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Staring Down Meta and Google: Newsrooms Weigh the Threats

A report from the trenches on the Online News Act and what a backlash ban on Canadian news could mean.

Sarah Krichel 27 Jul 2023The Tyee

Sarah Krichel is The Tyee’s social media manager.

For the last couple of decades, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were no-brainers for anyone looking to grow an audience. But after the Liberal government passed Bill C-18, Canadian newsrooms are reckoning with what roles these increasingly volatile social media platforms — and even the ubiquitous search engine Google — play in their business models.

Also known as the Online News Act, the bill set out to make large digital news intermediaries — namely Google and Meta (Facebook’s and Instagram’s parent company) — pay Canadian news organizations for the content they provide. In response, Meta and Google vowed to get rid of Canadian news altogether on their platforms if the legislation was passed. And it was, on June 22.

“There’s not a lot of silver lining here,” said Tony Wang, marketing co-ordinator at the media watchdog news podcast Canadaland, about the threatened ban. “But part of that silver lining is realizing, ‘This is potentially the time in which there could be some paradigm shifting.’ It remains to be seen.”

Meta, which once touted its support for Canadian journalism and funded audience development training for struggling outlets, is making sounds like it’s moved on. “The truth is, our users don’t come to us for news,” reads a May 8 statement from Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta. “They come to share the ups and downs of life, the things that make them happy and sad, that interest them and entertain them. Links to news stories are a tiny proportion of that — less than three per cent of the content they see in their Facebook Feed,” he said, referring to a March report by Nera Economic Consulting, commissioned by Meta.

“The unprecedented decision to put a price on links (a so-called “link tax”) creates uncertainty for our products and exposes us to uncapped financial liability simply for facilitating Canadians’ access to news from Canadian publishers,” reads a June 29 statement from Kent Walker, president of Google global affairs.

Though the Online New Act has been passed its details are still to be hashed out. On July 10, Canada Heritage set out next steps towards how to regulate the extent to which the tech platforms pay news outlets. But in the meantime, Meta, in an apparent test and show of force, has begun blocking news on Instagram, while Google ran those tests earlier this year, with the plan to remove links once the law takes effect at the end of the year.

A growing number of news outlets including The Tyee, CBC and the Breach have met with error messages blocking them from posting to their Instagram accounts. And a growing number of individuals in Canada report they are unable to view news content in Canada from their personal accounts. Some have even noticed being unable to see non-Canadian news links from within Canada.

A screenshot of the Tyee's Instagram account reads a "People in Canada can't see your content" message.
What’s coming up on a lot of Canadians’ screens when they try and read Canadian news via Meta platforms. Screenshot via The Tyee.

As The Tyee’s publisher, Jeanette Ageson, recently explained, the legislation was first introduced in April 2022 after years of lobbying by News Media Canada, an association of Canada’s largest print news brands including Postmedia, Torstar, the Globe and Mail, and many other small and mid-sized outlets (The Tyee is not a member). It was modelled after the Australia News Media Bargaining Code, which forced Google and Meta to enter commercial deals with news publishers and pay them for their content. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars overall went to Australian news publishers.

Until and if that happens at all for Canada, a bill that was meant to help journalism thrive in new ways has provoked Google and Meta to cut Canadians off from journalism on their platforms.

Canadian newsrooms The Tyee spoke to are now reckoning with losing those channels, with some opting to hunker down on their newsletter strategies, diversify social media platforms they use and even consider what silver linings the disappearance of “Big Tech” — and its algorithmic influence on editorial strategies — could have on the Canadian journalism ecosystem.

A potential big blow to ‘discoverability’

Watching Big Tech’s response to Bill C-18 and the consequences on Canadians’ timelines came as no surprise to the Canadaland newsroom. They’ve been covering the evolution of the bill for years, says Jessica Vallentin, the news podcast’s audience development manager.

“When the Liberal government announced its intention to support Canada’s news industry, the reasons given were to sustain local journalism, support innovation in news, and ensure diversity in the news industry,” wrote publisher Jesse Brown in a May 2022 statement undersigned by a coalition of digital news publishers that includes The Tyee. “Bill C-18, the Online News Act currently before Parliament, guarantees none of these things.”

Still, it’s the only legislation in Canada that seeks to fund journalism with money from the digital giants that are worth trillions of dollars and whose disruptions of the advertising market have hurt revenue prospects for Canadian online news.

Because Canadaland is an audio-first newsroom, the impact they’ve experienced is unique. Social media is not their main driver of traffic — podcast downloads via apps are, meaning their main strategy has been to encourage listeners to subscribe to their channel via the podcast apps of choice. They’re also working on adapting their newsletter, says Vallentin, as email is another medium where newsrooms can be in direct contact with readers.

That leaves social media with one main responsibility: discoverability. While their social media strategy was virtually non-existent in most of the time Canadaland existed, the company benefited from an earlier time in podcasting when the market was less saturated. But the newsroom has been forced to change how they approach social media, hiring Wang as a marketing and community outreach co-ordinator to invest more resources into growing audiences and diversifying platforms.

Existing outside of social media channels is a huge pro for Canadaland, says Vallentin. But “this would be a much different conversation if Spotify was applying the same pressure. Or if something happened to Apple Podcasts…. We’re still at risk of these major tech companies.”

Vallentin says podcast technology has shifted a lot in her four years working for Canadaland, such as Apple Podcasts beginning to offer paid subscriptions or the ways that ads are inserted. “In many ways, we’ve had to adapt and quite continuously. That’s a strength in this: our newsroom is ready to be nimble and adjust if we need to.” Additionally, dropping everything for a new promising platform — such as YouTube’s new podcasts function — is risky, notes Vallentin. “This has the potential to be a major driver of traffic and discovery, or a massive investment of resources with very little reward.”

Wang says he knew this job would be an uphill battle. “My thinking was that my main obstacle was the apathy of news readers. But now I’m realizing there’s also the very platforms on which I’m operating that are trying to fight me. The government is not really making things any easier.”

As of publication, Canadaland still can post to Instagram, but one employee in the newsroom has been blocked by Meta.

“The fact that it’s only happening to certain people creates an atmosphere of gaslighting where we don’t have a shared reality of what’s going on. So it’s hard to have a conversation about these things.”

Facebook can be key for community news sharing

Tyler Olsen of the Fraser Valley Current tells The Tyee that for his newsletter-first newsroom, consisting of just three employees, the social media strategy has been to “post our stories when we remember to do so and try to do so as often as possible.”

“We don't have a newspaper that shows up on people's doorsteps. So, we depend on word of mouth. And that word of mouth obviously often occurs on social media.”

For Olsen’s outlet, social media has waned in importance, especially after Facebook made previous algorithm adjustments, independent of Bill C-18, that have already throttled the traffic news providers get. Instagram, meanwhile, has been useful, but takes a ton of time, he says. “All these social media platforms take a ton of time, and maybe one day provided a lot of benefit, but haven’t really lately.”

Google, on the other hand, requires virtually no labour of the newsroom, and so their threat to block Canadian news is particularly troubling, says Olsen. Google is a prime way people discover the Fraser Valley Current because the search engine, compared to social media platforms, is “less algorithmically oriented and is generally more stable.” For example, if somebody were to type “Chilliwack news,” they might eventually be directed to their website. “And that’s a big way new readers have found us in the past.”

“People already largely know, say, the Vancouver Sun, exists…. It puts larger news organizations in a better spot to deal with [a potential blackout by Meta and Google] because they have marketing infrastructure, larger promotions, budgets, events. They’re built in.”

While some outlets don’t find as much success via social media as they used to, Facebook remains a significant resource for Indigenous communities and news providers, such as IndigiNews. “We found our people on Facebook,” wrote Eden Fineday, publisher of IndigiNews, in the Toronto Star last week. “In fact, over 43 per cent of website traffic to IndigiNews comes directly from Facebook.”

To raise awareness about Bill C-18's ripple effects on local journalism, the Nelston Star of Black Press Media delivered blank covers for their print issue this week, and published this brief note on behalf of their staff:

“While our time on [Facebook] is running short, we’re not going anywhere. Our collective passion and commitment to bring you the news that matters most is unwavering.”

Canadian digital and print magazine the Walrus has yet to lose access to their Instagram, but in preparation its team is working to grow its newsletter, using messaging like “don’t let an algorithm dictate what you read,” says Chris Wang, their digital director. One email reader recently told Wang that they get all their content from the newsletters anyway, so these tech changes don’t affect them. “That was nice to hear,” says Wang, but that likely remains a minority.

The shifting tech landscape is famously not limited to Meta and Google, with Elon Musk and Twitter — or rather, “X," making news on a regular basis about sweeping changes to the platform, such as the removal of a key tool called TweetDeck for non-Twitter Blue members and limiting the number of posts non-paying users can view per day. Tweetdeck enables users to customize their feed and schedule posts, while Twitter Blue is a subscription-paid "premium" service with additional features, like the ability to edit tweets.

Wang said the Walrus used to make good use of the Twitter Moments function, but that option was removed in December. Moreover, Twitter as a source of traffic for news sites — especially small ones — has been dropping over the last few years.

The problem with concentration

To Alfred Hermida, a journalism professor at the University of British Columbia and co-founder of the Conversation Canada, this moment is reminiscent of previous transitions between mainstream media devices. If you look at the U.S., Hermida says, declining news media revenues did not start with the internet — it started with television in the 1960s. “Why? Because television competed for advertising and was much more mass marketed.”

“If we use the terminology that’s been used around Bill C-18, TV stole advertising from print in the 1960s. Nobody said, ‘let’s tax TV stations to support print,’ because it would just seem like a ridiculous argument.”

Of course, as Meta and Google undercut the former advertising relationships and models that sustained news media, they do not create news content to replace what’s lost, as television companies did, so some may find the analogy isn’t apt. However, Hermida’s view is in line with what U.K. self-described “original free market think tank” published in a February report:

“Just because digital platforms have benefited from the digital revolution does not make them responsible for newspapers’ struggles. Google and Meta did not take publishers’ money any more than Henry Ford stole from the horse and carriage industry. New technology emerged, consumer preferences changed, and the previous business models fell apart.”

But this isn’t to say these platforms shouldn’t be regulated or bear zero responsibility in supporting news media, says Hermida.

Instead of a situation like Australia’s where Google and Meta have reached private deals with media, you could have a taxing regime where platforms are equitably taxed, and those funds are destined to support media. Canada has a long history of arm’s length funding for news media, the arts and even the dairy industry. “We’re not reinventing the wheel; we’re taking the wheel that Canada has been using in all sorts of other industries and applying it to journalism.”

But this tax must also apply to near-monopoly companies in the telecom sector, says Hermida, which is the real problem in Canadian media. He’s referring to Bell, which recently asked the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to reduce required local news programming since it’s losing the giant telecom company money.

“For Bell to say, ‘we still make huge profits from our other operations, but we don’t want to spend money on news,’ is ignoring that to be in that position of near-monopoly, you have to have a social responsibility.”

In the age of newspapers, in-depth, investigative projects were able to get funding because newspapers bundled them with other things people bought the newspaper for, such as sports, business news, the crossword. “So there’s always been this history of cross-subsidizing in the news industry.”

But Hermida is critical of Bill C-18 for the support it gives incumbents’ failed commercial media model. “It will go to the same broadcasters who have vertically integrated.” Bill C-18, he asserts, “is about propping up the legacy of yesterday.”

Relying less on Big Tech

Canadaland doesn’t identify itself as “anti-bill” or “anti-Meta,” says managing editor Annette Ejiofor, but “anti-loss of news.” “I think we are anti-the loss of having a place to disseminate information.”

On one hand, Ejiofor hopes this will motivate people to go look for their news, whether it’s digging for it themselves or going to communities to find it. “When I think of how I used to get news back when I was much younger, I lived in Nigeria, I knew news when my parents' friends would come over and meet in the living room and argue about politics. We would all be conversing together about what is going on in the world. I hope it inspires more of us to go out talking to each other, like we did back in the day.”

Ejiofor is also concerned about the loss of global connection. “Back when Black Lives Matter was happening, a lot of the ways we all knew where to meet, what was going on, where to send funds, was through these different channels.”

It’s one in a series of reminders that Big Tech isn’t your friend, says Canadaland’s Wang. But removing the incentive structures in place could help journalism become more grassroots and community-centred, he adds. “Right now is an important moment in redefining what news looks like. Does news look like long-form, informal YouTube videos? Does it look like community organizing?”

There are also bad actors, notes Wang, who want to take the opportunity to redefine what news looks like, eroding standards of accuracy, fairness and accountability. “I hesitate to frame this as a battle, but it’s a question of who is going to win in this struggle over what the future of news looks like.”

One in four Canadians gets their news from social media. Whether we like it or not, the internet and social media are the way people receive information, especially for younger audiences, says Hermida. “These audiences are not suddenly going to go to your website because you told them to.”

“We always think about it from the journalist’s perspective: ‘How are we going to do this?’ But increasingly, we need to turn it around and say, ‘It’s not what journalists are going to do, but who the audience is. Who needs what I am doing? How can I try to meet them where they are?”

Having this audience-oriented mindset can provide a compelling business case, says Hermida. “Because people will respond to you if you're meeting their needs.”

This article is part of an occasional series on how Canadian media became intertwined with major tech platforms, and how it’s affecting Canadians and their access to journalism.

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