Blank page greets Edmonton newspaper readers

· The Pulse
By Karen Unland
in the Media Roundup

A campaign by Canada's biggest newspapers to require Google and Facebook to pay them for distributing their news appears to be getting traction with the federal government.

Readers of the print editions of the Edmonton Journal and Edmonton Sun were greeted by an empty front page on Feb. 4 as part of News Media Canada's Disappearing Headlines campaign. They were among the 100+ newspapers across the country to participate.

The campaign was meant to draw attention to Levelling the Digital Playing Field, which calls on the federal government to require Google and Facebook to compensate news organizations to make up for the fact that they don't pay for the content they distribute and take more than 80% of digital advertising revenue in Canada.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault seemed to be swayed by the argument, promising legislation this year to "address the imbalance between news media organizations and those who benefit from their work."

Journal and Sun editor-in-chief Colin McGarrigle signed the explanatory letter that ran in both papers and on their websites (which did not go dark). The same message was signed by Lorne Motley in the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun. Edmonton and Calgary each had two major newspapers until 2016 when Postmedia consolidated the newsrooms in both cities as well as in Ottawa and Vancouver, letting dozens of journalists go in the process.

The front page of the Edmonton Journal was blank on Feb. 4. (Mack Male) The front page of the Edmonton Journal was blank on Feb. 4. (Mack Male)

Canada's newspaper industry is fond of Australia's proposed solution to require Google and Facebook to negotiate payments to publishers for the news they use on their platforms, and to require arbitration if an agreement on the amount can't be reached. Google has said Australia's law would break how search engines work, and has threatened to disable Australia's access to Google if the law goes ahead as proposed. Edmonton-based Toronto Star reporter Kieran Leavitt explored what would happen if Canada followed suit.

Such a law would likely have no benefit for digital news publishers outside of the big chains, and would perpetuate the uneven playing field between the legacy news media and innovative startups, tweeted Erin Millar of The Discourse and Indiegraf.

"This campaign is an untruthful attempt to harness the public's righteous anger at platforms, an important debate, to fund executive bonuses and vulture equity," she wrote. "This is not about saving journalism. This is about saving their own businesses, and it's not in the public interest."

Taproot Publishing, the parent company of Taproot Edmonton, disagrees with News Media Canada's claim that only legacy newspapers can ensure the survival of local journalism.