The Canadian Media Directors’ Council and its member agencies have launched a new initiative aimed at protecting and growing the country’s local media through the “intentional spend” of clients’ ad dollars. The Canadian Media Manifesto launched on Tuesday, for World News Day.
The Media Manifesto says that local media in Canada is “under threat,” a situation exacerbated by the pandemic. According to the CMDC, 448 news operations in 323 communities across Canada have been shuttered since the 2008 recession—including 50 since the start of the pandemic—with a growing number of communities becoming “news deserts.”
“As a result, trusted local news, journalist jobs, and our ability to reach and inform Canadians are at risk,” said the CMDC in a release announcing the Media Manifesto.
The Media Manifesto is inviting marketers and agencies to take an online pledge supporting Canadian media. The pledge has gained more than 150 signatories since going live on Tuesday, including all CMDC member agencies, as well as creative agencies including Ogilvy, clients such as Desjardins and Cineplex, and media vendors including Corus, Bell, StarMetro, Kin Community and Snap.
There are no specific benchmarks or commitments attached to the pledge, but CMDC president Shannon Lewis said it represents the first step in a broader effort to strengthen and underpin Canadian media. “Right now we just want people to believe,” she said. “The first step is commitment, and then following up with our believers, with a deck and some tools that reinforce the benefits of a healthy Canadian media ecosystem.”
While the CMDC announcement does not mention Google and Facebook by name, many of the problems facing local news media stem from the enormous power wielded by Google and Facebook, who account for the overwhelming majority of Canadian media spend.
According to the most recent Canadian Media Concentration Report compiled by Dwayne Winseck, a professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, the “duopoly” accounted for 80% of the estimated $8.8 billion spent on online advertising in Canada in 2019, up from 66% just four years earlier.
The steady flow of ad dollars to the global giants has been a source of consternation among traditional media companies for years. At the same time, the general public seems unconcerned about the precarious financial state of the news media. A section of the 2021 Reuters Institute Digital News Study dedicated to the financing of commercial news media indicated the issue has relatively low salience among the general public.
In Canada, 49% of respondents said they were not concerned about the financial state of the country’s news organizations, compared to 34% who indicated they were concerned.
The Canadian section of the report said that only about 13% of Canadians currently pay for online news, suggesting that, barring government intervention or a change in consumer habits, advertiser support remains critical to the viability of local news outlets. “New business models such as subscription and membership have been accelerated by the crisis, as we document in this year’s report,” said the introduction to the report. “But in most cases, this has still not come anywhere near making up for lost income elsewhere.“
Brian Cuddy, VP of digital solutions for Cossette Media and a member of the task force behind the Media Manifesto, said advertisers and agencies have a crucial role to play in ensuring the sustainability of local media. “The advertising and media industry is responsible for holding their investments accountable to their communities as well as their own stakeholders,” he said. “The onus is on advertisers to get advertising right.”
Lewis stressed that Media Manifesto is not about moving ad dollars or urging buyers to invest solely in Canadian media, but raising awareness of its value and the vital role that advertiser support can play in ensuring its long-term success.
“Clients need performance… so we’re not saying shift from here to there,” she said. “We’re looking at the growth of our Canadian media sector. There’s a [consumer] movement to buy local, and we have to look at our national fabric and how we’re differentiating itself.”
But while the CMDC and its agencies believe there is a business case for supporting local media, they also appear to be contemplating social and moral implications of a weakened media and the rise of misinformation in the social media era.
CMDC member agencies place an estimated 96% of all Canadian media, meaning they possess the power to provide valuable ad support for local media. “That is powerful, and with that power needs to be a reverence for the media environment we need to have to thrive,” said Sarah Thompson, chief strategy officer at Theo, the bespoke agency created last year for Rogers Communications.
“We need local news and community news because it allows us to reach Canadians in a very meaningful way,” she said. “This is a great place to advertise, and we need to be intentional about dollars going to rebuild what has been lost. The challenge is in the proof, where we all have been conditioned to the immediacy of performance marketing on platforms. We know that viewability and quality of audiences is strong in local and community media.
“As advertisers, we know the adage ‘eggs in one basket,’ and we have been heading down that path for so long,” she said.
Thompson pointed to a recent survey of Canadians conducted by Mindshare, which found that two-thirds of respondents find local news important, while 95% of Canadians follow local news and half of us want more local news. And younger demographics had more reverence for local news than those over the age of 55, she said.
“Local news unites communities,” she said. “For cities, it is about navigating pressing economic issues and politics and the demand is high. For our smaller communities and rural locations, it is about supporting local businesses, education and community events.”
Patricia Gray, vice-president of digital at Media Experts, called the Media Manifesto’s call to action “reasonable on all fronts,” stressing that it’s not asking for an “extreme departure” of current media spending. “As members of the CMDC, we are also committed to working with Canadian outlets to improve the framework for buying, optimizing and reporting, so that we can continue to offer our clients transparency and performance,” she said.
“As an industry, our priority needs to be to support and protect a strong media ecosystem in Canada,” said Stuart Garvie, CEO of GroupM and CMDC Chair, in a release. “This requires intentional local investment and support for Canadian publishers and platforms—with a strong focus on diversity and responsible journalism. A healthy Canadian media ecosystem supports the economy, fosters responsible media, and gives our clients more opportunity to connect with engaged and diverse Canadian audiences.”
Traditional media has also been pushing back against the duopoly’s dominance. Earlier this year, Torstar and News Media Canada partnered on an awareness campaign called “Disappearing headlines,” with publications across the country printing blank front pages in an effort to the enormity of the challenge of reporting news without the crucial advertising support.
“It is important for all media leaders and marketers to reset the marketing mix and budget-setting process, and be intentional with dollars back into local news in Canada,” said Thompson. “It is good for civic engagement, our society, and will perform for their business.”
The Media Manifesto is being supported by a pro bono B2B campaign developed by Cossette, led by a video ad (below) noting that the fragmented media environment is pulling money away from local media while at the same time contributing to a rise in misinformation. That makes supporting local media even more important, says the video, which invites people to take a pledge to commit to investing in Canadian media.