Let’s make saving local media (and maybe even democracy) our new brand purpose

—Directing more ad spend to local media can be the most meaningful social cause in Canada, says dentsu’s Sarah Thompson. It connects all the big issues we care so much about—the environment, our society, and democracy—

Much of the advertising industry has been focused on purpose driven marketing the past few years—connecting brands to social causes that align with core values.

A lot of good can come from that approach, but it’s time that brands direct some of that purpose where they spend the lion’s share of their dollars—media.

Local media investment by brands can be the most meaningful social cause in Canada, and connects to all the big issues we care so much about—the environment, our society, and democracy. Local media, including radio, TV, and print, is indispensable to delivering valuable and reliable news stories to communities.

Unfortunately, local media it is also in a rapid state of decline, with thousands of journalism jobs lost, newsrooms closing, and growing areas of our country becoming news deserts. A recent study by the Canadian Media Directors’ Council (CMDC) shows that while 60% of Canadians find local news valuable, 40% also find it less accessible. Accessibility is due to paywalls, but also our society’s over-reliance on platforms that generate information tunnels from algorithms based on interests, not the need for information.

Local media fuels connections for a community in a time of crisis, like the way Cape Breton radio station CKOA continued to broadcast after its building was blown off its foundation during Hurricane Fiona.

In Kelowna, stories about local traffic incidents and road closures, transit disputes, and other issues are often the most viewed on the news site Castanet.net. It has been proven that communities need reliable and trusted news sources as much as they need public schools. Local media and news are crucial to social cohesion and local civic culture.

Journalism and local media are the fundamental building blocks of so much of Canada. “Saving local journalism will not magically solve all of our problems, but without it, the many challenges facing us today—from the worsening climate crisis to growing fascistic movements around the world—become insurmountable,” said Viktor Pikard, co-director, media, inequality and change centre and C. Edwin professor of media policy and political economy at the University of Pennsylvania. “Maintaining local news media is a baseline requirement for self-governance. Journalism and democracy rise and fall together.”

Yet, even with the decline of print, radio, and TV journalism, there has not been equal growth in digital journalism. And there are many reasons this has happened. Studies have shown that only 20% of readers move past a headline they see in a digital space—making what we see on the social web beneficial to platforms by increasing our time spent there, but not so for the actual publishers.

In Canada, New Zealand, and the U.S., there is legislation underway to force platforms like Meta and Google to share ad revenue to support journalism. These efforts are modelled after legislation enacted in Australia in 2021. That law has allowed publishers of all sizes to broker deals with platforms on revenue sharing. The outcome of this agreement was that some local news publishers were able to craft a deal with Google.

Meta, which owns Facebook, did not work out a deal with the smaller publishers in Australia, and has threatened the removal of news from its platform in both Canada and the U.S.

This is important, because at the same time the platforms are capturing most of the online advertising revenue, making it more difficult for traditional local media to survive, more people say they are getting their news from those platforms. But again, it is mostly just the headlines.

“Citizen journalism has a place, and it can fill voids, but it is not a substitute for fact-based journalism and editorial judgment,” said Paul Deegan, president and CEO of News Media Canada.

“Professional journalists have a code of ethics they follow, they have standards for which they are held to account, and when they say, ‘sources say’ you can trust what that means.  The key factor in this equation is trust,” said Alex Freedman, executive director of the Community Radio Fund of Canada. “We need to trust that the information we are receiving is coming from people who share our values, our love for our community, and they are motivated by the truth. The reality of citizen journalism on Facebook or any other platform is you can never know whether the source is reliable, if they have ethical standards, or even if they are who they say they are.”

And while this may seem like a contentious issue between journalism and platforms, advertisers have a role to play. Every marketer who believes in purpose-driven initiatives needs to ask their media team and/or agency how much of their media investment stays in Canada, specifically local news and media outlets.

“It’s important for local businesses to support their local community newspaper. Newspaper readers are loyal customers,” said Deegan. “A newspaper is one of those things that makes a community a community.”

Brands that have a core mission around the community, civil rights and diversity and inclusion, and the environment, need to understand the power of media dollars in local media that connects to those aims. The supply chain of media is just as important as the supply chain of manufacturing, and as any corporate responsibility campaign you are doing in 2023.

If you are a brand that believes in the community, the best investment you can make is in local media.

Sarah Thompson is the president of dentsu media and a member of the CMDC’s Canadian Media Manifesto taskforce.