Local news being strangled in Facebook, government tussle

Seen an interesting article on the Stouffville or Markham Review website or any other local news source and want to share it on Facebook?  

Too bad. You’re not allowed.

Do you want to check out the Stouffville or Markham Review’s latest post on Facebook?

Tough. You’re not allowed to do that either.

Either way, you’ve probably found a message simply saying, “This content isn’t available in Canada.”

But it’s not the news source preventing you from seeing its content. We wish we could share as much as possible with you.

But in response to a new federal government legislation, the Online News Act, that would force companies like Meta (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp’s parent company), as well as other large digital social outlets like Alphabet (Google, YouTube) to compensate traditional media for news they create and then use on social sites, Facebook has gone nuclear and erased all hint of news from its platforms – large and small.

Google has said it may restrict news but, as of writing, has not done so.

The backdrop to this story is a long-running erosion of advertising dollars from “traditional media” to trackable digital platforms over the last 15 years or so. Trackable is a keyword here.

Facebook and Google have exceptional data collection capabilities and know how to use it. They know where you go on the internet, what you like, when you are online and where you’ll likely go. They see what news interests you and where you go to get it and use the data they get from your behaviour and target ads your way and advertisers pay to access you through various means that the big two provide.

It’s been a resounding success. Over 80 per cent of all digital ads in Canada go to the big two at the expense of traditional advertising outlets — namely news sources. Traditional media have tried to adapt by putting all their content on websites and gaining what meagre digital ad dollars might trickle down to them, which isn’t much – even for more prominent outlets like the Toronto Star, CBC, CTV etc. Even these outlets don’t have the power to drive sufficient traffic on their own.

So, knowing that many people access news via social media, most news outlets post links there, hoping to redirect the valuable eyeballs back to their sites.

On the surface, it seems like a win-win, doesn’t it? Facebook gets data; news sites get referrals through links they post. Over a third of Stouffville and Markham Review’s traffic typically comes from social media; we don’t complain. Sometimes we’ve even paid Facebook to boost our posts.

But many more prominent Canadian news outlets contend that the dominant market position Facebook and Google have has been achieved on the backs of traditional media as Meta, Google, et al, don’t produce any news content they display and benefit from, and so are demanding some of the ad money back from them. They note the huge ad dollars taken from local communities and zero investment back into them.

Facebook, for their part, says, ‘Don’t blame us for building a better mouse trap. If you want more ad dollars, build a better system’. They also argue the millions of eyeballs they send to news sites are payment enough. If news outlets don’t think they’re valuable, don’t post on the platform.

That is a good point in principle. But do they owe Canadians nothing beyond well-targeted, increasingly expensive ads?

Where does the government stand on it all?

The Canadian government, allegedly in the interest of promoting a strong and vibrant domestic news sector, agreed with news content producers.

Following similar legislation enacted in Australia, it produced the Online News Act, which will force big digital to collectively negotiate with Canadian news outlets and distribute payment to them for any links used on their platforms.

Further, the Online News Act grandiosely claims the Act’s outcome will be the “sustainability of the Canadian news ecosystem, including the sustainability of independent news businesses….”

The details about how the negotiating process will work are still to be determined, and assessing what each link is worth will be messy. Given how fast traditional news sources are losing money, whatever money they can wring from Facebook or Google will not change the trajectory of their business.

But some things are certain. The digital giants will resist being squeezed, and any funds that do go back to media as a result of the Act will be sucked up by larger traditional, money-losing news organizations like already government-funded CBC or larger, struggling companies like Toronto Star (whose parent company owned the Stouffville Sun-Tribune and Markham Economist & Sun).

Small, local, independently owned outlets like the Stouffville and Markham Review will get nothing.

That’s because the Online Act contains a stilted and dated view of a news organization. It itemises, that, among other characteristics, a news business must employ two journalists to be eligible. Many owner-operated news organizations don’t qualify (unless Indigenous owned).

That doesn’t square with the digital reality where many highly qualified and talented, having worked with big media, increasingly strike out on their own and provide much-needed and insightful local content, often online only.

In the Review’s case, a family-owned outlet whose owners have, collectively, more than 60 years of media experience doesn’t count as an independent news business no matter how many local stories we write or of what quality or worth they are because we’re owners not paid exclusively as journalists. Neither do the dozen or so contributors and freelance writers who write on our printed pages and websites. Even if paid, they are not officially employees, so not classed as journalists for the purposes of the Act.

So here we are.

The federal government doesn’t classify us as a news organization, but Facebook punishes us anyways.

Local media’s punishment will worsen if Google decides to jump into the fray.

So, who’s looking out for local news?

Well, it’s up to us. I guess. But we’ll need your help.

First, pick up our print product and pass it on to a friend when done. They are available at local grocery stores, community centres and other high-traffic locations. Patronize the good advertisers that still spend money on local news. They are getting good results and helping pay for local stories to be told.

If you’re a local business, consider spending some of your local budget in local media direct. In print or online. We offer packages that combine both and you’ll be noticed as a business that cares about independent news.

Secondly, bookmark our site in your browser and any other local site you like. Go straight to the source often and don’t rely on Facebook to decide what can be shared with you. If you like the format, our print product is replicated there in an interactive pdf, but we update the site daily with more news and information than we can fit in print.

And then hope that common sense prevails, and the government looks to more productive ways of engaging digital reality and Facebook stops acting like the schoolyard bully.

Maybe even call your local MP and let them know you expect more from the government.

Tell them you read about the whole mess in a local, independent news source. Now, the only one left.

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