The Liberal government’s latest effort to rescue the news business is doing more harm than good. In any case, that effort is probably too little and too late.
Last week, as Parliament rose for the summer, Bill C-18, the Online News Act, received royal assent.
The law, in essence, requires tech giants to pay for news content that appears on their platforms in this country. The goal is to compensate news organizations for lost advertising revenue.
In response, Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, has said it will remove Canadian news from those platforms in this country. On Thursday, Google announced it would do the same. Facebook has also confirmed it is withdrawing from existing agreements with individual news organizations, including The Globe and Mail.
Such boycotts could harm the news operations the legislation was intended to help. And this purported help has probably come to an industry that, in its current form, cannot be rescued.
When I joined the Ottawa Citizen in 1988, its newsroom contained almost 200 journalists and those supporting them. The Citizen had bureaus in Cornwall, Brockville and Pembroke, Ont., as well as Parliament Hill, Queen’s Park and Ottawa city hall.
Today, the physical newsroom is shuttered. A small remnant of reporters and editors work heroically to put out a paper and sustain a website. The Citizen is a wraith of what it was. The same goes for other papers in the Postmedia chain, such as the Montreal Gazette, Calgary Herald and Vancouver Sun.
We learned this month that the Montreal Gazette’s editor-in-chief is leaving the paper, a little more than a year after he arrived. The deputy editor is also leaving.
Earlier this month, Jamie Irving stepped down as executive chair of Postmedia, only six months after taking up the job.
Meanwhile, Postmedia and Nordstar Capital LP, which owns the Toronto Star, are in merger talks. The Star has also lost far too many talented writers and editors.
It’s hard to imagine that any injection of revenues from Google, the federal government or anyone else could restore those papers to their former glory.
When the internet took off a generation ago, newspapers offered their content on websites for free, assuming they would figure out later how to make money off them. Most never did and cratered. A study by Northwestern University projects that one-third of the newspapers in existence in 2005 will be gone by 2025. Many new sites that aimed to take on the legacy media, such as Buzzfeed and Vox, have also shut down or suffered job losses as Google and Facebook and other giants vacuum up advertising revenue.
A few news organizations in North America, including The New York Times and The Globe and Mail, have preserved their editorial heft by making digital subscriptions an essential part of their business model. But whether that model is sustainable in the long-term remains uncertain.
Not only newspapers are in crisis. On the same day that it imposed a brutal wave of layoffs on its newsrooms across the country, Bell Media asked the CRTC to waive the requirement for CTV and other stations it owns to broadcast local news.
And many magazines are in dire shape. National Geographic laid off the last of its staff writers this week. The magazine once had 12 million subscribers in the United States alone. At the end of 2022, it has fewer than 1.8 million. “It remains among the most widely read magazines in America, at a time when magazines are no longer widely read,” the Washington Post observed.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed “to continue to make sure we are supporting the ability of Canadians to get local news, to get quality journalism,” regardless of what Google and Facebook decide.
But quality journalism requires more than a few columnists offering opinions, or a few reporters covering local crime and traffic accidents. It can involve weeks or even months of effort by a team of journalists to uncover and document abuse, corruption, conflict-of-interest or other misdeeds.
We cannot and should not ask taxpayers to sustain newspapers as they were in the glory days. It may not even be worth asking them to prop up what’s left.