An Existential Threat to Online News in Canada


I’ll never forget the halcyon days of summer 2019. Yes, there were concerts, days at the lake and margaritas on the patio, but what sticks with me the most is the Saturday morning adrenaline rush I felt every time I posted a weekend feature from The Narwhal to Facebook. I’d try to restrain myself for an hour before hitting refresh to see how many times a story had been shared. Oftentimes, a post would rack up thousands of shares over the course of a weekend.

That summer’s blockbusters included Sarah Cox’s piece on Canada’s forgotten rainforest, Judith Lavoie’s on-the-ground feature about the Tsilhqot’in Nation’s decades-long fight against Taseko Mines and an in-depth look at how a West Coast fishing community is seeking to reinvent itself as salmon populations dwindle.

These are what I call “classic Narwhal” stories — stories we built our name and our audience around. Stories that allowed a tiny news organization with two staff and a few freelancers to build a regular monthly audience of more than 100,000 readers. There are no two ways about it: these stories and the audiences they reached via Facebook and Google allowed The Narwhal to get liftoff velocity. 

Four years later, The Narwhal has grown to 23 staff, has bureaus across the country, has won dozens of national journalism awards and is taking a stand for press freedom in the courts.

The Narwhal’s risk-taking, investigative environmental journalism never would have been possible without the audiences we reached via social media platforms. Indeed, many of you reading this probably initially discovered The Narwhal through Facebook. In 2019, Facebook drove 54 per cent of The Narwhal’s total traffic. By 2021, that number had been cut in half. And so far in 2023, Facebook has accounted for just six per cent of readers to our site. 

Traffic from Facebook has shrunk ever smaller as the platform has changed its algorithm time and time again to serve users less news. And now, Meta has completely blocked news on Facebook and Instagram in Canada, due to the standoff between tech platforms and the federal government over the Online News Act — which compels tech companies to negotiate financial compensation with news organizations for news shared on their platforms. And Google vows it’ll be the next to block news. 

These moves by big tech companies to block news on their platforms undermine democracy and represent an existential threat to online news outlets like ours that have relied on word of mouth via social media to discover our work. It also undermines the possibility for new, innovative online news outlets to find audiences. 

While the policy landscape is a hot mess right now, we are keeping our eye on the ball and focusing on continuing to produce investigative journalism you can’t find anywhere else. 

Source : The Narwhal