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Internet giants threaten local news outlets

A level playing field is necessary to preserve local journalism

By Jerry Dias

High-quality news and information have rarely been more valued in communities across this country. During the first and second waves of the coronavirus pandemic, Canadians have turned to their local news outlets to find out what they need to know to stay safe in their towns or cities.

Paradoxically, those same local news organizations have never been so threatened with extinction.

That’s because the sharp revenue drop resulting from COVID-19 has come on top of years of predation by Google and Facebook, which have a cornered the market — in Canada and around the world — on consumer data and the digital advertising it earns.

That’s years of journalism and local reporting bleeding revenue, laying off journalists, and driving coverage down, down, down.

Since the beginning of the pandemic alone, 48 community newspapers have temporarily or permanently closed. Over 300 have closed in the last 10 years.

Facebook and Google are true monopolies destroying a public good: not the water or air this time, but our democracy. Together the web giants own 80 per cent of Canada’s $6 billion digital ad market, don’t pay taxes, and employ fewer than 100 Canadians, none of them journalists.

News Media Canada, the umbrella group of Canada’s many publishers big and small, want something done before it’s too late. A solution News Media Canada wantscomes from Australia, the boldest of all sovereign nations to take on the web giants.

The Australians have gone for the low hanging fruit: the undeniable fact that Google’s search engine and Facebook’s news feed are grabbing the publishers’ news content off the Internet, without paying for it, so they can attract everyday netizens like you and I to their platforms, while they make billions selling our eyeballs to their advertisers.

The publishers — in Australia and around the globe — want Google and Facebook to pay for their content. The Australian model, on the verge of being implemented by their Competition Bureau over the vigorous objections of Google and Facebook, sets up a collective bargaining regime between publishers on one side and the web giants on the other.

But here’s the problem with the Australian model: its focus on paying for content is missing the real abuse of Facebook and Google’s monopoly power. It does just not come from poaching publisher content but from its cornering the digital advertising market around the globe, a monopoly that gets bigger every day.

Three years ago the federal government asked an expert panel to advise how Canadian media might survive the onslaught of global digital giants. The report of the blue-ribbon Yale Committee in January 2020 proposed a news fund bankrolled by regular contributions from Facebook and Google, like a monopoly-licence fee that funnels dollars right back into public journalism.

If journalism is essential to democracy — and it is — it’s time to go for the best Canadian solution we can find.

Jerry Dias is the National President of UNIFOR.

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