Canadian media companies continue to build new revenue sources, from tech services to parcel delivery, to offset the accelerated decline of advertising. The long-term effects of the pandemic on the industry remain uncertain.
The Canadian advertising market was among the hardest hit globally in 2020. One year into the pandemic, 40 media outlets have closed permanently and the status of 19 ‘temporary’ closures is still undetermined. The media sector reported 1,200 permanent job losses; 1,800 more job cuts are still in the balance.1 Many newspapers have suspended or reduced print distribution. Although digital ad spending increased, online news sources were not spared: HuffPost Canada ceased its operations in March 2021.
News organisations’ websites offered free (non-paywalled) online content related to Coronavirus for several months; some created specialised newsletters which are still running a year later. Coverage of the pandemic was largely supportive of public health measures, which led to some criticism, but also online harassment. In Quebec City, a talk radio station lost several advertising clients for giving regular airtime to ‘COVID sceptics’.
The crisis has forced some publications to step up the pace of digital innovation. The Globe and Mail credits a homegrown AI (Artificial Intelligence) tool called Sophi for helping it reach 170,000 digital subscribers and bring in millions of dollars of revenue. Sophi also assists with editing the homepage, allowing journalists to focus on finding and reporting stories.2 The Toronto Star parent group, Torstar, meanwhile, launched a package delivery service and is branching out into online gaming. Online newspaper La Presse launched a new brand for its sponsored content, Studio XTRA La Presse, and is considering a paid subscription for its digital daily news. A group of six regional dailies in Quebec, CN2i, adopted an online subscription model offering access to all publications.
As part of the licence requirements for its acquisition of an over-the-air television network, renamed Noovo, Bell Media created a French-language news service including regional broadcasts, and hired 60 staff. The French-language market leader, TVA, increased its regional news offerings a few weeks before the launch. Both TVA and CTV, the leading English network, have rebranded their online streaming services. Global News is offering local news streams for Montreal, Winnipeg, and Halifax in addition to Calgary, Edmonton, and Toronto.
Discussion of racial diversity and inclusion in Canadian newsrooms intensified in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and racist incidents in Canada, such as the death of Joyce Echaquan, a young Atikamekw woman, who recorded verbal abuse from hospital workers on a Facebook Live video. New diversity initiatives include New Canadian Media, a news site dedicated to immigrant and minority ethnic reporting, Room Up Front, a minority photojournalist mentorship programme, and youth news site The Pigeon.
New partnerships and collaborations also emerged during this challenging year. APTN, Canada’s national Indigenous television network, joined forces with news organisations in Australia and the United States to produce The Anti-Indigenous Handbook, an investigative reporting project. Other initiatives of note include a new national non-profit association for independent news organisations, Press Forward; a directory of local news sources hosted by CBC; and a vote for unionisation by the employees of Canadaland, a news-focused podcast.
During the public broadcaster’s licence renewal hearings, concerns were raised about CBC/Radio-Canada’s focus on advertising revenue and its French-language sponsored content service.
In February 2021, nearly 100 newspapers printed a blank front page as part of a national campaign to bring attention to the impact of global tech giants such as Google and Facebook on the sustainability of journalism. The Canadian government tabled legislation to extend broadcast regulation to digital audiovisual content providers. Foreign-based digital services will be forced to charge sales tax; a corporate level tax on digital companies operating in Canada will take effect in 2022. However, in the context of a minority government, an election before the end of 2021 is a real possibility.
In addition to increased government ad money (especially public health messages) since the beginning of the pandemic, a number of previously announced direct public subsidies are coming into effect. Dozens of journalists have been hired through a government grant to cover rural and underserved audiences, including First Nations communities. Some media organisations will also now be able to issue tax receipts for donations; some online news subscriptions are now eligible for a tax credit. Media literacy and anti-disinformation projects spearheaded by media outlets and journalism associations have received public funding as well.
Director, Centre d’études sur les médias, Université Laval. Professor Brin is also chairperson of the Independent Advisory Board for Canada’s journalism tax credit programme and is a member of the Steering Committee for the Digital Citizen Initiative.
The context of the pandemic accelerated the decline of print news sources. Since 2020, smartphones have surpassed computers as preferred devices for online news – by a majority of both English- and French-speaking Canadians.
Pay for online news
Canada English: 14%
Canada French: 12%
Listen to podcast in the last month
Canada English: 35%
Canada French: 26%
Trust in news overall
Canada English: 44%
Canada French: 54%
Trust in news I use
Canada English: 49%
Canada French: 61%
Trust in news in search
Canada English: 31%
Canada French: 36%
Trust in news on social media
Canada English: 18%
Canada French: 23%
1 Wechsler S., ‘A Year of Mapping Media Impacts of the Pandemic in Canada’, J-Source, 11 Mar. 2021. https://j-source.ca/article/a-year-of-mapping-media-impacts-of-the-pandemic-in-canada-covid-19-media-impact-map-for-canada-update-march-11-2021/