As the Bill C-18 Death Toll Climbs, New Study Confirms Publisher Traffic Has Been Gutted

Publisher shutdowns continue to rip through the news sector. Those that have survived so far are seeing their traffic plummet.

When the Online News Act was still just a bill (Bill C-18), experts and observers were sounding the alarm over the catastrophic damage it could unleash onto the news sector. Among the predictions were that, without amendment, the legislation would lead to a massive loss in traffic (and, thus, revenue) for publishers. Smaller outlets on the brink would get pushed over the edge into bankruptcy. In short, if supporters of the legislation complain about “news deserts” now, then wait until this bill passes and watch the problem explode across the sector.

Some lawmakers did see reason with these arguments, but not enough were convinced to try and fix even a portion of the problems plaguing the legislation. Senator Paula Simons, for instance, ultimately couldn’t support the bill in the end. In her case, it was more or less a case of plugging her nose and praying that she was just overreacting to the dangers of the legislation. She hoped that she won’t become the voice that accurately warned of the disaster that would unfold, but ultimately got ignored.

Supporters of the legislation who were seemingly wrong about everything, for their part, countered by saying that the warnings by experts were little more than comments made by “shills for Big Tech”. The warnings that Meta would drop news links was completely preposterous because it was just a big fancy “bluff”. The likes of Meta would never drop news links because they depended entirely on news links to keep their business afloat. Once this legislation passed, they claimed, Meta would ink deals within weeks because this is about bringing the big platforms to heel.

In the end, it would be critics who were proven right at a near comical rate. Meta rolled out news link blocking (a block that continues to this day), news publishers experienced a collapse in user engagement, innovative online outlets slowed production, newspapers shut down, traffic on Meta remained unchanged, and Meta’s stock value soared. Meta, themselves, pointed out, again, that their business doesn’t depend on news links. Bell, for their part, slashed 9% of their workforce. After the government issued a massive media bailout in response to save those jobs, Bell handed that money out to shareholders while continuing to slash those jobs anyway.

This was the very nightmare scenario that us critics long warned about, but were ultimately ignored by supporters who proclaimed nonstop that if you just believe hard enough, the problems will just magically solve themselves. Now, we are seeing the devastating consequences of a government who ignored all the evidence and just did the bidding of the large media companies who were acting out of pure greed.

Fast forward to today and the pain and suffering unleashed by the disastrous Online News Act continues to rip through the news sector. Two months ago, Kelowna Now issued a desperate plea to readers, begging them to message their lawmakers to try and come up with a solution to get news links back on Meta:

We’re writing to you today because we want to highlight – while we still can – the impossible situation we find ourselves in as an independent Canadian media platform.

The truth, up-front and unvarnished, is that we don’t think we have much time left.

We’ve spent over a decade building NowMedia. We’ve invested an enormous amount of money and time into hiring one of the largest, most experienced and most diverse news teams in the Okanagan. We’ve sought to bring something different to the region: a modern, youthful, adventurous news site with an emphasis on the things we think really matter. Much of our focus has been on connecting with our readers through social media.

But now, as a consequence of a dispute between the federal government and an American technology company, all those years of effort count for very little, and we find our existence seriously imperilled.

It might well be true that Meta doesn’t need news – but news needs Meta. Since the Facebook and Instagram bans, dozens of news outlets have closed down across the country. According to Toronto Metropolitan University, 36 platforms shuttered in Canada in the first 11 months of 2023. Of those, 29 were community newspapers.

In our own region, we’ve already seen the sad death of Kamloops This Week, whose publisher said the Bill C-18 affair had reduced the site’s traffic by half. This year, meanwhile, Black Press filed for creditor protection, while Bell Media announced 4,800 layoffs.

Without the option of promoting stories on Facebook and Instagram, small media outlets lose a huge chunk of their traffic. Without that traffic, it’s harder to persuade advertisers to sign commercial deals. And without advertisers, news companies can’t pay their journalists to write stories. That’s precisely what’s happening to independent outlets across Canada; and as this feud between Meta and the federal government continues, its effects will become more and more corrosive, until it reaches the point where few outlets can survive the damage.

Indeed, it is very plausible that, right now, the smaller outlets that are hanging on at this point are burning through their cash reserves as they continue to fight for survival. Calls like this, however, appear to have been ignored. As we reported last week, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal party have firmly slammed the door shut on any possibility of coming up with any concessions with Meta. Instead, in their word salad rants, they continue to say this situation is all Meta’s fault and ridiculously argued that the blame should rest on Meta and not their awful legislation that sparked this situation in the first place.

The pain and suffering across the news sector continues to this day. In a study posted on Durham Radio News, traffic to publishers continues to remain gutted thanks to the Online News Act:

OTTAWA — The time, money and effort Iain Burns put into growing an audience on Facebook for several local news outlets in British Columbia felt like it disappeared in a single day.

Facebook pages for Now Media Group, which publishes news in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, have since gone dark.

As the managing editor with Now Media Group, Burns watched as his audience — and revenue — dropped because of it.

“We lost 70 per cent of our audience when that happened,” along with 50 per cent of revenue, said Burns in an interview from Kelowna, B.C.

A recent paper by the Media Ecosystem Observatory — a collaboration between McGill University and the University of Toronto — offers an initial glimpse into the effect of the Meta news ban.

National news outlets lost about 64 per cent of the engagement previously generated by users on their Facebook pages, the preliminary research shows.

Local news outlets lost about 85 per cent of their Facebook engagement, the study says, and almost half of all local news outlets stopped posting on Facebook entirely in the four months following the ban.

Some outlets “have gone dark entirely because they’re no longer getting the ad revenue being driven from Facebook to their sites,” said Aengus Bridgman, who directs the Media Ecosystem Observatory.

“And so this is hugely consequential for both Canadians and for news outlets.”

While news outlets suffered, Meta itself was seemingly unaffected.

“One of the remarkable things we saw was the overall behaviour on the platform didn’t decrease,” said Bridgman.

“We didn’t see Canadians saying, ‘Oh, I no longer use Facebook, I no longer use Instagram.’ It doesn’t seem there’s been sort of an exodus from the platform in any meaningful way.”

The researchers found 33 per cent of Canadians still used Facebook or Instagram to get news about politics and current events several times a month, even though they couldn’t see content from news outlets on either platform.

For the study, researchers collected Facebook data between June and December of 2023, tracking engagement before and after the ban.

The study further notes that some users, including politicians, have opted to just post screenshots of news stories instead if they really feel the need to circumvent the link tax caused ban. This, of course, does little to direct traffic to the original source, so the publishers still miss out on that traffic.

At any rate, the new study confirms, yet again, that publishers need platforms far more than platforms need publishers. The findings echo everything we’ve observed up to this point. Users aren’t necessarily bothered by the loss of news and continue to use Meta platforms while publishers are the ones paying the biggest price for the large publishers greed in this situation.

To further compound these findings are Meta’s quarterly earnings. For the March quarterly report, Meta’s revenues have grown by 27.26% year over year to $36.45 Billion. Judging by the stock value of Meta, things continue to be going great for the company on top of it all. While this isn’t to suggest cause and effect directly with the dropping of news links, it does suggest that Meta never has and never will depend on news links for their profits.

With Trudeau seemingly content with continuing with the status quo following Meta dropping news links, it seems that publishers will continue to pay the heavy price for Canada’s link tax law.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

2 thoughts on “As the Bill C-18 Death Toll Climbs, New Study Confirms Publisher Traffic Has Been Gutted”

  1. I read the Kelowna Now statement and was amazed that it didn’t call for the repeal of the online news act. Instead they talk about a dispute between Meta and the federal government. It’s not a dispute – the government passed a terrible bill and Meta responded with the only logical action.

    The statement also contains a factual error. It says Bell Media cut 4800 jobs. It didnt, it was Bell that cut 4800 jobs.

    1. Indeed. The only logical response to this sorry situation is to call for a repeal. That is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, a vast majority of outlets have been living in an entirely different reality where they are winning in this debate and that Meta depends entirely on news links to keep their business afloat. Not only have outlets been gaslighting others for years that the link tax is a completely reasonable bill, but they have been gaslighting themselves into believing that their cause is just and that they did no wrong in their actions.

      The statement you read is the result of all of that gaslighting where the publishers still believe some of the most astonishing out to lunch things such as how Meta dropped news links was little more than an argument. You’re like me, pointing out the obvious. Government passes bad bill ignoring experts, Meta makes perfectly logical business decision, media companies suffer the consequences. You can point to as much evidence as you like and you’ll just get pushback about how you’re just a “shill for Big Tech” or that you are “misinformed” about the situation.

      Even as the situation causes their own financial destruction, they’ll continue to believe these things. Some might even justify their beliefs by saying something along the lines of, “Well, this is a news issue and we work in the news. What do you know?” Some will go to the extreme of running their business straight into bankruptcy and still not understand what happened. I’m willing to bet that even as those execs start putting out resumes to look for another job after running their publisher business into the ground, I could explain to them what really happened and why things didn’t turn out and they would still tell me something like “you must be mistaken. None of that could possibly be true.”

      To say the situation is exasperating is an understatement. It’s also why I don’t see the situation improving any time soon. This especially with some still arguing “if you just believe hard enough, things will work out. Just hold out just a little while longer, you’ll see!”

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