Here’s something city council can do right now to support local journalism

Edmonton’s city council passed a motion on June 7 that we didn’t cover over at Taproot Edmonton, but we certainly took note of as a local media company.

The motion, made by Coun. Ben Henderson and seconded by Coun. Scott McKeen, carried 13-0. Here’s what it says:

The City of Edmonton council recognizes that a healthy, professional news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy in our city; urges nearby municipal councils and across Canada to recognize that a robust news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy in their jurisdictions; endorses legislation and regulations to support and rejuvenate news outlets across Canada; and urges the federal government to move quickly to pass legislation to ensure an ecosystem for a healthy news media to serve all Canadians.

Edmonton City Council meeting, June 7, 2021

Henderson said similar motions have been passed by municipalities across the country. This campaign coincides with an effort by News Media Canada to step up pressure on the federal government to pass legislation to "rein in" Google and Facebook before Parliament rises for the summer amid anticipation of a fall election. The newspaper lobby would like something similar to what Australia passed earlier this year requiring Google and Facebook to negotiate compensation agreements with publishers.

Henderson said he didn’t know the specifics of the federal legislation. Nonetheless, the motion passed unanimously. That struck me as odd, but judging from the discussion, councillors were motivated by a desire to get on the record their recognition of the importance of local news coverage and the role that it plays in helping them do their job.

Fair enough. We agree that a healthy news media is essential to the proper functioning of democracy, and it means something for politicians to say that out loud, because they are often criticized by said media.

We should consider, however, whether the proposed cure is worse than the disease. As Joshua Benton pointed out in Nieman Lab, what happened in Australia is not all it’s cracked up to be. A bill in the Senate that aims to force the tech giants to pay royalties to Canadian journalism organizations is similarly flawed, as was eloquently explained by Sen. Paula Simons (a former Edmonton Journal colleague of both mine and McKeen’s) in a piece for The Line. It’s not clear that such a use of Canada’s copyright law would work, and even if it did, it would favour the incumbents. "At what point is it actually unfair to help big companies like Postmedia and Torstar and Bell Globe Media, while making it harder for new start ups and innovative news platforms to get a start?" she wrote. "Is there a point at which we simply have to acknowledge that the era of the big legacy newspaper companies is over?" In Taproot’s view, we have indeed reached that point.

A screenshot from the June 7 meeting where city council called on the federal government “to ensure an ecosystem for a healthy news media to serve all Canadians.”

Council can take action itself

At any rate, there’s not much we can do to influence what the federal government decides to do or not do on this file. However, there is action that our municipal government could take to strengthen the health of local journalism in our city.

The City of Edmonton buys a lot of advertising. Between 2008 and 2018, it spent well over $7 million on ads in the Edmonton Journal, and council’s executive committee agreed to renew an agreement for up to $3.5 million more over three years in November of 2018. We know these figures because the contract is big enough to have to go to council for approval. That agreement ends on Dec. 31, 2021.

A substantial proportion of that amount had been for "legally required advertising" — certain notices that the Municipal Government Act used to require the City to place in the main local newspaper. The act no longer requires this, and in October of 2019, city council passed a bylaw providing "alternative methods for advertising proposed bylaws, resolutions meetings, public hearings, and other things required to be advertised by the City." Now most of that legally required advertising can appear on the City’s website instead of in paid ads in the Edmonton Journal.

While the ostensible reason for advertising in the Journal was to reach a substantial proportion of the population as required by the MGA, the actual outcome was to subsidize Postmedia — a debt-ridden, Toronto-based company that has continually cut local journalism — in a way that has been unavailable to any of its competitors. What Taproot co-founder Mack Male told executive committee in 2018 remains true today: "Paying Postmedia for legally required advertising is effectively a subsidy to a single outlet. The opportunity here is to consider whether that subsidy should be reduced and whether it could be spread across multiple outlets, especially those who will invest the money in building a brighter future for journalism right here in Edmonton."

The City no longer has to spend as much on print ads as it used to, and its current agreement expires at the end of this year. It still has to make sure as many people as possible know what it is up to. And council just passed a motion saying that healthy local media outlets are vital to democracy. So this seems like an excellent time to use that spending power in a way that accomplishes these goals. Even a fraction of what has been allocated for advertising in Postmedia would make a huge difference to local media outlets like Taproot that inform the community and are part of the connective tissue that makes a city work.

To be clear, the City wouldn’t be buying influence with such purchases. Postmedia’s journalists feel free to criticize city council and administration, and so would Taproot’s and those at any other reputable media outlet. If there were strings attached to that money, we wouldn’t take it, and I don’t see any evidence that the City has or wants such strings. Some outlets choose not to sell any advertising at all; we do, with a clear moral compass that directs us to give up revenue if it puts the integrity of our journalism at risk.

And one more thing: With so much of the City’s communications now taking place on its own website and social media channels, it seems plausible that an ever-larger proportion of the advertising budget will go to search engine marketing and social media marketing. This is the advertising world we live in now, and it is why Google and Facebook have eaten newspapers’ lunch. But if council truly believes that something should be done to support local journalism, then it shouldn’t send all of its advertising budget to the tech giants either. Spend some of it here on the local media ecosystem.

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