As chief content officer, I’ve avoided editorials. I have my own blog for personal opinions. The rule in our publications has always been, “how does knowing this really enrich our readers?”
But the recent actions of the Canadian government to “help” Canadian publishers has changed my view, as I asked myself the question, “why does the government hate publishers, especially tech publishers?”
C-18, a bill to supposedly defend Canadian publishers, could in reality be a disaster for many small Canadian publishers. The legislation has been criticized by a number of key industry experts, including Michael Geist, who said in a recent post, “The government’s handling of the Bill C-18 motion is just an utter embarrassment.”
We’ve long been aware of the fact that the government either cannot or will not effectively protect Canadian publishers. For example, if we were any other industry, we would have had protection from “anti-dumping” legislation. For years, U.S. publishers have been able to “Maple-wash” by adding a few Canadian stories to their U.S. content and then publishing it in our market at a cost that we, who had to pay salaries and cover the full range of local stories, could never compete with. In the digital age, the government has proven to be absolutely unable to take any meaningful action.
To be accurate, there was a program a number of years back to help publishers go digital, but you had to invest more money than many companies had, and our firm waited years to recover the investment funds. We worked hard, but we were lucky to survive that transition. Many other publishers simply went under.
Strangely, when it is other “cultural” industries like music, or film, or TV, somehow the government has managed to generate some well deserved protection. There are Canadian content regulations for music, film, and television.
But publishing? When we get hit – it’s crickets.
By the way, we are not making this a “them or us” argument. Canadian culture needs support in all its various incarnations. In fact, the music industry and others probably need some greater support, as streaming threatens the livelihood of Canada’s musicians and, while some savvy artists like The Weeknd may be successful, the loss of income from streaming is in danger of killing off the next generations of stars. It was our Canadian content restrictions that allowed the emergence of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and a host of others.
So how do publishers, particularly small niche publications, survive? Our company’s founder was very astute in understanding that the Canadian government wouldn’t be much help. He set up a joint venture to protect us, which endured for decades and kept great publishing jobs in Canada.
Unfortunately, our U.S. partners figured out that the Canadian government doesn’t care, and walked out of that agreement, hoping that they could “Maple-wash” their current content, knowing that we were too small to defend ourselves with a lawsuit and knowing that the government wouldn’t help a small publisher.
Which makes the new Bill C-18 such an added assault on this industry. Ostensibly, it sets out to protect publications from use of content by Google or Facebook without compensation. Some think this is a good idea. Others think it will just cause these giants to punish Canadian publishers by pulling our sites out of search results. That’s difficult for many of us in specialty areas, where more than half of our traffic comes from search.
And what has the government offered in return? For us – and many other publishers like us – nothing. They have forced us to take the risks, and offered nothing in return.
Nothing? Yes, nothing.
We are excluded from any benefits of C-18. Here’s the clause that got sneaked into the bill.
27 (1) At the request of a news business, the Commission must, by order, designate the business as eligible if it
(iii) produces news content that is not primarily focused on a particular topic such as industry-specific news, sports, recreation, arts, lifestyle or entertainment.”
It all hinges on that one word – “not.”
So simple. So lethal for us and so many others.
What it says is, unless you produce a full range of news, you are excluded. No other industry, cultural or other, would be subject to this restriction. When the Canadian content restrictions were put in place, nobody said that you must do folk, rock, classical, and polka favourites in the same song or you don’t qualify. Likewise, no-one said that films must have drama, comedy, musical numbers, and mime all in the same film.
Why not? Because it would be ludicrous to do that.
Yet the government says, “if you focus on any one area of news, you are not a publisher.”
What does this mean in reality? Only the biggest publishers will benefit. Those who cover a general scope will get all the money. Those who are smaller and try to stand out by pursuing a differentiated strategy will be left by the wayside.
All of these publications who serve a specific Canadian audience will be punished. They all depend on search traffic – traffic that they get now because they are specialized, and viewed as authorities. But the government is prepared to bet their livelihood and give nothing in return.
To put in plainly: The government wants us to take the risks with their new strategy, but offers us nothing in return. All pain. No gain.
We are a technology publisher, but this also applies to sports, fashion, culture – any publication that has done what any great business strategist would say is the way to survive – differentiate yourself with a niche audience.
So the question remains. Are our federal representatives ignorant? Do they think that the many small publications in this country are just an annoyance?
Or are we just another type of small business to which the government and opposition parties pay lip service in elections and then ignore while governing?
We have gone to our MP in the riding where we have provided Canadian publishing jobs and where we have helped make jobs for Canadian journalists, writers, creative workers, and a lot more, for over 40 years. We got a very polite young person who took our phone call and then – silence.
We won’t go without a fight. We’ve stayed relevant and alive in Canada by hard work and creativity. We know we bring value. Study after study shows that Canadians want to read Canadian stories about technology.
But if we are gone, and you get that one Canadian story about a large established business in a U.S. newsletter, ask yourself this – who will tell the stories of the rest of Canadian technology businesses and entrepreneurs?
Which brings us back to the question we asked at the start of this article. But maybe it’s a bit bigger than just technology. Maybe the question is, “why does the Canadian government hate the small businesses who are so vital to the Canadian publishing industry?”
If they don’t, and we are over-reacting or unfair, here’s how the government could prove us wrong:
- If you are going head to head with Google and are going to “poke the bear”, have a safety net for those of us who might be hit like this. Your own MPs have said that even the experiment in blocking Canadians had a big impact.
- Understand that when big publishers get the sniffles, small publishers get pneumonia. We are always close to the edge and trying to keep the doors open. We don’t have enormous assets, or access to huge credit lines. We can’t wait for months and even years for action.
- Get rid of this idea that all publishers do general news. That, for many of us, would be an idiotic strategy. We are often niche, focused on key audiences or interest areas. But we are no less relevant than any other news source.
- And when you think of Canadian culture, but ignore us, please answer one question. Who will tell Canadian stories when we are gone?
If you are disturbed by these problems, or any other aspect of this bill – write or call your Member of Parliament. You can find their contact info here. Don’t let Canadian publishing die.