Transcript: Sue Gardner
My interview with the former CBC executive and former head of Wikimedia Foundation
This summer at Lean Out, we’ve been doing a deep dive into the collapse of the Canadian media — and the role that new legislation, Bill C-18, has played in exacerbating the crisis. My guest on the program this week is someone who has thought a lot about the media and digital policy and public broadcasting, and she has a lot to say about where our media is at, and where we go from here.
Sue Gardner is a digital policy analyst, and the former executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. She’s also the former head of cbc.ca (our paths there did not cross).
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode here.
TH: Sue, welcome to Lean Out. You are a former head of cbc.ca. You were at the CBC for 17 years, working in radio, TV, news, and, of course, digital. You left Canada and went to the United States and ran the Wikimedia Foundation, which operates Wikipedia. A few years ago, you returned home to Canada, after 15 years away, because you wanted to play a part in the conversation over journalism and technology — and to influence public policy around this. We'll get to our diagnosis of what's going on in the Canadian media in a moment. But first, what were your impressions of the state of our media when you arrived back in Canada?
SG: It's a good question. I’d been following Canadian media to some degree while I was away. I still kept consuming a bunch of Canadian media, which, of course, was easier now that we have the Internet. It wasn't a complete surprise to me. Also, what's happened to Canadian media is happening everywhere. Again, not a surprise. I will say that when I got back, one of the first things that struck me, and I say this all the time, I picked up The Globe and Mail when I first got back. It was like a pamphlet. I was used to The Globe and Mail being a big, thick, heavy paper. You read it on a Saturday and it maybe took you four hours. When I came back, The Globe and Mail was just a remnant, a shadow of its former self. Then I started to see that everywhere. You can't see the absence of news all that easily, because there are still papers. The fact that something is missing is less visible. The fact that there are fewer people working at a current affairs program on CBC Radio — that's not necessarily easily visible to a listener. But it did seem super obvious to me. Of course, we know from all the research and scholarship that's been done into it. It did seem super obvious to me that the Canadian news media system was suffering. It was diminished. There was a lot less than there used to be. I think sometimes it's masked a bit by the fact that the big brands, the big well-known brands, still exist. There still is a Globe and Mail. If you're older like me, you have memories of what it used to be that you carry forward. You still assume it's the same strong, well-resourced organization that it used to be. But they aren't, and it isn't. The news media is in trouble.
TH: Let's dive into a diagnosis of the crisis that we're experiencing right now in the profession in general, but also very much in Canada specifically. You just spent a year diving into public policy issues as a professor of the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill. I'm curious about what insights you came away with. If you think about this as a broad picture, what has gone wrong with our media?
SG: This is something that I've been studying and thinking about and concerned about for a super long time. I studied journalism at what was then called Ryerson. I think I graduated in 1990. I worked as a working journalist for 10 years and then I was a boss of journalists. I've been an observer and a participant, and watching it super closely, for a long time. I think there are probably two main threads, maybe more, to what's been happening. I think one is related to — there has been an enormous decline in trust in the news media. That is not a new thing. It's not unique to Canada. It's not confined to the news media itself. Trust in politicians is down, trust in the justice system is down, trust in corporations is down, and trust in the news media is also down. They are all in decline and they have all been in decline, in terms of public trust for, I don't know, 20, 30 years. We are experiencing an overall decline in trust in the institutions of society. That's been happening for a long time and it continues to happen. You can see how it's affecting the news media. Then, I think the second piece is that the news media has a super-specific business model problem right now. Everybody has talked about this for a long time, so I will keep it brief. But we know that the private sector news media used to have a business model that worked really well. They made journalism, and that journalism was financially supported by advertising. It was profitable for the entirety of the 20th Century. Then when the Internet came along, it broke that business model. Advertisers had advertised in news media because it was the only way, really. It was the only game in town. It was the only way to reach people, to reach audiences. When the Internet came along, advertisers suddenly had many more, and better, options for reaching people. Ad dollars left the news industry, and that broke their business model. This has resulted in what is really a crisis for private sector media. We've been seeing its effects for probably 20 years. That's what I was describing earlier, The Globe and Mail becoming a pamphlet. We see the emergence of news deserts. We see media organizations shutting down. We see media organizations laying off journalists. That results in less accountability journalism, less investigative journalism — less expensive kinds of journalism. That's the other major problem that we see. Both of those things are happening outside Canada, as well as inside Canada. I think it might also be worth noting: Some very good things have happened. The media have improved in a bunch of ways. Our access to news and to information has improved as well. It's not all a bad news story. It is 100% true that we have access to more information and more diverse sources of information than we used to. I remember when I was a kid, when I was straight out of school, it was really difficult for me to get access to, I don't know, The New Yorker or The New York Times. I was living in Fredericton after I graduated from school. I would have to special-order those things into the convenience store. They would come three days late, and I had to pay a lot of money. Now, I can access that stuff easily. I can listen to podcasts on niche topics. I can access news media from other countries. We all can. It's a golden age in terms of access to news and information, in some ways, for people who want it. We have a much broader diversity and array of places to get the news. That is great. I think it's also true that, in general, the voices that are invited into our public discussions and debates are a more diverse array of voices. We used to have "a mass audience" and there used to be gatekeepers. That screened out lots of voices, marginal voices. There were people who were assumed to not count, and they didn't get a voice. That's changed too. That is also great. Good things have happened, but bad things have also happened. I think that the bad things centre around trust, and they centre around the business model.
TH: I do want to come back to the issue of viewpoint diversity and to the issue of trust in a moment. But first, let's turn our attention to Bill C-18. I know that you appeared in the Senate hearings around C-18, as well as in the House of Commons. We've been discussing this legislation at Lean Out all summer, with a range of guests — Peter Menzies, Jen Gerson, Holly Doan, Marc Edge, Michael Geist — trying to understand the moment that we're in right now. You told the House of Commons that Bill C-18 misdiagnosis the nature of the problem, and that it won't actually support quality journalism. Walk us through your thinking on this legislation.
SG: Sure, I’m happy to do it. I've listened to your podcast. I've listened to Jen and to Michael and Peter, et cetera, and it's great. But let me give you my take. I found C-18 profoundly misguided from the get-go. I said it very early, along with people like Michael Geist and Peter Menzies. C-18 requires Google and Facebook to pay for what I would characterize as facilitating access to the news. When they direct people to news organizations using links and headlines and snippets and tiny quotes and that kind of thing, C-18 now requires them to pay those publishers for doing that. It is founded in the premise that I do think is deeply misguided — the premise that Google and Facebook are unfairly benefiting from hosting that stuff, and that they're "stealing" value from those publishers. That is misguided. The reason it's misguided is because … There's many reasons, but it is because the value travels in the opposite direction. Who benefits from Google and Facebook pointing people to news publisher websites? News publishers, right? That is why they vigorously compete to rank highly in Google search results. They have their own Facebook pages, where they are sharing their own news stuff. When people go to their websites, it makes them money because those people click on ads and those people are available to be turned into subscribers. Or, if you're a nonprofit, maybe they're going to make a donation to you. Audience is what those news publishers need, and Google and Facebook help them get audience. The law is misguided from that standpoint. I think also misguided — deeply, deeply misguided — from the standpoint of, “What is the Internet?” And, “What is it good for?” The Internet is good for links. That's what it's for. You go on the Internet, and you travel around, and you go from place to place clicking on links and learning stuff. The ability to freely share information by linking to various things and following those links, that is the core beauty. That is the core benefit the Internet brings to us. Anything that challenges that, anything that introduces friction to links … I feel like C-18 wants to turn the Internet into cable television or something like that. Something that is fundamentally commercial, that is the result of backroom negotiations and deals and money is changing hands. And that is not what the Internet is for. The Internet is for us to be able to go around and freely find information and learn stuff. C-18 introduces friction. That makes that a little more difficult, a little more complicated. That makes it a bad law that is, in my view, anti-Internet. It fights the gravity of the Internet. It is opposed to what the Internet is. I found it profoundly misguided from the very beginning. I spoke against it, along with others. In my view, what was happening was the government had listened too much to organizations like News Media Canada, the lobby group that represents the newspapers. When I came back to this country, I was hoping to participate in sophisticated, nuanced, subtle, difficult conversations about how to navigate a path in the public interest for digital policy for Canadians. I feel like what I instead stumbled into was much more like a 20th Century fight where the former incumbents were successfully persuading the government to try to roll back the clock to their glory days. They wanted to be restored to their former positions of power and influence. They wanted the government to make that happen for them. The government unfortunately seems to have bought it. They seem to have bought the false premises about the direction that the value travels. They seem to have bought the idea that turning back the clock is possible. That's why we find ourselves in the terrible mess that we're in today.
TH: We know there has been a lot of lobbying around this bill. I know you were asked this in Parliament. But to reiterate: Do you personally have any commercial relationships with any of the platforms or any other parties involved in C-18?
SG: No, and thank you so much for asking me that. I asked the government to ask me that publicly, because I don't. I haven't taken any money, ever, from anybody who stands to benefit, or is implicated in any way, or will be harmed, by C-18. With the exception of, I worked at the CBC for 17 years. I got my last paycheque from the CBC in something like 2007. I think The Globe and Mail might have paid me for something I did for them 20 years ago. So, no, I don't get, accept, ask for, or take any money from any platforms or any news organizations in Canada. The reason I think it's important to say that is because something that surprised me was, as I was witnessing and as I was being involved in these conversations, I kept having this feeling that government people felt like I was a shill for Google or for Facebook. Which I found deeply ironic and funny, because I have been a frequent public critic of both of those organizations — for privacy reasons and many other reasons — for, I don't know, 15 years. It felt very weird to me to be cast in this role. It took me a while to figure out why it was happening. I did a bunch of analysis. I should probably publish this sometime, but I have not published it. I did a bunch of analysis of the lobbying records and the witness records for the House Committee and for the Senate Committee as well, and also who Heritage met with. What I found when I did that analysis was … It's not a surprise, but it was interesting to see the numbers. They really did not meet or hear very much from what I would characterize as digital-first players, Internet people. Mostly, who they heard from and listened to and got briefs from were what I would call legacy publications — newspaper organizations, long-tenured broadcasters, things like that. What I realized is that there aren't a lot of voices advocating for the Internet in the public interest in our political system. Again, there's Michael Geist. There's OpenMedia. There's the Internet Society. There's a small number of voices talking to the government from the perspective of the Internet and the public interest. I think the government has so little exposure to those ideas, and those concepts, that I think it lumped me in with the people they do hear from — who are sometimes Google, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, whatever. To me, the fact that I felt like I was being cast in that way was evidence; it supported this idea that the government just doesn't have a lot of facility in this area. You can blame them for that, and I probably do. You can also acknowledge that it's a newer space. There's only a small number of advocates for the Internet in the public interest. I would argue that it suggests that we need more advocates and more resources going into advocacy for digital policy and the public interest. Because I think there's such a huge lack of it. I'll stop in a second, but I'll just say that I watched the C-11 hearings. You could see it there and you could see it in the C-18 hearings too. The digital people coming forward and speaking to the government — it was their first time ever doing that. YouTube creators, they do not have government relations departments. They formed organizations and associations precisely to respond to C-11 and C-18 from a defensive posture, because they felt like those bills were going to hurt them and were against their interests. But they were appearing for the very first time, in ordinary street clothes, without a well-argued, succinct brief in both languages. You know what I mean? They're just new to it. There isn't enough of it happening. Anyway, thank you for asking me that question.
TH: The digital realm is something I wanted us to get into here. One of the things that became clear to me during the Senate hearings on C-18, reading the documents and submissions, is that the innovation and growth in Canadian media is really happening in the independent press and the digital realm. One example: Holly Doan of Blacklock's Reporter, in her interview with me, quotes a Department of Heritage document that showed that since the beginning of the pandemic, 78 news outlets have closed. But in that same period, 57 local news outlets have launched. When you look around at the innovation that’s happening in the digital space, what do you see?
SG: It's so interesting. Yes, there is a lot of innovation happening in Canada. I have come to see more of it and experience more of it. It's very interesting. I always go back to Clay Shirky, NYU professor, wrote an essay. I think it was back in 2008 or something and it was called “Newspapers, Thinking the Unthinkable.” The premise of his argument was exactly what we're talking about now. The premise of his argument was that newspapers are dead. The old news industry is dead. It has been destroyed, broken by the Internet. Therefore, what we need at this time is a flourishing of innovation. Everybody needs to try every possible thing. There needs to be a million experiments. Most of them will fail. We don't know what will work, but that is exactly why we need to be experimenting. Folks will come up. They will iterate, they will continuously improve, and they will land, some of them, on things that work. He wrote that in 2008, I believe. That's terrible. Because it's a thousand years later and we are still very much at the beginning stages. We are not innovating quickly enough, we are not supporting innovators enough, we are not learning fast enough, and we are not finding solutions fast enough. That said, there is some great stuff happening in Canada. There is some really interesting experimentation from all manner of standpoints. All different kinds of niche audiences. People doing very interesting commentary work, people doing really interesting work from particular political perspectives, or doing work for very, very specific audiences. It's all very interesting.
I would say a couple of things. One is you want to innovate from a business model perspective, so you need to be trying different things to figure out what works. It's great that there are folks structuring themselves as charities. It's great that there are folks finding new ways to make ads work, getting subscribers to their Substacks. That is all fantastic. Some of that stuff is naturally going to be focused on audiences that have money, because you need to pay for the thing. If you're on a user-pay model, you need to be targeting people who will pay, or people who have expense accounts — people whose companies will pay. That's fine for the individual innovator. It makes a ton of sense. But it is not great for our goal of having a generally-informed public. That is something that has been happening in the industry more broadly — changes in how people consume media and who consumes media. There is no longer a mass audience. There are micro-niche audiences. Some of them are highly-news interested and they will pay for news. Those innovators, those entrepreneurs, are going to do fine. But it leaves aside a separate problem, which is: What do we do about the people who are low news interest — which often overlaps with serious skepticism and lack of trust in the news media? It's a societal problem. Because for democracy to function well, we need to have a generally well-informed public. There have always been people who are low interest, but they used to get X amount of ambient exposure to the news. Today, they don't. Because it used to be that you were watching a sitcom and then the supper-hour TV news came on afterwards, so you sat there and watched it. There was a newspaper in the break room at your work, so you would read a little bit of it, even if you didn't care that much. News consumption now is much more individual. It's much more personal. It's on your phone. There's less sharing. There's less ambient exposure. I don't know about you, but in my personal life, I know now lots of people who have opted out of consuming the news completely. They have just opted out. Part of the reason they've opted out is because there is a plethora of other stuff to do with your leisure time, your entertainment time. I have a lot of friends who play a ton of video games. I have a lot of friends who binge-watch Netflix, or are exploring some particular thread of filmmaking that is very interesting to them. In a world of limitless choice, some people are just falling away from news consumption entirely. The more that we're dependent on user-paid business models, the more those people are left aside because, definitionally, they don't have the impetus. They don't have the interest to pony up to pay. The reason that's a societal problem is because we want to have an informed citizenry. It's bad for everybody. If the level of knowledge of basic events and how things work is low, that is bad for all of us. That's a challenge. I think the upshot — what I would say about the experimentation and innovation that is happening is it is good. It should be encouraged as much as possible. Part of the problem with C-18 is that it will harm those players. They're telling us that it will harm them. Google and Facebook, at this time, are planning to exit the Canadian market entirely. Facebook is already doing it. Google says that they will begin doing it soon. If that happens, as we know, it's the digital startups, it's the innovative players who are going to be the most hurt by that exit — because they don't have the famous, well-established national brand. People aren't going to necessarily as easily type in their URL on their browser window and go there by choice. Those organizations, those little startups, are very dependent on social media. Very dependent on appearing high in search engine results to get traffic for discoverability, so people can find them and develop a bond and become interested in them and maybe start to pay for them. They're going to be harmed by C-18. Which is a tragedy. Circling back to where I started with this answer — Clay Shirky, 2008, telling us we needed a million miles of experimentation. He was 100% true. We are already slow and late. We do have innovation happening. We do have new things starting, but they are provisional and tentative. Some of them aren't going to work. They are no replacement for what we have lost. So we are not on a good path. We're on a path, but we need way more experimentation and way more support of the experimenters. We need a broad-based strategy, a public policy strategy for how we are going to handle news and the news sector in general. The experimentation is good, but there's not enough of it.
TH: Now is a good time for us to talk about the CBC, where you were an executive, and I was a rank and file current affairs radio producer. I have pretty strong views about what's gone wrong at the public broadcaster, but I do very much want it to survive and thrive. I have been quite influenced by your research and writing and talks on the role of a public broadcaster, and what it can do for society. I'm concerned about the polling we've seen recently, especially from Spark Advocacy, that shows that a significant portion of the Canadian public, including of Liberal voters, are drawn to the idea of defunding it. What's your analysis of what has gone wrong at the CBC? And, in your view, what needs to be done about it?
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