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A world without news: Papers publish blank front pages to highlight industry struggles

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Canadians got a taste of what the world would look like without a robust journalism industry Thursday morning, as multiple newspapers published blank front pages.

“Imagine if the news wasn’t there when we needed it,” read the message on the blank front pages.

“If nothing is done, the journalism industry will disappear.”

Read more: Google says it will block search engine in Australia if forced to pay for news

The warnings come as a part of a campaign from News Media Canada, which represents the print and digital media industry in Canada. It’s part of a push to warn Canadians that without government intervention, the beleaguered journalism industry could crumble away.

“It’s a fact that news companies across Canada are going out of business. COVID-19 is accelerating the decline. Journalism jobs are disappearing,” wrote John Hinds, President and CEO News Media Canada, in a letter sent to members of Parliament.

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“That means real news keeps disappearing and hate and fake news will be all that’s left to distribute.”

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Yet another blow to the industry was issued this week as Bell Media cut over 200 jobs across the country, shuttering some of its local newsrooms for good. A spokesman for the company said on Monday that the layoffs were due to programming decisions made by Bell’s radio brands to streamline the company’s operating structures.

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As these newsrooms dial down their operations, Hinds said, democracy is dealt a blow as well.

“One of the things in this country is that if you look at provincial legislatures and courthouses and city halls…many of them don’t have a dedicated reporter,” Hinds told Global News in an interview.

This means members of those communities are less likely to hear the whole story, Hinds said — that is, if they hear it at all.

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“(They) have tremendous power over the lives of citizens and there’s nobody there to A, tell the story or B, to hold them to account for what they’re actually doing,” Hinds said.

“That’s the stuff that that really we’re talking about, when we talk about areas of news poverty or news deserts.”

Read more: Bell Media lays off 210 employees in Toronto area, half from newsrooms: union

He explained that a major culprit in this issue is the lack of regulation in the digital sphere, which he said allows tech giants to exert unprecedented control over what Canadians — and the rest of the world — read.

“Google and Facebook, two of the richest companies in history, control the onramp to the internet highway in Canada. They decide what we as a sovereign nation see and don’t see in the news,” Hinds wrote in the letter to MPs.

“Meanwhile, all Canadian news media companies, big and small, are suffering for two reasons: First, they don’t get paid for their content by Facebook and Google; Second, Facebook and Google take over 80 per cent of all Canadian digital advertising industry revenue.”

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Speaking to Global News, Hinds explained that these digital giants “built a business model where they sell advertising…around other people’s content.”

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While news organizations choose to put their content onto these digital platforms themselves, companies like Facebook and Google are then able to turn a profit from the advertisements surrounding those posts — although newsrooms also get a cut.

The government has said it plans to take steps to tweak how this works.

Read more: Canadian publishers call for collective bargaining with Google, Facebook

In a statement emailed to Global News on Thursday, Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said that “news is not free and has never been.”

“Our position is clear: publishers must be adequately compensated for their work and we will support them as they deliver essential information for the benefit of our democracy and the health and well-being of our communities,” he said.

Guilbeault also reiterated what he’s said publicly in the past — that the government intends to bring forth legislation to create “a made-in-Canada formula” that would “ultimately lead to a comprehensive, coherent and equitable digital framework for both Canadian news publishers and digital platforms.”

“Our goal is to put forward new legislation this year,” he said.

Hinds welcomed the move.

“We have a very serious situation in this country, and we are delighted to hear that Minister of Heritage Steven Guilbeault said on Monday that the government is preparing legislation to force tech giants to fairly compensate content creators,” he wrote in his letter.

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He explained that as things stand now, tech giants like Google and Facebook get “virtually all of the revenue and don’t pay for content.”

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Facebook pushed back on this critique in a statement emailed to Global News.

“This ad neglects to mention the value that free Facebook tools provide to publishers’ businesses,” said Kevin Chan, the Global Director and Head of Public Policy for Facebook Canada.

“This includes free distribution that sends people directly to their website, a value we estimate to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year in Canada alone. We want to help news organizations build sustainable business models.”

Google also commented on the campaign, telling Global News that they agree with the overall goal of supporting the media industry.

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“Google cares deeply about news in Canada and we agree with News Media Canada that there is an urgent need to support the industry,” said Google spokesperson Lauren Skelly in an emailed statement.

“We have a long history of supporting publishers in this country from driving valuable traffic to news sites, to creating training programs through the Google News Initiative and providing funding directly to journalists through various programs.”

Skelly said that Google recognizes that the shift to digital has been “challenging” for some news organizations, but said the company remains “optimistic about the future of news.”

“Canada is a global leader when it comes to innovations in the news business model. Which is why we will keep investing and remain a positive partner to publishers in this country,” Skelly said.

Read more: Facebook threatens to cut off news to Australia after years of spreading ‘misinformation’

Other countries have attempted to force these platforms to foot the bill for the news posted and shared on their sites. Australia has been pushing to put in place a new code that would force Google and Facebook to pay media companies for the right to use their content.

The move has been met with sharp rebuke from the companies, with each threatening to pull services from Australian users.

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“Coupled with the unmanageable financial and operational risk if this version of the Code were to become law, it would give us no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia,” Mel Silva, managing director of Google for Australia and New Zealand, told an Australian senate committee in late January.

Google also critiqued the proposed law as overly broad, which it said would present risks for the company to operate in the country.

Facebook issued a similar rebuke of Australia’s push to force them to pay for media content.

In a blog post from late August, Facebook’s Will Easton warned that the regulation “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet and will do damage to the very news organisations the government is trying to protect.”

“Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. This is not our first choice — it is our last,” Easton said.

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He explained that the proposed law could “force Facebook to pay news organisations for content that the publishers voluntarily place on our platforms, and at a price that ignores the financial value we bring publishers.”

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As the conversation continues in Australia, Hinds says he hopes Canada will take similar steps.

“Australia has figured out the solution,” Hinds wrote in his letter to MPs, highlighting the steps the country has taken to try to push digital giants to pay for media content.

“This costs the taxpayer absolutely nothing. We encourage all Members of Parliament to move quickly. Canada needs your leadership,” he added.

Read more: Australia to Facebook, Google: You must now pay for news content

If the government doesn’t step up to ensure newsrooms are compensated for their work, Hinds warned that the journalism industry could crumble – and it could take democracy down alongside it.

“We only have to look south of the border to see what happens when real news companies disappear and social media platforms distribute divisive, fake news,” Hinds said.

“We need to support healthy, independent, diverse news companies as the backbone of our democracy.”

— With files from Reuters