Friday Wrap #23 – Milk, cows, and unsocial news

There is an old adage: Why buy the cow when you can drink the milk for free. I am reminded of this as the media world in Canada panics because of the fall out from Bill C-18. That bill, the Online News Act, is meant to force Google and Facebook to pay online news sites for the news the social media and search platforms aggregate to their users. Both Google and Facebook announced the companies were re-jigging their algorithms to block Canadian news from the eyeballs of Canadian viewers. The horror!

I am a firm believer in people paying for news. Buying a newspaper or subscribing to a TV channel should not be free. That money pays journalists. As a journalist, I like to be paid for the work I do. So do all other journalists, and the companies they work for. It’s what makes journalism a career. However, I am not a fan of Bill C-18. It’s not that I am all for social media and tech giants, I am not. I firmly believe the world would be better off without social media platforms which promote free speech without responsibility for that speech. I am against Bill C-18 because most outlets in the Canadian media world are responsible for their own downfalls – with a little smattering of corporate Harikiri.

Media companies made this grand decision to jump on the website bandwagon in the late 90s and into mid-00s — in doing so, there was no plan. The news from all the giants like the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the Ottawa Citizen, etc was free for all to read. The websites were loaded with ads, which were at a fraction of the cost of a display ad in newsprint. Execs were happy. Website traffic went up. Ads were seen. Everything was great and right in the world. Until it wasn’t.

The ‘08 recession gutted advertising. I was working for Corus Radio at the time and saw it first hand. Radio ads dropped 45 per cent in less than a year. Print and television advertising saw similar drops. The only place where advertising still “made money” was online — at a fraction of the cost of the other options. Why buy a 30 second morning show spot at $24/each, with a contract buy of three a day/five days a week, when you can buy a website ad for $20/week? That’s the $340 question that was easily answered. News companies needed to increase the online traffic to make up for the fractionally less ad revenue difference. Enter social media.

Most of us use Social Media companies like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. We use those platforms for free, except it isn’t free. For us users, those companies get our data in exchange for use of the platforms. The companies see our photos, what we like, where we are. If we use those companies’ apps on our phones, they can track where we are — because most of us don’t think to turn off our location settings. News sites decided to get on the Social Media sites to share the news. Building your website to be indexed by Google for “free” was considered idea. Search Engine Optimization, “white hat SEO” and the like were all the rage. News sites got a place to distribute the news, and these companies got content.

In Canada, the big chain companies got stupider — not realizing that giving your content away for free means little money is coming in to pay for workers, taxes, property, printing costs, etc. Since 2008, the industry has seen earth shaking changes. Astral was merged into CHUM radio, which then was bought by Bell. Postmedia rose from the ashes of the Canwest/Hollinger/nightmare, then merged with Sunmedia, which had just swallowed Osprey, which had bought papers out of the bankrupt Canwest, etc. All the time, maximizing shareholder value and getting the most out of less people to create contnet was the priority — it still is. Websites were still free. News was still free. And these news sites were still trading information to platforms for exposure. Bill C-18 makes companies that were already trading exposure for content pay twice — the horse trade and then a fee for doing so. That sounds like the perfect government bill — tax someone and charge a fee to them for processing it.

C-18 is bad legislation, pure and simple. Facebook and Google shutting the door on Canadian news is entirely appropriate. Personally I am all for it. We need Facebook to have more space for Uncle Roger cooking videos and dumb cat videos. How do we fix media and solve this online circling the toilet bowl existential crisis? I have a plan!

This plan does not require complicated rulings, laws, government bills or even oversight. It does require a coordinated effort and unified stand by media companies — some resolve if you will.

  1. All media companies like Postmedia, TorStar, Metroland, CTV, Global etc (except CBC) have to agree to stop giving away the news for free – period. Paywalls, watch an ad to get an article, or something like that, needs to go in place of the dumb pop-up ad. There are geek ways of doing this. Go on to CTV to read a story, watch a 15 second ad first. Go to some Metroland rag, sign in and pay.
  2. Charge reasonable amounts for viewing shit online. The paper I work for costs $1 at the store. It is reasonable to ask someone to pay $1 to read the online version for a week. We have the technology to do this. There are payment gateways, paypal, credit cards, Interac email transfer, and gift cards. The technology is there to make people pay for what they consume.
  3. Stop the CBC from advertising. If they cannot run a tv and radio network with a website for under $1b a year, they shouldn’t be around. I like the CBC, love the comedy programming, but I already pay for it through taxation. No commercials please. If the CBC cannot handle two radio networks, merge some of the duplicate stations and sell the rest. FM radio frequencies are rare and will command money, or allow new players into a market.
  4. Band together and stick together. Once all the groups form and have their shit in order to universally require paywalls and people to pay for the news they consume, turn it on and wait. For a few weeks the numbers will drop off on the olde’ website barometer… Then people will wise up and they will start paying for what they consume.

This plan will never get adopted because the giants wont take a common approach to get everyone on side for paying for news. It’s difficult to break people of bad habits — especially when the habit of getting news for free is nearly 20 years old. The first step is getting people to pay for their milk, then maybe they can be talked into buying a cow.

Three things:

Something to read — The newspaper I work for addressed issues in our community about intolerance. A rainbow crosswalk and a Pride flag has ticked off certain people who dislike being tolerant of others. It’s worth a read and yes, I did contribute a bit to it.

Something to watch — This is one of my favourite music videos of all time. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, MTV/Muchmusic was a big part of my life. I had to go to my friend Larry’s to watch it on TV until my parents got a satellite dish of their own. Reading back what I just wrote sounds odd. My parents told me of how they had to go to friend’s house to watch the only colour TV in their neighbourhood, and I had to go to my friend’s house to watch a satellite dish. Anyways, We Didn’t Start the Fire is a great song, even though I think Billy Joel is a putrid excuse of a human being. And the music video is awesome too.

Something to listen to — We are influenced by the music we grew up with from our parents. Even if our musical interests change over the years, nostalga will take hold when you hear something from your childhood. For example, I listen to Travelling Wilburys a lot, which has Jeff Lynne in it. Jeff Lynne is the genius behind ELO. And ELO was involved with one of my first musical memories as a five year old – Xanadu. Yes, that Xanadu movie that was a box office flop, but musically a genius soundtrack. Yes, that Xanadu that starred Olivia Newton-John, which five year old me had a crush on. I was five, okay. It was ONJ or Princess Diana, take your pick. Trivia time, who was the famous actor whose last film role was in Xanadu? Gene Kelly. Yes, the Dancing in the Rain guy. So listen to this earworm, and don’t bother writing a comment in about this, I haven’t shaken this song either.

Final thought – If all the media companies implode, and none of the journalists left have a place to publish their work, or jobs to speak of, who does the job of journalism in their absense? One of the most important roles of journalists is to hold those in power to account. If media companies implode, ask yourself who truly is to benefit from it? Scary thought.