The oped below was written after the publishing of The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, on which i served as a research principal. I have been surprised that what I believe is the most radical and potentially transformative idea in the report has received almost no attention. So Elizabeth Dubois and I wrote an oped about the recommendation for the CBC to move to publishing under a creative commons licence. The piece below was first published in The Toronto Star.
It’s time to reform the CBC for the digital age
Canadian journalism is in the midst of industrial and market failure. Print and broadcast journalism are struggling to adapt to both the economic models of the digital economy as well as the media consumption habits of digitally-enabled citizens. Meanwhile, our small size, lack of VC funding, large presence of U.S. digital journalism companies, combined with the rise of Facebook, Google and the pernicious effect of the ad-tech industry has led to a market failure in the funding model for Canadian digital journalism.
We simply do not have a digital ecosystem in waiting that will be able to replace, at scale, the reckoning that is looming in the traditional media space.
As a recent Public Policy Forum report (for which we were research principals) argues, it is time that Canadian media policy adapt to the realities of the digital age. While much of the coverage of the report has focused on the establishment of a Future of Journalism and Democracy Fund, in our minds the most critical recommendation concerns the CBC – namely, that the CBC should begin publishing all civic journalism content under a Creative Commons license.
There are seven types of Creative Commons copyright licenses and we believe the CBC could use “Attribution + NoDerivatives,” which would enable CBC journalism to be re-published by anyone, anywhere as long as it is unedited and attributed.
This change, when combined with our additional recommendation that the CBC cease digital advertising, could incentivize significant reform of the culture, structure and journalism of the public broadcaster, right at a time when Canadians need it most. Here’s how.
First, it would free the organization to re-focus on civic journalism, bolstering what is in our view the most critical component of its mandate – to inform Canadians. Given scale-driven ad models and the incentives of click-bait, the CBC has followed many of its market competitors down a path to lowest common denominator content. They are even, remarkably, publishing sponsored content. Moving to a Creative Commons model and getting out of digital ads would provide the CBC the freedom to escape this destructive cycle, and refocus its norms and journalism towards its critical civic function.
Second, a Creative Commons license would increase the reach of the CBC by enlisting citizens and organizations to become its distribution partners. While a core objective of the CBC should be to reach as many Canadians as possible, this is increasingly difficult to do in a fragmented media ecosystem. Whereas audiences could once be reached through a TV channel, radio station or website homepage, Canadians increasingly consume news through via atomized content shared through friends and followers on social media sites. The days of a single national media discourse are over. Allowing anyone to publish CBC content would broaden and lead to innovation in its distribution. Citizens should not care where CBC content is consumed, but only that reaches as many Canadians as possible.
Third, it will help to counter the growing challenge of misinformation online. The 2016 U.S. election highlighted structural challenges in the digital media ecosystem. While tremendous good has come from decentralizing effect of the internet, we have recently seen the emergence of several large platforms as the primary distributors and intermediaries for journalism. Platforms such as Facebook and Google rely on opaque algorithms to determine what pieces of news content we see.
When combined with the advertising technology market that monetizes our attention across all of our internet activity (not just our news consumption), the result is an ecosystem of atomized conversations and filter bubbles. This environment has proved fertile for the distribution of misleading and outright false information. One way to counter this problem in Canada would be to encourage much more reliable journalistic content in the platform ecosystem by allowing CBC content to be published by dozens or hundreds of organization, not just one.
Finally, allowing others to publish CBC content would provide tangible assistance to both traditional and new media organizations. For traditional organizations, access to high quality local and legislative reporting would allow them to focus their increasingly limited resources on other types of journalism. For digital native organizations, this would both shift the CBC from a competitor to a collaborator, and provide a base amount of quality civic content on which they can build their businesses.
The result would be a new ecosystem of digital companies innovating in the distribution of CBC content and developing their own value-added content in addition. This proposal would turn the CBC into a constructive partner and hub in the civic journalism ecosystem.
Rightly or wrongly, many people that we spoke to for this project, in both the traditional and new media, described the CBC as a “predator.” This should concern all proponents of the CBC. At a time when Canadian civic journalism is both in decline and needed most, Canadians should expect our national broadcaster to be able to work with, rather than compete against, Canadian journalism. Moving to a Creative Commons model would be a big step in this transition.
Taylor Owen (@taylor_owen) is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia. Elizabeth Dubois (@lizdubois) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Ottawa. Both were research principals on the Public Policy Forum report, Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age.