The news industry has long had a fraught relationship with big tech. Through years of seemingly small, incremental decisions, leaders at organizations from Gannett to small digital indies wound up with powerful middlemen with uncomfortable influence over our business models: Meta and Google. While we in the industry long understood this relationship to be problematic, we struggled to wean ourselves off of cheap clicks and easy access to audiences.
Well, that tension is coming to a head in Canada — and there are lessons to be learned for the rest of the world.
Just over a week ago, the Canadian government officially passed C-18, the Online News Act. The legislation is designed to compel tech giants to pay news publishers for links to news content.
In response, Meta immediately pledged to block Canadians from sharing news content on Facebook and Instagram. On Thursday, Google announced it too plans to remove Canadian news from search and Discover. The platforms also warned they would soon terminate licensing agreements they struck with some publishers to preempt the legislation — an immediate hit to revenue for those publishers.
For over a year, members of the Indiegraf network collaborated and advocated for amendments to the law to ensure its transparency, equity and effectiveness in funding journalism (not debt repayments). Watching the results of the past couple of weeks is the most painful kind of “I-told-you-so.”
This high-stakes political game of chicken is relevant beyond Canada. California is considering a similar law. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is pushing for a similar law in the U.S., urged Canadian politicians not to give in to pressure from the tech giants. Other jurisdictions globally are watching closely.
What happens next is unclear. It’s likely that the small and startup news organizations Indiegraf supports will be disproportionately harmed by the fallout. While most of our publishers are too small to benefit financially from the law, we use digital platforms to build new audiences. We work hard to move those relationships to email newsletters and websites, but social media and search remain the most reliable and affordable ways to share our journalism. Many communities continue to rely on Facebook to connect with their communities and discover local information, including Indigenous communities as seen through IndigiNews’ strong and engaged Indigenous audience on this platform.
The anticipated decline of reach when Google and Facebook remove news content will have an impact on our partner publishers’ revenue as well. Losing these distribution channels prevents us from reaching audiences with membership campaigns, our most important source of revenue, and harms our ability to sell advertising and sponsorships.
This crisis underscores the news industry’s reliance on tech giants to distribute and fund journalism. And it’s not just us. As the immediate impact became clear in the days following the law’s passage, the head of the board of one of Canada’s largest news chain Postmedia resigned. A few days after that Postmedia revealed plans to merge with Canada’s other largest local news player Torstar, a move widely seen as a last ditch effort to shed debt and stay alive through this storm. The fragile industry is bracing for mass layoffs and closures.
But as in most crises, there is also opportunity. If there was any previous doubt, it’s now utterly clear that Facebook and Instagram are not the future of news. The industry has known this for a long time.
Google’s role in the future of news is less clear. Accurate news content is a more important feature of search than of Facebook’s feed, and the company has continued to invest in news innovation in the face of regulatory uncertainty. (Disclosure: Google News initiative is one of several funders of Indiegraf’s News Startup Fund.)
Regardless of where the tech giants land, it’s time for news publishers and the public to take back control over our relationships with each other. News publishers made a critical error when we let someone else mediate our connection to our audiences. We can’t rely on third party platforms with misaligned incentives to guarantee access to one another.
This is a moment to innovate. Indiegraf is working hard to contribute strategies, tactics and data that contribute to a playbook for establishing direct relationships with the communities we serve.
Our partner publishers are already doing many things to strengthen their resilience and independence. They are inviting their communities to subscribe to email newsletters and engage with stories directly on their websites. They are urging local advertisers to reallocate their marketing budgets to ensure they reach engaged local audiences. They are finding creative ways to find new audiences in other places. There will be lessons in this work for the rest of the world, and we will share what we learn.
It’s time to build information ecosystems that provide essential content directly to the public. Big tech’s ban on Canadian media is an invitation that has been in the mail for a long time: an invitation to imagine a different future for local news.