Canada Bill C-18 Delivers a Victory: How Long Will the Triumph Pay Off in Cash Money?

June 23, 2023

News outlets make or made most of their money selling advertising. The idea was — when I worked at a couple of big news publishing companies — the audience for the content would attract those who wanted to reach the audience. I worked at the Courier-Journal & Louisville Times Co. before it dissolved into a Gannett marvel. If a used car dealer wanted to sell a 1980 Corvette, the choice was the newspaper or a free ad in what was called AutoTrader. This was a localized, printed collection of autos for sale. Some dealers advertised, but in the 1980s, individuals looking for a cheap or free way to pitch a vehicle loved AutoTrader. Despite a free option, the size of the readership and the sports news, comics, and obituaries made the Courier-Journal the must-have for a motivated seller.

6 23 cannae

Hannibal and his war elephant Zuckster survey the field of battle after Bill C-18 passes. MidJourney was the digital wonder responsible for this confection.

When I worked at the Ziffer in Manhattan, we published Computer Shopper. The biggest Computer Shopper had about 800 pages. It could have been bigger, but there were paper and press constraints If I recall correctly. But I smile when I remember that 85 percent of those pages were paid advertisements. We had an audience, and those in the burgeoning computer and software business wanted to reach our audience. How many Ziffers remember the way publishing used to work?

When I read the National Post article titled “Meta Says It’s Blocking News on Facebook, Instagram after Government Passes Online News Bill,” I thought about the Battle of Cannae. The Romans had the troops, the weapons, and the psychological advantage. But Hannibal showed up and, if historical records are as accurate as a tweet, killed Romans and mercenaries. I think it may have been estimated that Roman whiz kids lost 40,000 troops and 5,000 cavalry along with the Roman strategic wizards Paulus, Servilius, and Atilius.

My hunch is that those who survived paid with labor or money to be allowed to survive. Being a slave in peak Rome was a dicey gig. Having a fungible skill like painting zowie murals was good. Having minimal skills? Well, someone has to work for nothing in the fields or quarries.

What’s the connection? The publishers are similar to the Roman generals. The bad guys are the digital rebels who are like Hannibal and his followers.

Back to the cited National Post article:

After the Senate passed the Online News Act Thursday, Meta confirmed it will remove news content from Facebook and Instagram for all Canadian users, but it remained unclear whether Google would follow suit for its platforms.  The act, which was known as Bill C-18, is designed to force Google and Facebook to share revenues with publishers for news stories that appear on their platforms. By removing news altogether, companies would be exempt from the legislation.

The idea is that US online services which touch most online users (maybe 90 or 95 percent in North America) will block news content. This means:

  1. Cash gushers from Facebook- and Google-type companies will not pay for news content. (This has some interesting downstream consequences but for this short essay, I want to focus on the “not paying” for news.)
  2. The publishers will experience a decline in traffic. Why? Without a “finding and pointing” mechanism, how would I find this “real news” article published by the National Post. (FYI: I think of this newspaper as Canada’s USAToday, which was a Gannett crown jewel. How is that working out for Gannett today?)
  3. Rome triumphed only to fizzle out again. And Hannibal? He’s remembered for the elephants-through-the-Alps trick. Are man’s efforts ultimately futile?

What happens if one considers, the clicks will stop accruing to the publishers’ Web sites. How will the publishers generate traffic? SEO. Yeah, good luck with that.

Is there an alternative?

Yes, buy Facebook and Google advertising. I call this pay to play.

The Canadian news outlets will have to pay for traffic. I suppose companies like Tyler Technologies, which has an office in Vancouver I think, could sell ads for the National Post’s stories, but that seems to be a stretch. Similarly the National Post could buy ads on the Embroidery Classics & Promotions (Calgary) Web site, but that may not produce too many clicks for the Canadian news outfits. I estimate one or two a month.

Bill C-18 may not have the desired effect. Facebook and Facebook-type outfits will want to sell advertising to the Canadian publishers in my opinion. And without high-impact, consistent and relevant online advertising, state-of-art marketing, and juicy content, the publishers may find themselves either impaled on their digital hopes or placed in servitude to the Zuck and his fellow travelers.

Are these publishers able to pony up the cash and make the appropriate decisions to generate revenues like the good old days?

Sure, there’s a chance.

But it’s a long shot. I estimate the chances as similar to King Charles’ horse winning the 2024 King George V Stakes race in 2024; that is, 18 to 1. But Desert Hero pulled it off. Who is rooting for the Canadian publishers?

Stephen E Arnold, June 23, 2023


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