By Al Beeber
A plan by the federal government to introduce legislation that could help the Canadian print media industry is good news for newspapers. But introducing that legislation, which would require digital media platforms that generate revenue from the publication of news content to share that income with newspapers, is only a start.
Paul Deegan, president and chief executive officer of News Media Canada, says that legislation needs to be passed. News Media Canada is the national association of the Canadian news media industry which serves print and digital news producers across the country. The federal Liberals, as part of its election campaign platform in the summer, promised to introduce legislation within 100 days of being elected that would help level the playing field for Canadian print media outlets.
The legislation, which Deegan says is supported by all federal parties, is based on an Australian model. It would allow Canadian publishers to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook for a share of revenues.
Some companies have already made private deals with the media giants, but Deegan said they support the collective bargaining plan.
“The government has been looking at this issue going back for a couple of years or so. And there wasn’t any legislation introduced, but then this summer in the Liberal platform, they committed to introducing legislation within 100 days that would basically follow the Australian model. Right now, it’s actually not legal for publishers to negotiate collectively because of the Competition Act. So basically what we need is an amendment to the Competition Act that will allow publishers to get together and negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook,” said Deegan.
Part of the Australian legislation, he said, is if negotiations fail or don’t make progress, there’s a baseball style arbitration process in which each party makes its best offer and an arbitrator goes with one or another, he said.
During the campaign, the Conservatives said they support legislation, he said.
“I think in terms of the most expeditious way to get this done is by just allowing publishers to negotiate collectively which is a relatively straight forward amendment to the Competition Act. So what we want is the ability for all publishers, large and small, anybody deemed to be a qualified journalistic organization in the country, to be able to negotiate collectively,” he said.
“Based on what we’re hearing out of Australia, it sounds like the payments to papers are roughly 30 per cent of editorial costs, which is obviously very meaningful money. One of the issues that’s happened is a number of titles and groups have gone on their own and cut deals with Google and or Facebook,” he said.
The issue with that, Deegan said, is it does nothing for other publishers, especially the smaller ones in Canada.
“Google and Facebook are doing more deals, especially with some of these larger groups, but that’s only happened since we’ve had sort of the prospect or threat of legislation. The issue becomes if there’s no more pressure to have legislation, when those deals come up for renewal, are the terms going to be as favourable? Are those platforms going to even want to do those deals?” asked Deegan.
“So what we’re looking for as an industry is a long-term fix rather than what I describe as short-term one-offs which some of these deals are. The other thing that I think is interesting, even the publishers that have signed with Google and or Facebook, they’re all committed to collective negotiation. In the absence of legislation, it can take time to get legislation introduced and through parliament, et cetera. But in the absence of legislation, they’ve looked at their sort of commercial interests and figured this is the best thing for them.”
“But all of them recognize that in the long term the best thing is that everyone gets that type of deal, and publishers large and small.”
All print media outlets are part of the same ecosystem, Deegan said, with smaller ones feeding staff or stories to bigger ones while picking up copy from larger outlets.
“They’re all part of the same ecosystem and there’s obviously an important role for Google and Facebook to play in that ecosystem.”
“What we’re saying is we want to work together with the platforms, but we just want it to be on sort of fair and even terms so we need a level playing field essentially for all players,” said Deegan.
“That’s good for journalism. So many titles have closed, journalists have been laid off and if you look at the pandemic as an example, I think news is more important now more than ever. People need trusted sources of information.”
“The only way to sustain those jobs for the long-term is to have economics that make sense so that these publishers are commercially viable. And that’s the only way they can afford to invest in content and quality journalism,” said Deegan.
“People get to the point on social media that they’re only connected to like people who have like views and it’s just so dangerous.”
Deegan said the legislation should be introduced in February.
“We applaud that, but what we’re really looking for is passage. If legislation is going to sit around and languish for 18 months, that does nothing to help the industry, so we’re really calling on all parties, Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and the Bloc to work together and get this stuff passed.”
One way to pass legislation, he said, is to add it to the federal budget and get the Competition Act amended to that budget, he said.
“That’s a really quick way to solve the problem. We’ve got publishers right across the country who are facing really tough times” and the pandemic has worsened that, he said.
“The situation is really urgent and we need the legislation passed quickly.”