December 19th is fast approaching and small media outlets are realizing just how much the Canadian government screwed them over.
Back in September, I wrote an article explaining that Google’s pullout will be significantly worse than Facebook’s pullout back in August. I pointed out that not only will Google’s pull out be even more damaging, but it will also be combined with the damage already being felt with Meta’s departure from news which is already seeing newspaper shut downs among other things.
The blame for all of this, of course, is not the platforms in question. The blame ultimately lies at the feet of the federal government and those pushing for this link tax law. All involved were repeatedly warned that this would happen, but those warnings were dismissed as just a “bluff” or “misinformation” as they rammed through this law under the misguided thinking that they had a chip to bargain with (they don’t and never have). Now, everything people like us warned about is happening pretty much to the letter. You can no longer share news links on Meta platforms in Canada and Google is saying that they intend on following suit.
Supporters, rather than face the harsh reality that their actions have consequences, chose to continue to get high on their own talking point supply and insist that there is no way Google would REALLY drop news links (even after they said the same thing about Facebook). So, they are taking a head in sand approach to the whole situation and just wishing the mess they created away. The federal government, meanwhile, is finally starting to realize the massive hole they dug themselves and unveiled their massive media bailouts aimed at propping up their political allies in the media while, at the same time, letting smaller media players just whither away and die.
While we saw all of this coming miles away, others dismissed these concerns. Perhaps these concerns are overblown. Maybe the government can work something out. What if the supporters of the law ended up being right all along? These are, no doubt, some of the thoughts of people who read my coverage and still thought things are going to somehow work out. Some supporters have straight up told me that platforms depend entirely on news links and that there is no business future for them without news. One even outright accused me of being a “stenographer” for “Big Tech” after his attempt to pass off cherry picked data as factual proof that supporters of the link tax are right. Nevertheless, we stuck to our guns throughout it all. We cared less about messaging and comforting lies and more about accuracy and being right. As events gradually proved our points, these criticisms against us appeared less and less.
Small media outlets are, of course, the ones that get screwed over the hardest by the link tax law. Often operating on thin margins and a smaller readership base, they are probably among the class of news outlets that can least afford seeing Google and Meta drop news links altogether. While there is the odd outlet here and there that chose an offline approach to their business, such news outlets are the exception and not the rule. Torontoverse is an outlet we previously covered, noting that they are slowing down operations in light of the impending Online News Act catastrophe. Recently, they posted a followup on their thoughts on the situation:
Torontoverse offered a way to stay informed about the city and quickly grew its audience over the next two years. But in early 2023, the landscape began to change. The Online News Act or Bill C-18, a legislation introduced by the Canadian government that would require tech companies like Meta and Google to pay news publishers for hosting content on its platforms, was gaining steam. Initially, Dinn wasn’t particularly concerned but that shifted as the discussions continued.
“It wasn’t really until April that I got seriously suspicious that something was going to happen that would block our access to the market,” he says.
In June, Bill C-18 passed and Facebook’s parent company Meta responded by blocking Canadians from accessing news on its platforms. The impact of the Online News Act, especially on independent publishers, has been widely discussed across Canadian media. The general consensus is that the government’s legislation harms all media producers, but perhaps most harms small media brands — those just looking to gain and maintain traction, such as Torontoverse.
“When I talk to my peers they understand, I think, how I got burned first. But what they worry about is what happens if Google cuts off these deals or stops linking to local news. What does that mean for them?” says Dinn.
The numbers for them are apparently quite grim:
At the time, the Torontoverse team tried to pivot as much as they could to mitigate damage, like producing a newsletter amidst other projects. But no content change could withstand the impact Bill C-18 would have. Dinn says that during a week in June where Meta trialed the ban, Torontoverse’s audience dropped from 100,000 unique visitors per month to 25,000. The drastic decrease in readership means that he has had to furlough his staff and has put the publication on what he calls, “life support.” Dinn is working for Mozilla in the interim and keeping the servers going, but he says the main barrier this has created is the lack of a viewership funnel.
“It’s no longer, let’s pour gasoline on a burning fire,” he says. “It’s like we need to go catch the embers where they really blew away and then get the fire going again.”
Without discernible ways to grow readership at the pace that Facebook allowed, Dinn says that investors are hard to attract. He’s still got content in the pipeline that he’ll publish over the next few months, but says ramping back up will have to wait.
“One of the things that can happen here is that user behaviour can change and what I was worried about doing is basically continuing to spend a lot of money making content while we wait for that to change,” he says. “But I do think there’s a demand for local news, I do think that demand for Canadian news, and I think that people will find it one way or another.”
A 75% drop in traffic can be crippling for any website. So the comments that followed really aren’t a surprise. This is a site that went from blowing up and being an “overnight” success to a website hoping to just survive.
Obviously, this is a sentiment that is shared by many outlet out there. Torontoverse is far from the only ones seeing their careers flashing before their eyes. The CBC is also noting media outlets seeing the cliff edge fast approaching in this Online News Act car:
Small news outlets and media and internet experts say the Online News Act, also known as Bill C-18, has had a serious impact so far, and it may be about to get much worse.
“We’re losing, and that means the community is losing,” said Theresa Blackburn, owner of the River Valley Sun, which covers daily news from Perth-Andover to Nackawic in western New Brunswick online and also prints a monthly paper with a circulation of about 6,000.
The four-year-old publication found itself cut off from readers and viewers in July, when Meta blocked Canadian news on its platforms in response to new federal legislation that was supposed to force big internet companies to pay for the news content they make available.
The transition has gone fairly well since the paper launched its own website four months ago, said Blackburn, but reader engagement has fallen dramatically.
On Facebook, River Valley Sun stories used to get 800,000 likes, shares or comments a month.
On rivervalleysun.ca, there are 60,000 visits a month, but stories can’t be shared to Facebook and the paper lacks the resources to allow comments, which would require constant monitoring.
It’s nice having local control, Blackburn said, but the paper isn’t able to do as many live reports.
That hurts its bottom line, she said, because it used to get thousands of dollars in revenue from live-streaming events for local businesses and organizations.
The Sun is not alone. A group of 20 other news outlets across Canada, including the New Brunswick Media Co-Op, say the Facebook ban has been “a big crisis,” affecting how they reach viewers, readers and listeners.
It’s almost like the CBC ignored Freezenet’s coverage all the way up until recently, then started realizing that we might have had a point in some of our articles after all. Maybe covering technology and digital rights issues since 2005 gave us some sort of insight on how things on the internet worked? Heck, we might be so bold as to say that it’s almost as if we actually know what we are talking about. There’s a shock.
Even if the Canadian government finally came to some semblance of common sense and backed off the drop dead date, the damage will still be felt with a lack of Meta’s presence. Still, the chances that the Canadian media gets sent off a cliff come December 19th is still incredibly high. It’s not a sure thing, but it’s pretty darn close to being a sure thing in my books. This especially after Justin Trudeau’s comments last week where there was just no sign that he was going to back down from the impending Canadian media financial massacre.
Perhaps the one thing I’ll personally be eternally angry about in all of this is the fact that everything about this was avoidable. The Canadian government could’ve taken the time to understand how the internet worked before writing the bill. They chose not to. When the bill was tabled, they could’ve listened to people like us who warned of the consequences of such a law. They chose not to. As the House of Commons hearings went underway, they could’ve listened to the few experts they brought in. They chose to hurl insults and ignore them. The government could’ve listened to the identical concerns when this bill hit the senate. They jammed their fingers in their ears and called people like us shills for “Big Tech”. The government could’ve backed off the timeline after the bill received royal assent. They chose not to.
Every step along the way, they could’ve realized what a horrible idea a link tax law is, but they refused to hear us over the lobbying money that was flowing like a river to them from Big Publishing and Big Broadcasting. Now, Canada is in this massive mess.
Worse yet, many supports not all) are still screaming “full speed ahead” towards the cliff on top of it all, tightly gripping on their talking points and believing that their BS lies will win the day even as reality looms. It’s insanely frustrating especially for someone like me who has a passion for writing news articles. Even for me, there is that chance that I’ll see this career go down in flames all because the government decided to be a pack of idiots. I’m glad I have a backup plan in the events things go south, but there will be significantly less emphasis on writing if things go sideways, that’s for sure. Just sitting down and researching and writing news articles every day would be something I would miss a lot.