If Newspapers Die, Part of Us Dies Too
By Grant Ainsley | Tips | [comments] | Posted [date]
Canada's newspapers have stepped up their battle to get the federal government to force Google, Facebook and other internet giants to pay for the content they use. This isn't just an issue in Canada. It's happening around the world.
As the battle rages, there's another issue that has arisen. If newspapers are forced to close their doors, what happens to journalism and more specifically, how will the public find out about questionable decisions of government and corporations?
For newspapers, the fight they have on their hands, is much like the one that smaller stores have fought with big box retailers for decades.
Hard Times at the Hardware Store
Once upon a time, Bill and Mary Johnson opened a hardware store in a prairie town. They worked hard and over many years built a successful business. Their son and daughter got involved in the store and Bill and Mary started thinking about retirement and turning the business over to their kids.
Life was good. The Johnsons knew many of their customers on a personal basis. Some even invited them over to show them the outcome of their home improvement projects. The hardware store bought advertising in the local weekly newspaper on a regular basis and supported minor sports in town by sponsoring kid’s hockey and baseball.
One day though, a big brand hardware store opened in a neighbouring small city. Business at the Johnson’s hardware store started to decline. The big brand hardware store had 80 different types of screwdrivers, while the Johnson’s store only had eight. Some of their customers stuck with them, but even they made the trek down the road when they needed to buy some big-ticket items.
Bill and Mary’s retirement dreams were put on hold as they worked harder to make a go of it, but eventually they had to close their store and sell their building for far less than it was worth.
When the weekly newspaper went to the big brand store to sell advertising, it was told the store was putting all of its money into TV ads bought out of Toronto and pay per click advertising on Google, so when people from the town searched for a type of screwdriver or drywall, their store would be at the top of the search, to bring more business their way.
Last Thursday, Postmedia newspapers across Canada had a blank front page on all of its daily papers in the country. At the bottom was a message that basically said this is what newspapers might look like if Facebook and Google aren’t forced to share some of their revenue for the content they use that’s produced by Canada’s daily and weekly newspapers.
It was a pretty effective message I thought that came at a good time. For months, Canada’s newspapers have been lobbying the federal government to pass legislation that would force Google, Facebook and other internet giants to pay for the content they use that’s been produced by the papers. Australia is trying to do the same thing.
If you want to read more, there’s a website dedicated to the issue that was launched by newspapers last year.
When Canadians do a Google search for a story, a number of webpages are served up. Many of those stories are in daily and weekly newspapers. What the papers are saying is, "That’s our content and Google is making money off of it". When somebody shares a link to a newspaper’s story on Facebook or Twitter, once again, the paper’s content is being used.
Google and Facebook may not make money directly off that content, but they make money in other forms of advertising and editorial content. The papers say this is what partially drives the business of the internet giants. If a person goes to Google to search for a story on COVID as an example, maybe their next search will be for new golf clubs?
Or perhaps it will be for screwdrivers, or drywall.
It's Bigger Than Just Google and Facebook
Not all of the problems of Canada’s newspapers relate to their content being used. Many revenue issues are because of competition. As an example, years ago Classified sections in newspapers used to bring in millions of dollars a year. Now most of that business has gone to Kijiji and craigslist. Another example is ads that used to be in the Careers sections of weekend papers. LinkedIn, Indeed and other job sites are now taking almost all the advertising dollars that used to go to newspapers.
While papers have no real argument about losing business to competitors because of technological changes, I do think they have an argument about their content being used by Google, Facebook and many others. Whether the federal government gets involved and how it will do it are big questions that we won’t have answers for soon.
There’s also no question that the big daily newspapers have made all kinds of poor business decisions over the past 25 years. They were too slow to downsize, too slow to shift their business to internet and when they did they didn’t execute it well. They also are taking government subsides, as they slash reporters but still pay their big execs millions of dollars. On content though, they do have solid arguments.
Of course, we can’t forget about the bigger issue of the importance of a free and strong journalism industry to question the decisions of governments and corporations. Can you imagine what would happen if these decisions could be made and there would be no mainstream media to question them?
We recently saw what happened in the US, as right wing conspiracy theories filled bogus websites. Before you say the same thing would never happen in Canada, just think back about five years. How many people thought that a US President could lose an election by millions of votes and have the majority of his supporters not only believe he won, but actually storm a government building in Washington to “take back their country.”
Facts matter and so does quality journalism to a democratic society.
The reality is, newspapers like the Ottawa Citizen and Edmonton Journal, once seen as giants, are now small fish in a big pool of internet whales like Google and Facebook.
They are the little hardware store that’s trying desperately to survive and if they lose their fight to be paid for their content, there won’t be a blank front page – there just won’t be a newspaper.
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