John Hinds on hope for Canadian media

The CEO of News Media Canada remains hopeful that with a re-elected Liberal government, the campaign promise to regulate the digital economy will come to fruition.
Hinds crop

The Industry Wish List is back. MiC is looking at the issues and trends of 2019 with some of the brightest minds in the business, discussing how the industry has changed in the last 365 days, what challenges lie ahead and how brands, media companies and agencies are adjusting.

John Hinds has been in the newspaper business a long time. As the president and CEO of News Media Canada, 2019 was spent alongside representatives from seven other organizations detailing how the $600 million media support fund from the federal government would be distributed. 

Speaking with MiC for its annual Industry Wish List, Hinds tells us what keeps him hopeful that 2020 could see some important changes to help restore the Canadian media ecosystem, one he says is currently fragile at best.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

It’s been reported that up to 63% of Canadians have trouble distinguishing between real and fake news. News Media Canada recently launched a campaign to promote SPOT Fake News Online, a media literacy tool. Why was that important this year? And, what do you hope to see come from SPOT’s adoption?

There’s a lot of very esoteric stuff written about misinformation and fake news but there’s not a lot of day-to-day tools that our readers and viewers can use… to kind of ground them. The Manitoulin Expositor did a great editorial and a whole series about fake news online for their readers and I thought that stuff made it really worthwhile.

I think part of it, with the fallout from the U.S. elections and Brexit, it sort of hit the public consciousness very early on in the year. As Canadians, we were also at that time looking at our own upcoming federal election and there were rumours and information out there that the election could be compromised. The government acted on it and obviously did some amendments to the Elections Act around changing requirements on the digital side, so I think it really captured Canadians. It was important to provide our members with a tool so that they could respond to the needs and demands of their readers and their viewers.

Will SPOT be a priority in 2020?

The current campaign is ongoing until February. Obviously it’s an area and it’s an issue that we think is hugely important and our members do as well so I think we’re going to continue engaging that. We may change and modify the SPOT campaign, but certainly it’s an area we have heard feedback from our readers that it matters.

I’ve spoken with a few advertising agencies who have expressed the responsibility they feel is incumbent upon them to better support local media. What are your thoughts in that regard?

I think it’s true. I think people are starting to realize that the news environment and the advertising environment is a very fragile ecosystem. Everyone talks about the circular economy in the environmental sense, but for years there was a great circular news economy where local and national advertising bought local and national news. If you were a car dealer in Winnipeg you advertised locally so the local paper could create local news so you could strengthen the economic ecosystem so that people could buy your cars and the same thing happened in Canada nationally. National brands bought national ads and that strengthened the national news ecosystem and unfortunately, then there was the rupture.

I always think of it as the question mark now sort of gathers all around and whooshes off to California. That’s really important. What we’re seeing now is communities and particularly the advertising world and everything else is seeing once you destroy those local ecosystems – and I would say the national ecosystem in Canada is part of that – it’s really hard to build back and it’s hard to get your message out to Canadians and to your community.

It’s an important thing and I think people are starting to realize the impact that it has, whether it’s on local democracy or people’s trust in their institutions. 

There is lots of information now that comes out that shows you when you lose local news sources, people pay higher taxes, people don’t run for office, all of those things happen. And for advertisers, I think there is becoming fewer and fewer places to advertise and certain communities are just not getting their message out.

If the media industry could make one new year’s resolution for 2020, what would you recommend that it be?

Most everything we’re asking for is really about leveling the playing field to allow us to do our job. That’s sort of the framework of the future.

The real challenge for us in 2020 is that Canada’s media industry is really trying to compete in an unfair playing field. We need to, as an industry, address that and there’s a whole bunch of ways that’s manfesting itself. The international competitors don’t pay sales tax, we pay sales tax. Why would you advertise locally if you can get a tax break for advertising internationally?

It comes to things like good copyright issue, under fair dealing. Everybody can steal our content and use it and we’re paying for that content. Why don’t we do something like the Europeans have done where you give news the same copyright protection you give music, so that people can actually own and use and monetize their content the way they should be able to.

It’s around competition. You look everywhere in the world and competition authorities, whether it’s in the EU or in Australia, are saying there isn’t a level playing field here in the advertising world. We need to make ensure that our competition bureau and our legislative framework makes sure there is a level playing field. We want to compete, but we want to compete fairly and I think right now the deck is stacked against us and that’s a huge challenge.

Is 2020 the year we’re going to see some movement on that front?

I think so. If we look internationally, particularly in the competition and regulation side. Look at what’s happening in Europe, they’ve made some really bold steps. You look at what’s happening in the U.S. even. The state attorney generals, the Department of Justice, all these people are really out there doing stuff. Our competition bureau is moving and the Liberal government had a promise to regulate the digital economy, so I think there is maybe some green shoots there and I think we have an obligation to water those shoots.