Recent deals with Google and Facebook have united new media and old in demanding actions

Last month, Google announced deals that will see it pay eight Canadian publishers — including The Globe and Mail, the Winnipeg Free Press and Village Media — to license their content on a product called Google News Showcase, launching this fall. The companies didn’t disclose the terms. It came on the heels of Facebook signing agreements with 14 of Canada’s upstart digital publishers for what it called its News Innovation Test, to include selected links on their pages that bring users to news sites. Again, the companies didn’t disclose the terms.

What explains the recent flurry of activity? In February, Australia passed a law requiring Facebook and Google to negotiate content deals with media outlets; if negotiations failed, the government would impose fees. Canada then signalled it would adopt a similar approach. Hence the deals.

At its face, it’s a smart strategy for the tech platforms. Why involve the government when they can strike deals on their own? However, they now face an unintended consequence: these secretive, one-off deals have united Canadian publishers new and old in demanding the federal government follow Australia’s lead.

I spoke with a half-dozen prominent news publishers, who run everything from specialty digital outlets to national newspaper chains and who were left out of the Google Showcase money. These are people who normally don’t agree on anything. Yet all said they were furious at Google for cutting side deals with some of their peers, and want the federal government to move ahead with its proposed legislation ensuring tech giants like Google and Facebook pay for the news content they disseminate on their platforms. 

While there is some disagreement among them over how such a payment scheme should work, almost all agreed that the Big Tech platforms were applying restrictive and opaque criteria to privilege select publishers and employing a divide-and-conquer approach in a race to get ahead of the threat of legislation. I have agreed not to name these publishers because of their concerns that speaking out could jeopardize their future negotiations — which perfectly encapsulates the problem: publishers large and small are afraid of the power the tech giants wield, and worry that publicly opposing them could endanger their companies. 

The debate over whether tech platforms should pay for journalism has usually been framed as a question of who bears responsibility for the newspaper industry’s economic collapse. That debate — which always struck me as a red herring, promoted by a news industry unwilling to be accountable for the role it played in its own demise — is now irrelevant. No matter who was responsible, the precedent has been set: Facebook and Google will pay for journalism. If you don’t believe me, just look at the social media ad campaign Google has unleashed to tell you so. 

I get why publishers would take the best deal they can get from a tech company instead of waiting for possible government action. The Liberals failed to introduce any legislation on the file before Parliament wrapped up for the summer, and most observers expect an election call. As The Globe and Mail’s CEO Phillip Crawley told me this week, “I can see the results of the deal already with Google, whereas there’s considerable uncertainty as to what the government would be able to deliver, if they ever do.” And while the deals seem like a win-win-win for readers, publishers and platforms, they risk excluding journalism outlets with diverse founders and diverse approaches —intentionally or unintentionally privileging the status quo.

Maggie Shiels, head of news public relations for Google, told me that News Showcase is focused on “comprehensive, general interest news.” However, at least three publications I spoke with that seemingly fit this description said the company told them they were ineligible.

“They picked publishers they think are influential, plus a couple of their buddies,” one publisher told me.

“I’m absolutely convinced they’re motivated by neutralizing government regulation,” another said, “so you would think they’d go all out to show the government that they understand the market in Canada, that they value innovation and entrepreneurship and that it isn’t about building monopolies and consolidating power for a few.”

“The program is being built with a focus on print and digital newspapers, emphasizing local news sources,” said Shiels, adding that Google remains in “active conversations” with publishers of all sizes across the country. 

“We try to offer a range of programs and partnership opportunities for publishers of all sizes, including digital first and traditional newspapers, from all areas of the country, in both Official Languages. Participation is always voluntary, and we listen to publishers to try and build service offerings that serve their needs,” said Facebook Canada’s Meg Sinclair. 

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because there were similar debates when the federal government defined what constitutes a “credible” journalism organization eligible for its $595-million government-aid package — a policy that had many detractors speaking out at the time, including me. The independent advisory panel on journalism-tax measures, which was born out of the government package, defines general-interest news quite broadly. You can see all 135 outlets that meet the definition here. Google, instead of following the government classification, has decided to narrow the scope. 

These definitions are neither transparent nor clearly defined. That they come down to semantics makes it easy for platforms to bend negotiations to their own will, pitting some news outlets against others in exchange for favourable terms. This behaviour will stifle innovation in the media space at a time when it’s needed more than ever. We’ve gone from the government picking winners to Silicon Valley tech giants doing so — and frankly, I’m not sure what’s worse. 

The stakes are high. In Australia, it’s estimated that after the government moved to act, Facebook and Google injected more than A$200 million into the journalism sector, with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp reportedly getting tens of millions of dollars from Google alone. Canadian publishers cashing in on the Facebook and Google deals, like The Globe and Mail, will be able to consolidate industry talent and reach more people through the global audiences the platforms provide, while those on the outside looking in will be competing with one hand tied behind their back. 

Big Tech’s sheer wealth, scale and influence mean these decisions will profoundly shape what you read, distorting the marketplace of ideas. This is not simply private-market players paying fair-market value in exchange for products — it’s private companies using their trillion-dollar market caps and immense bargaining power to steamroll an entire sector in pursuit of their own self-interest. 

To state the obvious: I, too, am a self-interested party. While The Logic has held preliminary talks with Google and Facebook, the conversations have so far been unproductive. I suspect this column won’t improve that. I haven’t been part of the efforts publishers old and new have made to lobby Ottawa because I believe The Logic’s success ultimately depends on its relationship with readers, not its relationship with tech platforms. This isn’t a fight I wanted. But now that our competitors are striking deals with these platforms, the playing field has been tilted, and I have no choice but to speak out — not just for the company that I founded, but for a healthy journalism ecosystem made up of new and old voices that, in turn, supports a vibrant democracy.

Those ideals are also why I want to be clear that The Logic remains unaffiliated with any industry-lobby group, and that this column expresses my own views as a publisher. Since last September, when it became apparent that my role as both CEO and editor-in-chief represented a potential journalistic conflict of interest, I have recused myself from all editorial conversations on these matters, and have no say in how our reporters and editors cover this subject. Our newsroom will learn for the first time about The Logic’s discussions with tech platforms in reading this column. 

The federal government should follow Australia’s lead in forcing arbitration between platforms and publishers when needed. Even then, there are no guarantees the tech platforms will negotiate in good faith, so any legislation should outline clear and transparent eligibility criteria. Publishers should also be given permission to bargain collectively with the tech platforms, like they are trying to do in Denmark, to ensure negotiations are conducted in good faith, with fair and equitable agreements and clearly outlined criteria that maintain a level playing field for all publishers. 

U.S. Congressman David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who, as chair of the House judiciary committee’s antitrust subcommittee, led an exhaustive investigation into Big Tech last year, called Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google “gatekeepers to the online economy,” adding that “they bury or buy rivals and abuse their monopoly powers — conduct that is harmful to consumers, competition, innovation and our democracy.” They should not be allowed to use that gatekeeper dominance to further erode the journalistic ecosystem and the market for fact-based reporting. 

This is an exceptional circumstance that requires government intervention. Platforms acting unilaterally have imperiled elections and democracy itself. Do we really want them deciding what journalism is worth sustaining and amplifying, without any accountability or obligation to the public good? 

With an election call seemingly getting closer by the day and with Ottawa essentially shut down for the summer, this isn’t an issue that will be resolved anytime soon. But when things resume next fall, I hope whichever government is in power takes note that it is near impossible to get this country’s media startups and legacy players to agree on anything. That they are for once united is something to which Ottawa should pay attention

This column was originally published by The Logic and appears here with permission.

David Skok is the CEO and editor-in-chief of The Logic.