Uncertainty is universal in life: we cannot know what the future holds. But for some people and some fields, this is more true than others. Specifically, for journalists like Peterborough Examiner reporter Joelle Kovach, who has been in the field for 26 years, journalism’s existence is paradoxical; the only thing reliable about the media sector is that it will always be evolving. In Kovach’s career, for example, the field has changed from focusing on print media and classifieds to moving into the digital sphere. From Kovach’s perspective, this change came so fast that journalists were unable to keep up with the changing times, and incapable of predicting what would come next.
Kovach is left to ponder questions like how long print media will last. “I don’t think print editions are long for this world. But then [again], I’ve been saying that for 15 years,” Kovach said in an interview with The Varsity. If print truly takes its final breath once and for all, how will the news be delivered? This kind of uncertainty is part of her job, for better or worse.
The newest instability and unpredictability that journalists like Kovach will face comes from the likes of Bill C-18. Called the Online News Act, Bill C-18 received royal assent on June 22, 2023. The bill’s goal claimed specifically a desire to increase the fairness of compensation for creators of news in the online sphere. It also hoped to bring more stability to the volatile online news industry. Further, this bill hoped to increase the individual power of news agencies and compensate them for their contributions.
When enacted, Bill C-18 would require revenue sharing between social media platforms, search engines, and journalists. To post links to Canadian news media online, the government and tech companies must reach a deal for adequate compensation of the journalist or news organization. If the two parties cannot reach a deal, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission will be in charge of overseeing bargaining. The Canadian government had estimated the bill would bring in approximately $329 million for the Canadian news industry.
Despite this opportunity to protect and support Canadian media, this bill has hit a wall when it comes to major tech companies like Google and Meta, which the bill will most impact. Google and Meta both announced that, following the implementation of the bill, they will be removing all links to Canadian news sites to avoid financial liability. In practicality, this means that while consumers can visit Canadian news sites by typing in their URLs directly, they will stop seeing websites from Canadian news outlets appear in their search results when using Google. They will also be blocked from seeing posts from news outlets’ Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Google claims that as a result of the government’s currently vague description of the financial liability Bill C-18 will require major corporations to take on, it is unable to participate in the bill’s required revenue sharing, citing concerns about “forced payment for links and uncapped financial liability.” In a rare interview with The Peterborough Examiner while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in Peterborough in July, Kovach asked him for comment about Bill C-18. Trudeau described the major companies’ actions as “bullying tactics” and said the Canadian government needed to “stand strong” on this issue.
This standoff comes as a major financial blow to the Canadian news sector, not only as a result of the loss of revenue of the projected $329 million increase due to the revenue sharing requirement, but also because last year alone $250 million went to Canadian news outlets as a result of referral traffic from Google. This bill will mean that both of these projected revenue streams will be null and void unless users search for a specific URL. Canadian media will be hidden from the view of users.
The reality of the new status quo became all too real for Canadian social media users in early August when they started receiving notifications from their apps that they would soon no longer be able to access news online in Canada.
Freedom of the press is a key component of a functioning democracy, but Canada’s new bill could inadvertently erase Canadian media from the view of Canadians. Despite its originally noble goal of supporting Canadian journalists, Bill C-18 could prove itself to be toxic to the journalistic community. According to interviews with Kovach, and with U of T students currently working in the journalism industry, C-18 could slaughter a reliable revenue stream by removing Canadian news media from the people who need to access it the most and force a regression into a time when news could not be easily accessed online by the masses.
Bill C-18 could be a shark in the water of Canadian democracy that harbours the ability to harm the journalists and Canadians invested in democracy. In fact, all three of the journalists I interviewed specifically stated that they believed this bill would directly impact the democratic process in Canada.
Another hurdle for Canadian journalism
For these three journalists, their fear is that this bill could potentially bring instability, decrease traffic to important Canadian news outlets, and add volatility to a market that they feel doesn’t need any more uncertainty, creating almost the exact opposite media landscape than the legislation’s original purpose.
Riley Moorman is a third-year student journalist and radio show host at CIUT 89.5 FM, U of T’s radio station. In an interview with The Varsity, he commented on the bill’s state and its current inability to make effective and sustainable change. “I think it would be great if [the Canadian government] actually took the steps towards implementing [the bill] further. It feels like it is a step. But it’s not so much of a step that you can actually get your foot on the stairs… you end up falling,” he said.
Moorman added, “I’m fairly doubtful on how [the bill will] impact the journalistic scene positively.”
Further, this limitation on journalism becomes the first block for Canadians to access information to keep them informed on issues related to their safety, government, community, and culture. And this new hurdle journalists face is not just the same old song and dance: Kovach notes that the fallout of this bill is occurring in the wake of “new challenges” in the field. Journalists have been facing the same shrinking workforce and changing landscape as other fields due to the pandemic and related fallout.
“I’ve never met a journalist who didn’t really care about getting the news to people,” says Kovach. For many, however, Bill C-18 has become another hurdle to accomplishing the goal of getting the news out to Canadians.
However, the journalists I interviewed were quick to point out that they appreciated the original goal of strengthening the rights of journalists by creating new revenue pathways. Moorman claims the problem with Bill C-18 lies in the specifics of how the bill is drafted: “It’s more the execution that leads me to fear… what the future for journalism holds.”
And for those hoping to enter the field of journalism, this bill looms over their heads. Newly emerging student journalists — like third-year U of T journalism specialist Muzna Erum, who interned for the CBC this summer — fear for the loss of independence that this bill could bring. As a result of lowered search engine optimization, which decreases the visibility of news, Erum worries that she’ll lose the ability to build a portfolio of news material online. Without a portfolio, she fears that the possibility of gaining an independent following for a freelance career on social media platforms can become almost impossible.
A threat to Canadian democracy
This bill poses a threat to more than just the journalists whose jobs and well-being rely on the income that major online platforms generate. Journalists like Kovach fear what this means for the democratic process. She believes that when you are unable to access news, democracy is directly threatened. Prime Minister Trudeau told Kovach he hopes Google and Meta will back down on their decisions, as he believes Canadian democracy hangs in the balance. Without the ability to truly and freely access Canadian media, he explained, Canadians are separated from information about their government, and thus, their democracy.
Moorman believes this bill will separate people from their local news and cause indirect encroachment from news in the United States. He questions what will happen to our democracy if many news sources come from south of the border instead of being internally created and distributed. A key tenet of a democratic society is the ability to access local media, and US news can’t provide that.
Erum believes that in the current status quo, where American news outlets overshadow their Canadian counterparts, the lack of social media access will obstruct the reach of Canadian news even more. “You’ll just have less readers,” said Erum.
The bill’s implications also strike fear in those interested in the separation of major companies and government: “The fact that Google and Facebook, these big media companies, have essentially decided to strongarm Canadian media into not existing where most Canadians consume content, I think is going to have an incredibly negative effect on democracy as a whole,” Moorman said.
If engaging in the democratic process hinges on people’s ability to access news, Bill C-18 is a huge blow to the current process and functioning of Canadian democracy in a technologically connected generation.
How does this impact young people?
Within Canada, one specific demographic will be particularly impacted by the inability to gain access to their news on social media.
“Young people are a lot more reliant on their news from Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter,” said Moorman. And he is correct: last year, the BBC reported that Instagram was the most popular news source for teens, followed by TikTok and YouTube.
Younger demographics also make up a larger majority of the population using social media platforms. Instagram’s age demographic is made up of just over 30 per cent of users between 18 and 24. Facebook sits just a bit older, at just under 30 per cent being between the ages of 25 and 34. And Twitter, now known as X, sits between the two, with just over 40 per cent of users being between the ages of 18 and 29. This means that younger demographics will likely be most impacted by the erasure of Canadian news from social media platforms.
The accurate reporting of news to Canadians, by Canadians, is of vital importance, especially to those whose jobs depend on it in a shrinking industry. “We’re still managing [to] somehow put out newspapers and put out TV broadcasts, and against the odds really. There’s fewer and fewer of us doing this work. And [the] fact that we’re managing it is a small daily miracle in my mind,” said Kovach.
Free access to the media allows people to engage with the democratic process in an informed way. Notably, journalists appreciated Bill C-18’s original notion: to protect and enshrine the rights of Canadian journalists to promote sustainability. It was meant to protect their jobs and their ability to get the news to the people who needed it most.
But all three journalists believe that the exact opposite has happened. In its current manifestation, they are concerned that Bill C-18 will particularly stifle young people’s ability to truly be participants in their own democracy.
Bill C-18 may not be the most extreme case of a government’s infringement of the freedom of the press, but we cannot afford to ignore it. Any threat to the access to accurate local reporting threatens our democracy and the stability of one of Canada’s most vital arms of democracy: the press.
Editor’s note (September 25): An incorrect version of this article that had not gone through the full editing process was initially uploaded to the site on September 24. The Varsity regrets this error.