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Blocking users

Tomos Lewis on how Meta’s Canadian news ban has unexpectedly re-energised the country’s indie media.


Earlier this year I joined the judging panel of a journalism prize to assess submissions from across Canada. It was a particularly interesting time to review the country’s news output, not only because of the sheer range of stories covered – from record-breaking wildfires to the end of a prime-ministerial marriage and the run-up to a general election – but because of the additional hurdle that its newsrooms have faced in publishing their work online.

This August will mark a year since California-based technology conglomerate Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, began blocking access to news stories on those platforms in Canada. The move was in response to the Online News Act, which Justin Trudeau’s government passed last June with the intention of compelling Big Tech companies to pay for the journalism that is shared on their platforms. At time of writing, it’s a stalemate: neither Ottawa nor Meta seem willing to relent.

“The ban has created an internet news blind spot for Canadians,” says Brett Caraway, a professor of media economics at the University of Toronto. “Many of the smaller news publishers in this country were heavily reliant on Facebook and Instagram to drive traffic to their websites, which allowed them to generate both subscription and advertising revenues.” That model – for now, at least – is no longer an option.

However, while some outlets continue to suffer, particularly smaller ones, several independent newsrooms have worked around the ban in nimble and imaginative ways. It has energised publishers to engage more meaningfully with their readers – through live talks and events, additional or special editions of their publications and thoughtful editorial campaigns – rather than simply viewing them as points in a social-media dataset. Audiences have noted and rewarded the effort.

As wildfires approached the city of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories last August, its 20,300 residents were ordered to evacuate. In the absence of reliable local information on Meta’s platforms, independent outlets filled the gap. Founded by five journalists in 2017, Cabin Radio, which is funded by advertisers in the city, decided to broadcast wildfire updates 24 hours a day. Eight months later, it was receiving 700,000 visits to its website every month in a province with a population of 44,000. Plans for an additional FM service, intended to reach more remote audiences, are now in motion.

Other outlets, such as The West End Phoenix, a monthly paper based in Toronto, and The Tyee, a website launched 20 years ago that covers the Pacific province of British Columbia, have experienced growth in their readerships too. “Visits to our website have recovered since the ban,” says Jeanette Aegeson, The Tyee’s publisher. “We have long thought that owning our channels of engagement is the best strategy and this experience has just strengthened that conviction.”

The direct revenue that The Tyee has generated, she says, has allowed it to add journalists to its team and broaden the scope of its coverage. “Social-media platforms can be useful when it comes to reaching new readers. But we should be trying to establish more direct connections with our audiences, on channels that can’t get ripped out from under us. It’s never a good thing when a trillion- dollar US corporation invites another country’s news media to weave itself into its social-media platforms and then dumps them.”

It will take time to assess the full effect of Meta’s Canadian news ban. But it is clear that the standoff cannot continue indefinitely, particularly in an already- delicate media environment. If a resolution to the dispute feels elusive, the story of how some independent newsrooms have not only survived but thrived is an instructive one.

Lewis is Monocle’s Toronto correspondent.

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