, get funding from Facebook and Google for reusing their work.
Lisa Hepfner, a Liberal member of the heritage committee and former journalist, said: “I think we are open to these amendments.”
With the NDP, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois all supporting changes to help community newspapers, the amendment would pass even without government support.
Among the local papers that would now miss out from compensation under the bill is the Davidson Leader, a small Saskatchewan paper founded in 1904 that serves a farming town halfway between Regina and Saskatoon.
The weekly paper, which employs a part-time journalist, was sold for one dollar in 2019.
Dan Senick, who now owns the paper, said it plays a crucial role in the small farming community, telling residents about farming and local news, future events, as well as obituaries, which are often shared widely on Facebook.
He said at least 60 per cent of Davidson’s 1,000 residents subscribe to the paper, along with people living in neighbouring towns and hamlets within 60 kilometres.
“The Davidson Leader just barely scrapes by. We can’t afford a full-time reporter,” Mr. Senick said. “We give Facebook all the obit content and sometimes an obit reaches thousands of people on Facebook. It would just be fair to get some part of the funding. Our paper helps keep the town alive.”
Mr. Senick said another community paper he owns, Northern Pride, based in Meadow Lake, a small town in the far north of Saskatchewan, also has too few staff to qualify for compensation from Google or Facebook. He said the paper plays a crucial role in connecting people in the town, which has no local radio station.
Conservative MP Kevin Waugh, a member of the Commons heritage committee and a former broadcast journalist, warned that the threshold of two staff journalists would exclude most community papers in Saskatchewan. The bill would force Facebook and Google to come to the table to cut deals with media outlets for using their work, or face penalties.
“When this bill came out it was for newspapers, but 70 per cent of papers in Saskatchewan would not qualify,” Mr. Waugh said.
His concerns were echoed last month at the committee by Dennis Merrell, executive director of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association, who told a committee of MPs that in that province around 50 per cent of media outlets may not be big enough to participate.
Peter Julian, the NDP’s heritage spokesman, said his party is planning to amend the bill to help local papers, such as the Davidson Leader, while excluding small fringe news organizations, including from the far right, from getting paid for their work by tech giants.
The NDP spearheaded an amendment to the online streaming bill to help community radio stations, which passed in committee earlier this year.
The move to amend the online news bill is likely to be supported by the Bloc, which has warned about the precarious future facing small local papers in Quebec.
Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez says one of Bill C-18′s key aims is to help revive the local newspaper industry, which has seen mass shutdowns in recent years as advertising revenue has migrated to tech giants such as Facebook and Google.
Laura Scaffidi, spokeswoman for Mr. Rodriguez, said the government was “open to changes” to the bill.
“This bill has always been about strengthening local news in Canada. We are open to making that even more clear in the bill and are working with all parties that share that common goal,” she said.
Ms. Hepfner told The Globe and Mail that a similar law in Australia, making tech giants compensate the media for using their work, had led to a big rise in the number of journalists employed there and a revival of local papers.
She said she supported more investment in small Canadian local papers, so they could employ more full-time staff.