Friday, August 12, 2022

Australia’s smaller news publishers have run out of big tech money deals. Can the same happen in Canada?

OTTAWA – Three weeks ago, small and medium-sized media outlets across Australia made an unusual decision: for 24 hours, they agreed not to publish any news online.

It’s been a year since Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code came into force, a law intended to force web giants to pay news publishers for content shared on their platforms. The code has since been used as the basis for similar legislation in Canada, introduced last week by Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

But when major publishers and networks in Australia struck deals with Facebook and Google, some smaller, independent outlets were weaning themselves from doing deals of their own.

To draw attention to the issue, about 30 outlets stopped posting the news and instead published the same red graphic on their websites and newsletters. It bore the hashtag #WaitingOnZuck — a call for Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come to the table and secure agreements with so-called “little guys.”

The decision felt “unnatural,” said Angela Priestley, co-founder of Women’s Agenda, an independent daily news publication. Australia was on the verge of a federal election call, after all.

“It was difficult, but at the same time, it was an opportunity to share with our audience what’s happening and also what it means to be a small business without any outside investment,” Priestley told Star.

What is happening in Australia has left some small Canadian publishers wondering if a similar fate could happen to them.

Bill C-18, known as the Online News Act, is a piece of legislation that would force big platforms like Facebook and Google to strike deals with Canadian outlets. The idea is to level the playing field between the news industry and the tech giants dominating the digital advertising market. Many in the industry have lobbied for the federal government to have tables legislation that would address the imbalance in online advertising revenue, including Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star.

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“If we’re going to bring in this bill, how can we design it in a way that doesn’t lead to the same consequences as Australia, which, from my point of view, doesn’t really support journalism?” asked Erin Miller, CEO of Indigraph, a Canadian-based platform that helps launch independent and local news startups.

Miller said a failure to support smaller outlets would result in the loss of diverse voices in journalism, many of which serve communities at risk of becoming news deserts.

To begin with, Canada’s proposed law removes at least one of the disadvantages of Australia’s law.

In both countries, if digital giants and media organizations fail to reach agreements on their own, they can enter into negotiations and last-offer arbitration processes, which ultimately result in a deal.

The problem in Australia is that the platform needs to be “designated” by the country’s treasurer to force them to come to an agreement, something the country has yet to implement on any tech platform as the web giants. Has signed deals with major networks and publishers.

“They’ve done enough deals that the government has said, ‘Okay, you’ve done enough… we’re not going to nominate you at this point.’ And this means that smaller publishers, and perhaps even medium-sized publishers, are left out,” said The Conversation editor Misha Ketchell in Australia and New Zealand.

Ketchell and Priestley told Star that while they have struck deals with Google, their talks with Facebook ended without any explanation.

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Canada’s bill, however, empowers the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to monitor compliance, and outlines the criteria that must be met for a platform to be exempt from the law.

While those guidelines are part of Ottawa’s efforts to make the bill more transparent than its Australian counterpart, Facebook and Google’s deals in Australia have been kept secret. Little is known about the arrangements the two tech giants have with publishers in Canada.

Before Bill C-18 was introduced, Google closed deals with 11 publishers, including Torstar, while Facebook’s parent company Meta entered into agreements with Torstar and 17 other outlets. It will be up to the platform and publishers to re-examine those deals once the bill is passed.

Publishers say the lack of clarity on who is doing the deals, on what terms and in what quantities hurts only small outlets.

Under the proposed law, the CRTC would have to get an independent auditor to prepare an annual report about the effect of the bill. It includes details of the total value of the agreements, but has not yet made public which newsrooms are receiving the amount.

This is important information, Miller said, noting that small and medium-sized publishers do not have the resources to voice their concerns as much as larger organizations do.

“There’s absolutely no transparency … how much are these payments,” she said. “I’ve raised this several times with Google. We don’t even know how to participate in a conversation, because we don’t have the basic facts.”

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Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter who covers federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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