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Why The Hub has signed the Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism

Commentary
The Canadian flag flies on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday December 4, 2015. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Although one of us is quite literally a boy scout, we’re not generally joiners. In our professional lives, we’ve purposefully sought to protect our independence and own distinct voices.

This week, however, we’ve made an important exception. We’ve signed onto the Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism, initiated by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and endorsed by nearly ten digital news outlets across the country, as a counterintuitive expression of our independence.

We want to explain to the Hub community why we think the Ottawa Declaration is important and why we signed it.

The declaration stems from a recent conference hosted in our nation’s capital by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, in partnership with The Hub, on the future of Canadian journalism. The conference was marked by a diversity of perspectives and voices on the state of Canada’s new media and its future. We were proud to be part of it.

If you put a few dozen journalists in a room, one cannot expect much consensus. The conference was no exception. Yet there were still a few ideas that found broad—though far from universal—agreement.

First, notwithstanding concerns about the collapse of the news media industry, various start-ups representing a range of editorial approaches and business models are in the midst of trying to figure out how to revive it. Second, the current government subsidies model—which quite intentionally preferences legacy players—is at best creating an asymmetrical playing field and at worst impeding the process of innovation and new investment. And third, government subsidies—especially if poorly designed—risk further reducing the Canadian public’s trust in the media.

We encountered similar ideas and arguments over the course of The Hub’s own inquiry into these issues over the past several months. With the support of Meta, we were proud to launch the Future of News series in November 2023 to look comprehensively at these questions through a combination of podcast interviews, opinion commentaries, and journalistic profiles of a diverse group of media outlets across the country.

The series was clear-eyed about the challenges facing the sector. Even Rich Lowry, the former editor-in-chief of the conservative magazine National Review, lamented the decline of some of the local outlets he had grown up with. But it was generally more sanguine about the industry’s future than one typically finds these days. That’s largely because of our belief in the market’s ability to begin anew. The process of creative destruction doesn’t somehow pass over journalism.

Relatedly, our view is that the government subsidy regime—which after accounting for direct and indirect subsidies, it must be understood, could be as much as 50 percent of an eligible journalist’s salary working at a digital news media outlet—risks freezing into place all of the bad decisions and wrong assumptions that the market has rejected over the past decade or longer.

As taxpayers, it seems counterproductive to send our hard-earned money to companies that have failed to effectively respond to the powerful market forces that ought to have come to animate the industry. It’s the public policy equivalent of rewarding the horse-and-buggy operators for failing to keep up with market developments in the last century.

 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters in the foyer prior to question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press.

But, as industry players, that’s not the only problem with government subsidies. It may not even be the biggest problem. The main reason why we signed the declaration is the growing risk to public trust.

As the declaration sets out, less than 40 percent of English-speaking Canadians currently tell pollsters that they trust the news media. It’s hard to see how causing the industry to become dependent on government will do anything but hasten a further decline. People will understandably come to question whether the news stories that we’re seeing (or not seeing) are motivated by the industry’s growing reliance on the state to finance its day-to-day operations. Will it pull punches? Will it choose its stories differently? Will it succumb to the government’s particular interests and preferences?

Even if the answer to these questions isn’t yes, the perception that it might be is hugely detrimental. It risks raising questions in the public’s mind about the independence of the press and the veracity of its reporting.

The consequences won’t be limited to subsidy recipients either. The spillovers will extend across the entire industry. Those receiving government subsidies, in other words, may be trading off their short-term interests for the rest of us—for the future of journalism itself.

Consider for instance that the next federal election will be held in an information environment in which the majority of journalism that voters consume is either directly or indirectly subsidized by the government and where the subsidies themselves are the subject of political debate. It strikes us as a toxic environment for the news media. There’s no ultimate victory. Either outcome undoubtedly does damage to journalism.

The solution, in our minds, is to eschew the government subsidies—to protect The Hub’s independence and forgo as a qualified Canadian journalism organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding. This option of course comes with its own risks. Subjecting oneself to the vagaries of the market is complicated and uncertain. But on balance we believe that it’s better than subjecting ourselves to the whims of the state. And that’s why we ultimately decided to sign the Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism.

The Ottawa Declaration on Canadian Journalism

– A free and independent press able to hold the powerful, including government, to account is an essential feature of Canadian democracy.

– Recent federal legislation and regulation could soon see up to half or more of the salaries of full-time journalists and editors working for digital news outlets funded by government coordinated subsidies.

– These large-scale subsidies, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars to date, are in addition to the federal government’s direct funding of the CBC/Radio-Canada, which currently employs one in ten journalists in Canada in its news divisions.

– The widespread subsidization of news journalism is happening against a backdrop of plummeting confidence in the news media, with 37 percent of Canadians indicating they “trust” the press and less than one in five supporting government funding of newsrooms.

– The broadly unpopular subsidy regime represents a challenge to our democratic process insofar as it raises questions in the public’s mind about the independence of the press, thereby undermining the perceived veracity of reported news.

– The subsidy regime also creates an uneven playing field whereby some news outlets, primarily legacy media companies, are able to qualify for government support and others are not, stifling much needed innovation and private investment in the sector.

– To ensure Canadians have access to news free from the appearance of government influence, and therefore more likely to garner public trust, our media companies will not accept the per employee subsidies currently on offer from government and industry.

– We acknowledge that outlets serving some minority communities may need to avail themselves of the subsidies to provide their audiences high quality news in absence of a viable commercial market for their journalism. We pass no judgement on these groups.

– We encourage other digital news media outlets to sign this declaration and reject the payroll subsidies. In trying to “save” journalism, these subsidies damage the independence of the press, stifle much needed innovation and private investment, and fail to rebuild readers, listeners, and viewers’ trust in our industry.

 

Signatories:

Rudyard Griffiths, publisher/co-founder, The Hub
Sean Speer, editor-at-large/co-founder, The Hub

David Clinton, publisher, The Audit

Holly Doan, publisher/owner, Blacklock’s Reporter
Tom Korski, managing editor, Blacklock’s Reporter

Tania Finch, founder, The Broken Typewriter

Sam Cooper, founder, The Bureau

Bruce Annan, former president of Electronic Media, Toronto Star, former vice-president, Metroland Printing, Publishing & Distributing

Andrew Coyne, columnist, The Globe and Mail

Tara Henley, writer and podcaster, Lean Out

Paul Wells, political journalist

Jonathan Kay, editor, Quillette

Candice Malcolm, founder and editor-in-chief, True North
Andrew Lawton, editor-in-chief, True North

Derek Fildebrandt, publisher/president/CEO, The Western Standard

Michael Geist: The behind-the-scenes battle for Google’s media money is heating up

Commentary
CBC Chief Transformation Officer and Executive Vice-President Marco Dube and CBC President and Chief Executive Officer Catherine Tait wait to appear at the Heritage Committee in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 7, 2024. Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press.

How newspapers, big broadcasters and the CBC are trying to seize control over how the funding is allocated to Canadian media

Bill C-18, the Online News Act, is best known for two things: the government’s bad bet that Meta was bluffing when it said it would block news links in response to a system that mandated payments for links (news links have now been blocked for 10 months in Canada) and its attempt to salvage the legislation by striking a deal with Google worth $100 million annually.

The Google deal has receded into the background, but behind the scenes there is an intense battle over who will be selected to administer and allocate the annual $100 million. The outcome —which will be decided by Google by June 17th—will have enormous implications for Canadian media for years to come since it is anticipated that Google and the selected collective will negotiate a five-year deal worth $500 million.

Sources say that two proposals have emerged: a big media consortium led by News Media Canada (NMC), the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB), and the CBC, pitted against a proposal spearheaded by a group of independent and digital publishers and broadcasters that is promising a more transparent and equitable governance approach.

Rather than negotiating multiple deals with eligible news outlets in order to meet the requirements for a Bill C-18 exemption, Google has elected to negotiate with a single collective that will represent the interests of all eligible news outlets. In other words, Google will select one collective, and, no matter which collective is selected, all eligible news outlets whether big or small will have the same representation.

Google issued an open call earlier this year for interested parties to submit a proposed collective structure. The company noted that the single collective must provide basic reporting and accounting of funds distributed to news businesses to both Google and the membership of the collective, develop and publish a plan and principles for managing publisher eligibility and funds distribution, and assume responsibility for settling any and all disputes arising from members.

While the law establishes many of the ground rules, there is considerable room for interpretation that effectively gives the collective enormous power. This includes addressing issues associated with who is eligible to be compensated, how much money they are entitled to, whether news outlets will be audited or regularly reviewed, and the mandate to address any disputes that may arise. Google has said it will judge the applications to become the collective based on four criteria: representation, governance, transparency, and the fees charged by the collective.

The big media collective, called the Online News Media Collective, is led by NMC, CAB, and the CBC, and supported by many newspaper associations and big broadcasters. It envisions a two-tier structure with the lead collective receiving funds from Google and distributing them to three distribution partners. The distribution partners would be the CBC (which receives 7 percent of the money), a news publishers group called the News Publishers Collective (which receives 63 percent), and a news broadcaster group called the News Broadcasters Collective (which receives the remaining 30 percent).

The News Publishers Collective is almost entirely controlled by legacy newspaper associations with only one of 11 board seats allocated to digital or new innovative media. The majority of the News Broadcasters Collective board comes from commercial television and radio broadcasters such as Bell and Rogers. The lead Online News Media Collective would be governed by a three-member board drawn from the three distribution partners with one position each for news publishers, news broadcasters, and the CBC.

The independent and digital media collective, a non-profit called the Canadian Journalism Collective, is led by a steering committee made up of a wide range of independent media outlets, including Press Forward (representing community publications), Dadan Sivunuvut and Indiginews (representing Indigenous media), The Resolve (representing BIPOC publications), Pivot (representing official language publications), CACTUS (representing nonprofit community broadcasters), Village Media, and Indiegraf.

The primary pitch for this collective is a far more representative and transparent approach. Its lead collective would have five board members (including two independent members), while the distribution partner boards feature representation for big, small, independent, Indigenous, and BIPOC board members. There is a role for larger players, but it is balanced with other perspectives.

A CBC camera follows Minister of Canadian Heritage Pascale St-Onge as she leaves a microphone after speaking with media in the Foyer of the House of Commons about CBC funding, in Ottawa, Monday, Dec. 4, 2023. Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press.

Why does any of this matter if all eligible media can sign up for whichever collective is selected by Google?

With $500 million at stake, it may not be an exaggeration to argue that the future of independent and innovative media depends on it. For example, consider the question of eligibility, which involves both questions of which news outlets qualify under Bill C-18 and how many full-time employees they have, a figure that will determine their allocation. On eligibility, there are requirements that are open to interpretation that would ultimately be determined by the board of the selected collective. Further, the eligibility may be locked in for five years (unless a collective decides otherwise), meaning that new, innovative entrants may not be eligible for any money for years, creating a huge disadvantage.

Once eligible, the amount of the allocation can vary widely. News outlets have been asked to submit 2023 employment data, which will be used to determine full-time equivalent employees. This may ensure that large media companies are compensated for employees that may not even exist today given the layoffs over the past year. If those numbers are similarly locked in for five years, big media companies will continue to benefit from payments for non-existent employees for many years, while independent outlets may be stuck at far lower compensation even as they grow. Should this emerge, the actual employee compensation would be significantly higher for legacy, larger players than for new entrants.

The concern—borne out by the proposed Online News Media Collective governance structure —is that independent and digital media outlets are almost entirely excluded from the governance process. In the case of News Publishers Collective, there is no representation of Indigenous or non-profit media. Press Forward, which is the only organization that represents more diverse business models, only has one position. Moreover, the membership structure is similarly imbalanced as it is weighted by employees, thereby granting for more power to the larger players.

As if that were not bad enough, there are fears that the Online News Media Collective will not be fully transparent. There is nothing in Bill C-18 or its regulations that require regular audits to ensure all media remain eligible and adjust payments according to updated employee numbers. Without a fully transparent approach, a collective biased toward large media has no incentive to admit new members or update employee data. In fact, the opposite may be true.

Bill C-18 has already caused enormous harm for independent and digital media outlets given Meta’s exit from the Canadian news market, since newer entrants relied more heavily on Facebook news links than larger, legacy players. Moreover, the market uncertainty fuelled by Bill C-18 has made it more difficult to attract investment, which also disproportionately hurts independent outlets (and the CBC not at all).

The Google money was the government’s attempt to avoid a total disaster, but having ignored many implementation concerns raised during hearings on Bill C-18, it has left legislation that is open to governance capture and limited transparency. It now falls to Google to select a collective that will not only ensure that it receives a CRTC exemption but one that will act in the best interests of all media outlets to avoid control by larger players and set the table for more innovative media systems in Canada.