Local news could disappear if Canada doesn’t stand up to tech giants, Winnipeg newspaper publisher says

Days after Canada pledged to make Facebook pay for news content amid an ongoing media battle with tech giants, one newspaper publisher is warning local news could be in trouble if the government doesn’t take bold action.

“Facebook and Google control the digital world,” Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chair of News Media Canada, told CBC News Network’s John Northcott on Sunday. “They control the vast majority of advertising and they really have made it very difficult for other media to make a living, as you might want to say, online.

“You’re going to get to a point, a drop-off point, where suddenly you have communities without news — without news outlets, newspapers or television stations or radio stations.”

On Wednesday, Facebook announced it is blocking Australians from seeing or sharing news on its platform because of laws in the country proposing to make digital giants pay for journalism.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook regional managing director William Easton said.

WATCH | Newspaper publisher discusses making tech giants pay for news:

Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, says local news could be in trouble if the government doesn’t take bold action. 6:09

CBC/Radio-Canada has a content distribution partnership with Facebook and Google that includes services like mobile distribution, data storage and communication tools.

Cox said advertising revenues for news outlets have been slowly declining for years, which puts limits on the journalism they can provide amid dwindling jobs and resources. There’s also danger of misinformation filling the void left in the absence of local news, he said.

Federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, who’s in charge of creating similar legislation in Canada that will be unveiled in the coming months, said Facebook’s actions in Australia won’t deter Ottawa from taking a stand.

“Canada is at the forefront of this battle … we are really among the first group of countries around the world that are doing this,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Guilbeault said Canada could tap Australia’s model, which requires sites like Facebook and Google to make deals to pay news outlets, or it could agree on a price through binding arbitration.

‘Unless governments act, these companies typically don’t do anything,’ said Bob Cox, who is also chair of News Media Canada. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Whatever path the federal government chooses, Cox said it’s crucial that it takes some kind of stand for anything to change.

“One way or the other, the idea will be that it will force Google and Facebook essentially to negotiate with publishers,” said Cox, who described the current relationship between news outlets and tech giants as “one of a tremendous power imbalance.”

“What we’ve seen around the world is that unless governments act, these companies typically don’t do anything.”

Proliferation of conspiracies

The implications of such inaction is huge, said Jason Hannan, an associate professor in the University of Winnipeg’s department of rhetoric and communications who studies social media and how it shapes public discourse.

He said news organizations have been struggling to survive since the transition from print to digital news — but digital giants like Facebook and Twitter have thrived during that time.

“They get to post, they get to feature news content, and every time we post an article or like or share or comment or so forth, this drives Facebook traffic and activity and they profit from it,” Hannan said.

“And unfortunately, this doesn’t really result in much revenue going to the news organizations whose stories they publish.”

WATCH | Facebook and Australia are in a standoff. Is Canada next?

Facebook blocked news posts for Australian users as the government plans to make technology companies pay for sharing news content. There are concerns something similar could happen to Canadians. 7:37

If nothing is done, Hannan said more news organizations will be confronted with financial situations too dire to keep going and will have to fold. That could degrade democracy, he said.

“The implications are that we will have fewer and fewer qualified and trained journalists providing quality news, and then we will see a proliferation of people with no training in journalism, but plenty of practice in YouTube posting nonsense and conspiracy theories,” Hannan said.

“We will see fewer news articles and more memes and YouTube videos and this will just contribute to the already severe degradation of our public sphere.”

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