Torstar owner calls for advertisers to support an ‘ethical media supply chain’

Torstar Corporation owner and Toronto Star publisher Jordan Bitove is calling on Canadian advertisers to redirect more of their budgets away from the big tech giants and back to Canadian-owned and operated media.

In a speech to the Canadian Club on Thursday, Bitove said it is crucial for government and businesses to support what he called an “ethical media supply chain”—spending on Canadian news outlets and journalism as a bulwark against the spread of disinformation capable of undermining democracy.

Collapsing ad revenue has been a critical problem for most traditional media and journalistic outlets for more than a decade, but shows no signs of slowing down as consumers spend more time with digital and social media platforms, followed by marketer dollars.

More than 80% of digital advertising spend in Canada goes to the tech giants, and professional journalism suffers as a result, he said. (In fact, the latest Canadian Media Concentration Research Report concluded that by the end of 2021, Google, Facebook and fast-growing Amazon took 90% of the online ad market in Canada.) More than 3,000 editorial and non-editorial news jobs have been lost since 2020, he told the audience, and 53 media outlets have closed.

Bitove provided two examples to illustrate the magnitude of the problem for Torstar: One of Canada’s top advertisers bought $50 million worth of media in 2022, but spent just $6,800 with Torstar. The federal government, he said, spent $140 million on advertising, with less than $400,000 going to Torstar.

“This has made it increasingly difficult for us to produce the reliable, quality news and opinion that is so critical in defending democracy and informing our communities,” he said in the speech, during which he called on advertisers to commit at least 20% of their media spend to Canadian-owned and operated media.

Speaking with The Message Friday morning, Bitove said the situation with Canadian media, and need for an ethical  supply chain, is analogous to that of other industry sectors, like mining or forestry. “When companies come in and they raid a country to take the resources and leave nothing to show for it other than decimation and destruction…. that’s what is going on right now,” he said.

The supply chain will require action from government, he said, pointing to Australia and France as two countries where tech giants are required to directly pay publishers for use of their content. “Look at both of them and you will see a very robust journalism industry. And you’re not seeing the decline of publications like you did here,” he said.

Writing in The Conversation last August, Rod Sims of the School of Public Policy, Australian National University, said that Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code—which made it easier for Australian news outlets to negotiate deals with the likes of Google and Facebook to be compensated for use of their content—led to Australian news organizations “getting deals worth more than A$200 million per year.”

Ottawa is currently considering new legislation, Bill C-18, that would require companies like Google and Meta to pay Canadian news organizations for use of their content. Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer has reported that the bill could provide $329 million for the Canadian news industry.

But an ethical media supply chain won’t come just from government legislation, said Bitove. Advertisers and their agencies should increase their spend with Canadian media and journalism, even if consumers are spending more time with Google, Facebook, TikTok and other non-Canadian social media.

He argues that while there might be more eyeballs on big social media platforms, the engagement is not as strong and therefore the effectiveness of the advertising is reduced.

“The clicks that you’re getting from those [digital platforms], are they quality clicks?” he said. People will pay for quality content and journalism, and when they do, the engagement is much higher. “I was arguing with my former partner because he was looking for clickbait and I said, journalism—good journalism—will sell.”

The Canadian Media Directors’ Council  has been making similar overtures to Canadian advertisers since the introduction of its Media Manifesto in 2021. And Sarah Thompson, Dentsu Media president and member of the CMDC board, has written about these issues for The Message here and here.

Asked for comment on Bitove’s speech, Thompson agreed it is time for government action. “But it is also time for advertisers to understand their supply chain connected to their media investment and what dollars are supporting Canadian owned and operated media,” she said.

“We know that without quality journalism and local community news, democracy fails. We also know that advertising in local media has more attention and trust with audiences. We are asking for more than the 20% in local media—we want 25%.”

CMDC president Shannon Lewis said that the organization is “completely aligned” with Bitove. “Journalism isn’t just about holding the powerful to account, it is also just as much about binding communities together,” she said.

The CMDC goal of 25% of Canadian ad spend going to Canadian digital media by 2025 would equate to $350 million in funding to quality Canadian publishers. “The impact that we can all make is greater than Bill C-18 commitments,” she said. “This underscores that the Canadian Media Manifesto can make a tangible and crucial difference to our Canadian media ecosystem.”

Photo: Canadian Club, Mike Hagarty


David Brown