Canadian newspapers go blank for ‘Disappearing Headlines’ campaign

This story has been updated with comment from Facebook

It’s another significant news day in Canada (aren’t they all?), yet there’s no news on the front page of many major daily and community newspapers.

It’s part of a new awareness campaign led by Torstar and News Media Canada called “Disappearing headlines,” aimed at raising awareness of the existential crisis facing publishers: they produce the news content, while Google and Facebook get most of the advertising money.

The front page cover wraps feature only the newspaper nameplate above a blank page, while a message below the fold reads “Imagine if the news wasn’t there.”

Developed with strategic consultancy The Greater, the campaign takes direct aim at Google and Facebook, which take in as much as 80% of the $8.8 billion spent on digital advertising in Canada—up from 66% just four years ago—while at the same time enjoying what News Media Canada calls a “free ride” on content created by traditional news organizations.

Google and Facebook have argued that it is a mutually beneficial relationship, with their platforms generating clicks and site traffic for publishers. Publishers, meanwhile, contend that they are absorbing the costs of producing the news and information that attracts audiences—and advertisers—to the tech platforms, while receiving little of the revenue it helps generate.

Participating newspapers are also running a full-page ad in the form of a letter from News Media Canada CEO John Hinds outlining the scope of the problem. “Google and Facebook, two of the richest companies in history, control the onramp to the internet highway in Canada,” wrote Hinds. “They decide what we as a sovereign nation see and don’t see in the news. To make matters worse, they take the news produced by Canadians and don’t pay for it.”

Speaking with The Message this week, Hinds said the industry has traditionally been “cautious” and “conservative” about tinkering with its editorial product as it did today, but the campaign reflects the magnitude of the challenges facing publishers. “The fact we haven’t done it, and we are doing it now, probably says a lot about how important this is,” he said.

Ryan Adam, a former regional adviser with the Prime Minister’s Office who joined Torstar as a senior advisor last year, said the newspaper industry has traditionally taken the “preachy route” to outlining the industry’s challenges, talking about readership, subscriptions, its role in civic discourse, etc.

However, the consensus was that it needed something more striking to deliver a crucial message. “We kept coming back to the idea of ‘What would the world be like if there was no news?’ because that’s inevitably what occurs here,” said Adam. “The demand for news hasn’t gone down…but the dollars and cents around delivering the news has changed, and that’s the issue we need to illuminate.”

Newspapers have been seeing annual revenue declines of between 15-20% in recent years, said Hinds. Those revenue challenges were further exacerbated by the pandemic as some stalwart advertising categories like travel cut spending almost entirely.

The irony, he said, is that demand for the news product has never been greater. “It defies the rules of economics, because usually when you’ve got demand for a product, you’ve got revenue… There’s so much demand to create more product, yet [newspapers] can’t get paid for it. And the reason it doesn’t make sense is that because you have these monopolies out there that are taking 80% of all digital ad revenue,” he said.

“Depending on your business model, ad sales are pretty important, and if Google and Facebook are hoovering up 80% of them, it makes it very difficult to build a business.”

While there is growing awareness of the problem of “disappearing news,” the campaign goal is to introduce a sense of urgency among both the public and especially policy-makers, said Hinds. “The purpose is to drive home the message that it’s great to act, but they need to act quickly… The crisis not going away, and it’s not something we can wait five years for them to put a solution in place.”

One of News Media Canada’s priorities is pushing the federal government to enact legislation forcing Google and Facebook compensate traditional media outlets for the use of their content.

Hinds said he’s encouraged by recent developments in Australia, which introduced a bill last year that would require Facebook and Google to pay the country’s media outlets for news content under a royalty style system. Both Facebook and Google strongly oppose the proposal, with Google Australia’s managing director Mel Silva stating in an open letter to Australians that it would “break Google search as you know it,” and pointed out that news organizations receive value in the form of “free user traffic” from the search giant.

Google further said the royalty system would be “untenable,” and could mean the removal of its search engine from Australia. In its own open letter, Facebook said the new regulation “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet,” and if the proposal becomes law it would “reluctantly stop” letting publishers and people in the country share local and international news on Facebook and Instagram.

In a statement to The Message, Kevin Chan, global director and head of public policy for Facebook Canada, said that the campaign fails to mention the value that free Facebook tools provide to publishers, including free distribution that sends people directly to their website. That distribution is worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” per year in Canada alone, said Chan.

“We want to help news organizations build sustainable business models,” the statement continued. “That’s why, in addition to free tools, we’ve also invested more than $10 million in the last four years in the Canadian news industry.”

While previous News Media Canada awareness campaigns have been directly aimed at government, Hinds said this is also aimed at Canadian consumers, who are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges faced by the industry as Google and Facebook face continued scrutiny and coverage of their business practices.

“It’s starting to interest Canadians and we’re very pleased by that,” said Hinds. “We’d like to make sure Canadians are even better-informed about this issue.”

Hinds said he is encouraged by recent reports the government intends to put forward similar legislation compelling the tech giants to pay for news. Canadian media outlet The Logic reported this week that Canadian Heritage minister Steven Guilbeault is meeting with government representatives from France, Australia, Germany and Finland with the intent of forming what is described as a “formal coalition” of countries to stand up to the tech giants.

Even if newspaper publishers are successful in their efforts, however, it’s unlikely the front page of either Facebook or Google will ever be blank.

Chris Powell