Last Thursday, I received a letter from Google notifying me that it will be terminating a licensing agreement with Canada’s National Observer that accounts for a slice of our annual operating budget. This comes as Google says it will remove links to Canadian news on its search, discover and news products in Canada as Bill C-18 passes. Meta says it will do the same. It hasn’t happened yet. I can still find CNO links on Google and news is still accessible on Facebook, for the moment. But in six months time when the Online News Act comes into effect, this will be a huge hit for Canada’s news media.
The letter from Google was not unexpected. Still, the reality of revenue loss hit home hard. I always plan for uncertainty, but in the 16 years since I founded Observer Media Group, I’ve never lived through uncertainty like this week.
In the face of challenges for Canada's independent news organizations, it’s beneficial to observe how other countries are safeguarding journalism, which has a crucial role in advancing democracies. I believe a free, independent and well-funded media is a vital public good and an essential component of a healthy public commons.
I will elaborate further on the unfolding situation with Bill C-18 and Big Tech in Canada. But first, in this time of uncertainty, I want to stress the primary way scrappy, upstart media players like Canada’s National Observer have prospered is by the generous financial support of readers who purchase subscriptions.
I started my career in journalism as an intern at the age of 16. It is more than just a job to me — it is a calling and a passion. I consider the work of investigative and solutions news reporters to be a public service. This is why I agree with the approach taken by countries like Sweden, which have progressive relationships with their news media thanks to direct subsidies from the state. This subsidy system has been in place for over three decades, and similar approaches exist in Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway.
In Australia, a law was passed that required Google and Facebook to pay news publishers for displaying their content. This decision was made to ensure proper funding for journalism after the tech giants dominated ad revenue, leaving traditional media with significantly less advertising and revenue. The Australian law compelled Google and Facebook to negotiate with news outlets for content payment or face arbitration. Canada's Online News Act draws inspiration from the Australian law.
Canada faces different challenges in negotiations with Meta and Google. In the coming months, independent media will have to navigate negotiations and compete with legacy media and the CBC to secure a fair share of the financial pie. Legacy media operations hold more power behind the scenes, making it easier for them to obtain a larger portion. And reaching a deal will require small independents like CNO to survive in the meantime.
To navigate this critical period, readers must adapt their reading habits by directly visiting their favourite publications rather than relying on Facebook, Google or Twitter for news. Sharing preferred publications with friends over email or text and encouraging them to access news directly from the source can help take power away from the tech giants.
It will be time-consuming for small- to medium-sized newsrooms like ours to engage in the negotiating process with Meta and Google. In the end, if Meta and Google are legislated to cover 30 percent of newsroom costs, it would be nothing short of a miracle. However, achieving this outcome will require unity within our news community and unwavering advocacy for independent media and Canadians' right to access news freely on any platform they choose.
I have devoted my undivided attention to shedding light on this matter because I believe this issue is of utmost importance for anyone who values democracy to grasp its profound implications. The consequences of Meta's and Google’s actions for small- and medium-sized publishers like CNO remain unknown.
It’s been said Canada is the toughest news media environment on Earth. I’ve fought year over year to safeguard CNO’s vital place in the Canadian media ecosystem. But to face off against the Big Tech players is uncharted territory for me, and the outcome is uncertain. I'll keep you posted over the next weeks.