OTTAWA - Publishers that represent a majority of Canadian newspapers have penned an open letter to the federal government urging immediate action to make digital giants like Facebook and Google share their advertising revenues with Canadian media companies.

The letter, which appeared in an ad published in newspapers across the country Saturday, says the situation is urgent, with media companies suffering huge declines in advertising revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The publishers point to action taken recently in Australia, where the country's treasurer has announced mandatory measures to force digital companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter to pay news media for use of their content.

The measures were to be completed by November, but are now being fast-tracked due to steep declines in advertising dollars caused by COVID-19 — declines that have forced many newspapers to stop printing.

Bob Cox, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and one of the signatories of the letter, says newspaper ad revenues in Canada have fallen by at least 50 per cent, which has made the newspaper industry unviable.

"Newspapers are fighting for their very survival right now," he said.

The wage subsidy that forms part of the Liberals' multi-billion dollar pandemic emergency aid package will help, Cox said, calling the program a "life-saver."

The Liberal government is also rolling out a $30-million COVID-19 awareness advertising campaign, which was also billed as support for the media industry, but Cox noted these measures are short-term fixes.

"We expect that the impact of COVID-19 and the decrease in advertising will continue for some time, at least through 2020 and probably into 2021, so we're going to be facing this decrease in advertising for a long time," he said.

"We need to look at the bigger picture, at the longer-term problems, and this is one of those longer-term problems."

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said last month the government is moving closer to implementing long-promised tax credits for newspapers to address ongoing revenue challenges in the sector. The most significant of these measures is a tax credit that will allow qualified newspapers to claim up to 25 per cent of the wages or salaries they pay to their journalists or other eligible employees.

The credit, which is not available to broadcasters, will be retroactive to salaries that were paid starting on Jan. 1, 2019.

A panel tasked with assessing whether media organizations qualify for these tax measures will begin informing the first news organizations of their qualification for this program this spring, with payments coming in the summer, said Guilbeault's press secretary Camille Gagne-Raynauld.

"Additionally, we are accelerating the processing of applications to our Aid to Publishers program, and expect funds to flow to successful recipients in June," she added, referencing a program aimed at helping print magazines and non-daily newspapers.

As for the actions taken by Australia and France to set deadlines of July for digital giants to start paying for copyrighted media content, Gagne-Raynauld said the federal government is "closely following what is being done abroad with regards to media support," but did not elaborate further.

Cox says he understands the federal government has been busy rolling out billions of dollars in aid for Canadian workers and employers hit by the pandemic while also dealing with a public health emergency.

But implementing measures to make digital giants share the ad revenue they make from content created by Canadian journalists, which they have been featuring on their platforms, would level the playing field for the media industry in Canada, Cox said.

It would also go a long way to help the media industry weather the long-term impacts the pandemic and resulting economic downturn is having and will continue to have on news companies.

"Newspapers and news media in general have been very, very valuable during the COVID-19 pandemic, they have informed the public, they've fulfilled their role, the public has trusted them to deliver information about this very important issue to them," Cox said.

"We feel it's time to establish a solider business model for them going forward. We want to be around for the next time we're needed."

Facebook, Google and Twitter did not immediately respond for comment.

Facebook announced in March it was spending US$100 million to support the news industry during the COVID-19 crisis, and Google also has a Google News Initiative, with an aim to "work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2020.

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