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Yellowknife’s Cabin Radio uncertain what Canada’s Online

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As tech giants begin to block Canadian news links from their sites for some users, the N.W.T.’s only entirely-online news organization says it doesn’t yet know how the change will affect its business.

The Online News Act is a piece of Canadian legislation that requires tech companies like Google and Meta to compensate news outlets for sharing links to their pages. The law received royal assent last month and is slated to take effect in January. In response, the tech companies have said they will stop posting links to Canadian news outlets. Meta — parent company to Facebook — has already begun to do this as a test on a fraction of its users

Cabin Radio is a Yellowknife-based startup with a website that hosts multimedia news stories as well as an online radio station. Its Facebook page has about 19,000 followers and its Instagram just over 7,000, as of Thursday. It also has a Facebook group dedicated to sharing and discussing Cabin Radio articles. 

Cabin Radio co-founder and news editor Ollie Williams says it’s not yet clear how the new Act will change its service. 

“Obviously we will take as many steps as we can to protect our interests and make sure we can serve our audience, but right now I would struggle to tell you exactly what that’s going to look like,” he said. 

A screen with a blue square with a white letter f on it next to a white square with  multicolour letter G on it.
This file photo taken on October 1, 2019, shows the logos of mobile apps Facebook and Google displayed on a tablet. Tech giants Meta and Google are blocking Canadian news sites from their platforms for some users in response to the Online News Act. (Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images)

Williams said he doesn’t think any Canadian news outlet really knows how the Online News Act will affect their sites and he says Cabin Radio doesn’t have time to strategize. 

“For an organization of our size who already have enough things to worry about; keeping the lights on each day and getting our jobs done, we haven’t had the ability to even start to thoroughly understand what the Online News Act will, in practicality, do to the environment that we operate in,” he said. 

“I wish I could worry more about that but it’s just not a priority for me until it has to be.”

Local outlets should work together, professors say

Gordon Gow is a professor of media and communications at the University of Alberta. 

He says the Online News Act plays into larger faults with the structure of the industry and inequality between major news outlets and smaller ones.   

He says the Act enables a news sphere where smaller, local publications are shut out by giants like Postmedia and Torstar who have more bargaining power.

Gow says critics argue that Act props up an antiquated business strategy and impairs digital-focused startups from innovating. 

University of Calgary communications, media and film professor Gregory Taylor shared a different perspective. He says the Online News Act exists to put smaller outlets on more equal ground and provide them with their fair share from the tech giants. 

Though, he says, news companies will have to wait out the tech giants’ retaliation before the platforms eventually come around.

Taylor says that with comparable legislation in Australia and other countries considering doing the same, Canada should hold its position.   

“Facebook is really trying to assert itself, but in the end they can’t afford to lose a lot of these markets,” he said. 

“I believe that we are at the leading edge of getting these companies to contribute to our democracy by bringing in this kind of funding model.” 

Both professors agree that smaller outlets should aim to coalesce and negotiate together. 

“For small outlets in the North, I think they’re going to have to be trying to work with a collective voice. I think there is a real opportunity for them to access some funding at a time when journalism, in particular local journalism, has been in drastic decline across the country and so if handled well by small news outlets across Canada this bill presents an opportunity.”

For consumers, Taylor suggests going straight to the outlet’s website. That’s something that Williams said Cabin Radio’s audience has been doing more and more over the years. 

When Cabin Radio began, Williams said social media accounted for about two thirds to three quarters of their website’s traffic. Over the past year or so, he says it’s closer to one fifth to one quarter. 

“So there’s a big shift that has gone on there over five years and we are not as reliant as we used to be on the likes of social media or even Google to drive traffic to the website,” he said. “But obviously anyone in our line of work is going to prefer to be able to use those channels than not.”

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