Jen Gerson: Burn C-18 or fix it
This is a very-bad-no-good piece of legislation intended to cement a permanent advantage for legacy media outlets.
This week, The Line signed on to a campaign put together by a coalition of independent media publishers calling for amendments to the panda trash fodder piece of legislation known as C-18. To be fair, I mostly signed on; my co-founder Matt Gurney had some reservations, and I figured it would be best to hash them out in full here.
The bill is a hot mess created by a clearly well-intentioned government that appears to have been bamboozled by a group of media industry lobbyists helmed by organizations like Postmedia and Torstar — companies that despite extraordinary history and resources have largely failed to sustainably transition to a digital media environment. These large outlets are now using the last of their dying power and influence to champion legislation that will force big technology companies like Facebook and Google to compensate them for linking to their content.
This is a straightforward case of regulatory capture, the very thing we would condemn in any other industry; big media companies are using their credibility and political power to pressure the government into forcing "Big Tech" to sustain their dying business models — the very "Big Tech" that they've spent years deriding and defaming in their very own newspapers and outlets.
This whole process is corrupt. I don't say that lightly. Perhaps inevitably, I've grown totally disillusioned with the industry to which I have devoted all of my adult life. We used to consider journalism a calling or a vocation — manipulative terms that justified the low pay, harassment, and sometimes abusive management. How can the church of journalism and its holy mandate to preserve democracy continue to take itself seriously when the very catechism of the craft are nowhere present in its own self-created lobbying arm, New Media Canada?
I think the leaders of this initiative have convinced themselves that the business model they enjoyed in the '80s and '90s is so totally central to the survival of democracy and liberal values that they've committed to keeping it afloat by any means necessary regardless of the ethical and philosophical cost. In doing so, I believe that they're only ensuring their own failure.
By driving legislation in this way, they are not proving their worth to the broader public. Rather, they are conceding that what they produce has so little value that they need to evolve into parasites of the state. It demonstrates that commitment to democracy and accountability is secondary to their primary functions; running a business. They have stockholders to please and interest on loans to pay. Big loans.
Meanwhile, the legacy media they have managed is little more than a zombie in nun's drag. It is in a state of terminal decline, and keeping it alive poisons the earth for the generations to come after.
Let's further note that this government has already passed several measures in recent years to support the flailing news industry. Major outlets have already secured hundreds of millions of dollars worth of taxpayer funds through federal budgetary line items like the Local Journalism Initiative, the Journalism Labour Tax Credit, and the Digital Subscription Tax Credit. Then there's the Canadian Periodical Fund, launched in 2010. And all that's in addition to the enormous support that the federal government gives to Canadian journalism directly through the funding of the CBC.
The government is trapped in an interesting strategic dilemma here. It would be bad optics for the legacy media to collapse entirely on their watch — and the informational anarchy that ensues after such a singularity may make governing and winning elections damn-near impossible. No one wants to feed the populist dragon and a staid, respectable, mainstream media apparatus is the best way to keep a lid on the status quo.
But it’s also not really in their interests for the legacy media to be too powerful, either. Reporters ask all kinds of questions and dig up stuff that governments would rather we didn’t. The optimal situation for a cynical but smart politician might be something very close to what we have today: the legacy media still exists, technically, so you don’t get blamed for its failure, but it’s still kept just starved and grovelling enough to not be all that useful at its job — holding power to account. And if the survivors feel at least a little indebted to the current government for the scraps, well, that’s not a bad outcome either, is it?
The rapid growth in subsidies is already impacting the way our major news outlets cover issues related to media subsidies — to say nothing of how the lobbying efforts for C-18 may have biased coverage of "Big Tech." Even if this were not true, and I had total faith in our outlets' abilities to manage their self interests with dispassion (and I absolutely do not maintain this faith) the mere existence of these subsidies and schemes damages the credibility of a news industry that is already bleeding on the sliver of public trust still invested in us.
This bill, as proposed, will force "Big Tech" to enter agreements with government-qualified journalistic outlets to pay them for linking to their content, or for merely “facilitating access” to their news, or some portion thereof. This, despite the fact that the links themselves only have value to the very outlets being linked, and many of these digital intermediaries play no role in deciding which links get shared, by whom, or how often. As Saint Michael Geist has often pointed out, the value actually goes the other way. Media outlets spend small fortunes figuring out how to maximize their social media presence and game Google and Facebook algorithms because that's how you draw traffic. And that traffic is much more valuable to the media outlets than the content is to “Big Tech.”
C-18 also massively expands the role of the CRTC, and sticks that government regulator deep into media business. As Geist wrote: "far from a ‘market-based’ approach, the bill even requires the arbitrators to reject offers that fail to live up to the government’s standards (for example, it doesn’t ‘enhance fairness in the Canadian digital news marketplace.’)"
Further, the CRTC arrogates to itself the role of mediator between media outlet and "Big Tech" to ensure the former is getting a fair deal that meets the CRTC's goals for the journalistic marketplace.
All qualified outlets that choose to take advantage of this system will become — at least to some extent — creatures of the state. This thing is a silver leash. Those outlets that can't or won't will be put at a perpetual competitive disadvantage. Look into who is lobbying for it and who qualifies, and it’s clear that this system was set up to prop up the legacy media outlets. The qualification criteria are strict, and many small or independent media outlets — including The Line — could not qualify for the ability to participate in this shake down.
This is wrong. It's a bill that will bake in an advantage for incumbent players, allowing government bureaucrats to pick winners and losers by how they structure the eligibility formula. It will penalize those media outlets that want to build a sustainable, independent business without aid from government or “Big Tech.”
Thus we have signed on to the coalition of smaller independent media that have called for serious amendments to C-18. Their language is not as strong as mine. They want to make the bill more transparent and accountable, and they want a funding formula that doesn't suffocate start-ups for the benefit of sclerotic legacy publications.
Of course, “Big Tech” has its own agenda, as well. Google recently hosted the Newsgeist Conference in Montreal which was heavily attended by media types with an interest in C-18. (I did not go, but was invited.) I will let Google speak to its own intentions. (Disclosure: Meta, formerly Facebook, flew me to Toronto to attend the Walrus Gala a few weeks ago. I repaid the kindness by regaling them at the dinner table with tales about how they are dooming humanity to a dystopian hellscape through their Metaverse experiment. I’m fun at parties!)
The motivations of the independent media here are entirely understandable. If the legacy media outlets have the right to lobby for their interests, than so do we. Knowing very well that C-18 probably can't be stopped, I'm happy to sign on to a campaign to, at the very least, make it less unfair. I have no doubt that many of the independents on that list also see this as an opportunity to generate desperately needed revenue for their own outlets, and I don't hold that against them.
That said, just because we've signed on to fix Bill C-18 doesn't mean we like it. Accepting government money — even under the cover of a deal with “Big Tech” — is not and will never be the model for The Line. We're putting our name to this not because we wish to gain access to that sweet shakedown cash, but rather because if the bill is doomed to pass over our objections, then it's the lesser of two evils if the funding model is more fair.
Further, I would add that I think accepting funds under this scheme is a bad business decision. Not only would accessing this undermine our credibility (and that of any outlet), but a reliance on revenue streams like governments, legislative schemes like C-18, grants, and Corporate Social Responsibility capital is the kiss of death for content.
Gurney and I aren't saints. We don’t work for free. We are all dependent, to some extent, on the people who sign the cheques. Shakespeare gotta get paid, and all that. But if you're relying on Facebook or Google or CRTC bureaucrats or clicks-for-cash deals to keep your organization afloat, you will inevitably produce content that aligns with these economic incentives. None of these people have journalism's best interests at heart. They all have their own agendas; power, influence, cash, etc. They don't really care if we live or die, and nor should they.
And if your funding model relies on some complicated regulatory structure — a structure that can be blown to shit at a whim by a change of government — then you are investing your business' future with a partisan conflict that simply cannot be avoided.
We believe the best way for us to avoid this is to focus, first and foremost, on building a loyal and committed subscriber base that is willing to pay cash for us to continue. That doesn't mean we're totally ruling out all advertising — if our podcast does well enough to attract some of that sweet meal kit or mattress advertising, we would probably take it. But we believe that this funding model largely assures that our interests as a publication are aligned with serving our readers.
Dependence on subscription revenue presents its own kinds of risks, notably audience capture. We've written about that before. We still think it’s the right decision for us.
However, I also have to admit that it's easier for us to take this hard-line approach to journalism. The Line produces mostly commentary, which doesn't cost very much to produce. Gurney and I put together this newsletter between the two of us with silly string and sticky tape. We are increasing our forays into reporting as our finances allow it, but this is more expensive. So our extremist rejection of government cash may not be possible for every other independent organization, and we recognize that.
Our foremost contention is that C-18 is a very-bad-no-good piece of legislation and we oppose it in principle. But we recognize that this won't be enough to stop the bill, and we have to live in the real world — so although we will never take money from the government, or from this program, we support our peers in attempting to fix the bill to be fairer.
The Line understands that our idealism puts us at a competitive disadvantage. We accept the terms. We continue to rely solely on the support of our subscribers to continue, and our ability to expand will correlate directly in proportion to the size of our paying readership. We remain conscious of the risks of audience capture, and while we cannot commit to always pleasing you with what we produce, we believe that our duty is to serve you with reported pieces, columns, and analysis that we believe contributes value to the public dialogue in Canada.
If you've read through my screed in its entirety, I can only thank you for being part of our own experimental endeavour. It remains our honour to serve you. We hope to continue to do it well into the future, regardless of whatever harebrained legislative schemes the government comes up with to help us.
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