Canadians got a taste of what the world would look like without a robust journalism industry Thursday morning, as multiple newspapers published blank front pages.
“Imagine if the news wasn’t there when we needed it,” read the message on the blank front pages.
“If nothing is done, the journalism industry will disappear.”
The warnings come as a part of a campaign from News Media Canada, which represents the print and digital media industry in Canada. It’s part of a push to warn Canadians that without government intervention, the beleaguered journalism industry could crumble away.
“It’s a fact that news companies across Canada are going out of business. COVID-19 is accelerating the decline. Journalism jobs are disappearing,” wrote John Hinds, President and CEO News Media Canada, in a letter sent to members of Parliament.
“That means real news keeps disappearing and hate and fake news will be all that’s left to distribute.”
Yet another blow to the industry was issued this week as Bell Media cut over 200 jobs across the country, shuttering some of its local newsrooms for good. A spokesman for the company said on Monday that the layoffs were due to programming decisions made by Bell’s radio brands to streamline the company’s operating structures.
As these newsrooms dial down their operations, Hinds said, democracy is dealt a blow as well.
“One of the things in this country is that if you look at provincial legislatures and courthouses and city halls…many of them don’t have a dedicated reporter,” Hinds told Global News in an interview.
This means members of those communities are less likely to hear the whole story, Hinds said — that is, if they hear it at all.
“(They) have tremendous power over the lives of citizens and there’s nobody there to A, tell the story or B, to hold them to account for what they’re actually doing,” Hinds said.
“That’s the stuff that that really we’re talking about, when we talk about areas of news poverty or news deserts.”
He explained that a major culprit in this issue is the lack of regulation in the digital sphere, which he said allows tech giants to exert unprecedented control over what Canadians — and the rest of the world — read.
“Google and Facebook, two of the richest companies in history, control the onramp to the internet highway in Canada. They decide what we as a sovereign nation see and don’t see in the news,” Hinds wrote in the letter to MPs.
“Meanwhile, all Canadian news media companies, big and small, are suffering for two reasons: First, they don’t get paid for their content by Facebook and Google; Second, Facebook and Google take over 80 per cent of all Canadian digital advertising industry revenue.”
Speaking to Global News, Hinds explained that these digital giants “built a business model where they sell advertising…around other people’s content.”
While news organizations choose to put their content onto these digital platforms themselves, companies like Facebook and Google are then able to turn a profit from the advertisements surrounding those posts — although newsrooms also get a cut.
The government has said it plans to take steps to tweak how this works.
In a statement emailed to Global News on Thursday, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said that “news is not free and has never been.”
“Our position is clear: publishers must be adequately compensated for their work and we will support them as they deliver essential information for the benefit of our democracy and the health and well-being of our communities,” he said.
Guilbeault also reiterated what he’s said publicly in the past — that the government intends to bring forth legislation to create “a made-in-Canada formula” that would “ultimately lead to a comprehensive, coherent and equitable digital framework for both Canadian news publishers and digital platforms.”
“Our goal is to put forward new legislation this year,” he said.
Hinds welcomed the move.
“We have a very serious situation in this country, and we are delighted to hear that Minister of Heritage Steven Guilbeault said on Monday that the government is preparing legislation to force tech giants to fairly compensate content creators,” he wrote in his letter.