TORONTO — Meta and Google's move away from linking to Canadian news sites is a "moment of reckoning" for publishers and broadcasters that have heavily relied on social media to build audiences, marketing and journalism experts say.
They believe the Online News Act, which will force digital giants to pay media outlets for content they share or repurpose on their platforms when it comes into effect later this year, could spark new discussions about how publishers market themselves and engage with audiences.
"This is a moment of reckoning for brands that want to support the public interest and want to be seen, but don't want to be seen on platforms that are negatively perceived by the public," said Courtney Radsch, director of Center for Journalism and Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.
In response to the act known as Bill C-18, Meta and Google have said they will remove news by Canadian journalism outlets from their sites before the law comes into force.
Some users, including CBC News editor in chief Brodie Fenlon, have said they've already seen posts from Canadian news brands disappear from Meta's Instagram and Facebook platforms, potentially narrowing the company's reach.
CBC News, for example, has 663,000 Instagram followers and 3.1 million Facebook followers.
In response to such moves, Bell Media brands including CTV and BNN Bloomberg issued Instagram statements recommending people seeking their news look directly on their websites or visit their apps. CBC News prodded readers to make a similar move earlier this week.
Early Friday evening, Bell Media joined a growing number of media companies including National Post owner Postmedia, Toronto Star owner Torstar Corp., TVA and Videotron owner Quebecor Inc. and broadcaster Cogeco Inc. in suspending all its advertising on Meta's platforms.
"Like many Canadians, we are concerned about the consequences Meta's decision to block links from Canadian news organizations will have on Canadians, and all those who reside or work here, all of whom should be able to rely on independent and trusted news from Canadian sources," said Bell Media president Wade Oosterman in a written statement.
The federal government, as well as the province of Quebec and the City of Montreal, also said this week that they plan to end advertising on Meta platforms.
The succession of moves raises several questions, said Joanne McNeish, a Toronto Metropolitan University professor specializing in marketing.
"Is this an opportunity for press rooms to rebuild their direct connections with readers?" she said.
"Does this represent an opportunity for newsrooms to build their own — possibly industry-shared — news platforms? What could the revenue model look like to support an online news platform?"
News companies have long relied on subscribers, viewers and advertisers to deliver revenues, but in recent years have watched each of those sources decrease.
The Canadian Media Concentration Research Project found Google and Facebook collectively accounted for 79 per cent of estimated $12.3 billion online advertising revenue in 2021 and over half of total advertising spending across all media.
If you add Amazon to the picture, the project said the three US digital conglomerates accounted for close to 90 per cent of the online advertising market.
News Media Canada added that advertising revenue for community newspapers in the country dropped to $411 million in 2020 from $1.21 billion in 2011. Over that span, almost 300 papers either disappeared or merged with other publications.
Paul Deegan, the trade association's president and chief executive officer, said "both Google and Meta are important channels for reaching audiences."
However, he said in an email that "blocking access to fact-based, fact-checked news from authoritative publishers harms user experience and devalues and degrades the platforms."
He is confident the regulatory process playing out over the next months as the act nears effect will clear up many of the current festering concerns.
"Canada is a very attractive and lucrative market for these companies. It’s time to stop the sabre-rattling," he said.
"It's time to work this out in a way that balances the needs of all stakeholders."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2023.
Meta funds a limited number of fellowships that support emerging journalists at The Canadian Press.
Torstar holds an investment in The Canadian Press as part of a joint agreement with subsidiaries of The Globe and Mail and Montreal’s La Presse.
Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press