On Feb. 4, the front pages of both the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun were left mostly blank. The logos and titles were still there, but the only other text was a statement at the bottom of the page: “Imagine if the news wasn’t there.”
But you didn’t have to imagine it. You probably never saw either of these covers in the first place, since if you ever look at these news outlets at all, you sure as hell aren’t going to walk to the corner and drop coins into the machine — you can just pull out your phone and read all the articles you want in seconds.
This stunt was pulled by just over 100 newspa pers Canada-wide — most owned by Postmedia and Torstar, the two largest newspaper corporations in the country. It was part of a larger campaign by industry representative organization News Media Canada (NMC), to bring awareness to the fact that newspapers are increasingly threatened as audiences move online, since Google and Facebook are stealing all the advertising revenues and not compensating newspapers for the headlines that populate their sites. The language of the campaign is pretty strong, calling these tech companies “goliaths” who use their “monopoly power … to free ride on the news content of hard working journalists.”
They’re not wrong. There is much to be written in an article that isn’t this one about the outsized power of tech giants like Facebook and Google and the harms they inflict on a whole slew of different industries. I would go so far to say that their stranglehold on advertising revenues is a relatively minor point in the damage they have inflicted to journalism. If you ask me, it’s pretty far down the list compared to just how responsible Facebook is for the spread of conspiracy theories.
However, the details of the campaign are riddled with issues. For one, the “Davids” going up against these goliaths don’t resemble the humble, normalsized shepherd from the biblical parable. Postmedia is a massive, American hedge fund-owned corporation that consists of over 120 publications. Torstar is a little further behind, consisting of just over 70. In fact, much has been made about their monopoly power over the news, especially after a 2017 deal in which the companies traded 41 community newspapers between them, shutting down 36 in the process.
Which brings us to the “hardworking journal ists” lauded by NMC’s campaign. Most journalists earning a wage or salary are not going to be affected day-to-day by their employers’ missing ad revenues, but even the common argument that the newspapers will have to cut pay or lay people off if their profits are down doesn’t hold up in this case. Though Postmedia’s profits have been declining year over year for a while, the company still pays its executives enough to fund entire newsrooms for years. Talk about stolen revenues all you want, these huge companies having been firing people by the dozens in restructuring deals and downsizing while managing to pay the mortgage on their shareholders’ summer homes.
Most of the papers shut down by the big compa nies in the past few years have been community newspapers, making NMC’s idea that Google and Facebook are the ones threatening local news laughable.
In fact, what Google and Facebook do say nothing about the newspapers’ business practices. Digital advertising revenues have been growing across the board since 2003. Many publications, from small, niche, digital startups like Defector to big, established magazines that made a strategic shift towards the web, like Time Magazine, have had a ton of success.
What NMC wants to do is deflect any criticism away from the large companies it represents. The worst part is, after seizing and closing newsrooms, leaving journalists and technical staff out of work for so many years, these companies are not just asking for awareness, but a legislative bailout. The campaign culminates in a demand for the federal government to step in and regulate the tech giants. A report issued by NMC concludes the government should expand intellectual property rights to give publishers more power to negotiate the use of their content.
Maybe this would allow Postmedia and Torstar to make some extra money, but there is no indica tion it would save journalism. If we truly want the government to step in with this goal in mind, maybe instead we should ask to break up these companies, and make room for people who actually know how to run a newspaper in the digital age.