Local news could disappear if Canada doesn’t stand up to digital giants, Winnipeg newspaper publisher says

Days after Canada pledged to make Facebook pay for news content amid an ongoing media battle with tech giants, one newspaper publisher is warning local news could be in trouble if the government doesn’t take bold action.

“You’re going to get to a point, a drop-off point, where suddenly you have communities without news: without news outlets, newspapers or television stations or radio stations,” said Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and chair of News Media Canada, in an interview with John Northcott on CBC News Network.

“We’ve already seen a lot of smaller communities lose their newspapers and their sole source of news and that is going to continue [if nothing changes].”

On Wednesday, Facebook announced it is blocking Australians from seeing or sharing news on its platform because of laws in the country proposing to make digital giants pay for journalism.

“The proposed law fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content,” Facebook regional managing director William Easton said.

Cox said advertising revenues for news outlets have been on a long, slow decline for years, which puts limits on the journalism outlets can provide as jobs and resources dwindle. And there’s a danger in local news outlets disappearing, he said: with fewer voices and less information available, misinformation can fill the void.

Cox said right now, the relationship between news outlets and tech giants is “one of a tremendous power imbalance.”

WATCH | Winnipeg Free Press editor Bob Cox on the impact of social media:

Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press, says local news could be in trouble if the government doesn’t take bold action. 6:09

“Facebook and Google control the digital world,” he said. “They control the vast majority of advertising and they really have made it very difficult for other media to make a living, as you might want to say, online.”

Federal Heritage Minister Steven Guibeault, who’s in charge of creating similar legislation in Canada to be unveiled in coming months, said Facebook’s actions in Australia won’t deter Ottawa from taking a stand.

“Canada is at the forefront of this battle … we are really among the first group of countries around the world that are doing this,” he told reporters.

Guilbeault said Canada could tap Australia’s model, which requires sites like Facebook and Google to make deals to pay news outlets, or it could agree on a price through binding arbitration.

Bob Cox is the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press. (Winnipeg Free Press)

Whatever path the government chooses, Cox said, it’s crucial that it takes some kind of stand for anything to change.

“One way or the other, the idea will be that it will force Google and Facebook essentially to negotiate with publishers,” he said.

“What we’ve seen around the world is that unless governments act, these companies typically don’t do anything.”

Proliferation of conspiracies

The implications of such inaction is huge, says Jason Hannan, an associate professor in the the University of Winnipeg department of rhetoric and communications who studies social media and how it shapes public discourse.

He says news organizations have been struggling to survive since the transition from print to digital news, but in that time digital giants like Facebook and Twitter have thrived.

“They get to post, they get to feature news content, and every time we post an article or like or share or comment or so forth, this drives Facebook traffic and activity and they profit from it,” Hannan says.

“And unfortunately, this doesn’t really result in much revenue going to the news organizations whose stories they publish.”

If nothing is done, more and more news organizations will be faced with financial situations too dire to keep going and will have to fold. That could degrade democracy, Hannan says.

“The implications are that we will have fewer and fewer qualified and trained journalists providing quality news, and then we will see a proliferation of people with no training in journalism, but plenty of practice in YouTube posting nonsense and conspiracy theories,” he said.

“We will see fewer news articles and more memes and YouTube videos and this will just contribute to the already severe degradation of our public sphere.”