Dispatch from the Front Line: Facebook throws another industry on the barbie!
On abandoned dogs, dying industries, confusing Twitter fights, and bilingualism. Sur les chiens abandonnés, les industries mourantes, les combats déroutants sur Twitter et le bilinguisme.
Happy Friday, Line readers. We love you. Very much. And that’s why we want to start this week’s dispatch with an inspiring message of hope.
You are not Ted Cruz, and never will be.
Bask in that warm glow. And, if you’re interested, join us in a belly busting laugh that a bit player in the senator’s shitshow of a week is his dog, Snowflake, left behind after a freak storm brought the Lone Star State a blizzard’s worth of flakes. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
In non-Cruz related news, you might have read about the dispute between Australia and Facebook. (Even by 2021 standards, that's a weird sentence to write.) It’s enormously complex, but the simple explanation is actually straightforward enough: The traditional advertising model that has funded journalism for the last 100 years has been destroyed by the tech giants, and Australia has implemented a plan being considered by other countries — including Canada — to tax Big Tech for sharing news stories on their sites. That tax revenue will then be used to sustain what's left of the legacy media. Google agreed and cut a deal with NewsCorp, but Facebook took another route: it has banned all Australian news from being shared on Facebook, globally. Even here. Try and post an Australian news story to Facebook. You can’t.
We don’t have any illusions about the downside of these tech giants. But they are 100 per cent in the right in their battle against legacy media.
Readers of The Line ought not to be be surprised. We were writing about this very scenario back in September. We are, however, veterans of the legacy media. And we certainly don't dispute that Big Tech has shattered the revenue model. Further, we absolutely agree that the rapid collapse of media is a dangerous threat to our democracy. But we still need to be clear about how and why Big Tech has kneecapped the media. Once you understand this, you'll be hard pressed to agree that Big Tech owes media any money.
The Line is actually working on a longer explainer article that goes into many of the details explaining media's economic decline. This is a matter that is not well understood by the public, and that lack of understanding is a major problem. But a very brief version is this: the traditional funding model for was based on advertising. You have never paid for your newspaper. You are not the consumer. You, dear reader, are the product. And under the previous model, we sold your attention to advertisers, who actually covered the cost of wages, newsgathering, administration, printing, and distribution.
This arrangement worked well for everyone. Advertisers got access to audiences that only mass media could reach. They could tailor their ad purchases to the desired demographics based on market research done by the media companies. The advertisers paid the cost of journalists, and the public got the day’s news for “free.” Everyone won!
But Big Tech beat us at this game. Their reach is vastly larger. Their demographic profiles are frighteningly more detailed. Most importantly, placing an ad on Facebook or Google is much cheaper than printing a paper version. Mass media was once the monopoly. Now legacy outlets are a small, blunt tool trying to compete with hyper-niche alternatives that boast a global reach.
It's that simple. The advertisers found a better place to spend their money, and adjusted their ad buys accordingly. This gutted traditional media's revenue.
To that extent, yeah, Big Tech destroyed the media. But, like, come on. They destroyed it by providing a superior product for advertisers. Period. All of the arguments that get thrown up explaining why Big Tech should pony up — they benefit from our content! They link to our coverage! — are desperate plays by legacy media owners to find a quasi-plausible cover story for what this really is: bitter horsewhip makers demanding Henry Ford subsidize their failing businesses. Worse, it’s like showing up to a Ford plant, dumping a potentially unlimited number of those horsewhips on the property line, passing along a bill for the privilege, and then getting angry when Ford begins to lock the door.
Facebook shut down the spread of news articles on its site because the value of those news articles was too marginal to justify the tax that Australia tried to impose. We suspect that killing the news feed will make almost no impact to Facebook’s bottom line. Meanwhile, the newspapers are screaming about the site’s decision not to pay to host their content. So who is taking advantage of whom, exactly?
Say you read this dispatch, and you enjoy it, so you put a descriptive blurb and link to it on your Facebook page. And some people find it there, click on it and discover The Line. A common sense view would hold that you have helped us. But under Australia's Big Tech tax, the logic is that Facebook now owes us money for deigning to distribute our product free of charge.
And, also, realistically not us. Just legacy media overwhelmingly owned by Rupert Murdoch. Because only legacy media can afford the PR spend and government lobbying required to benefit from this corporate rent seeking. We can’t let ‘ole Murdoch fail, eh?
We get it. Everyone hates Big Tech. A lot of the hate is warranted. But legacy media aren't trying to save journalism. They're trying to save themselves. This is classic rent-seeking by politically connected insiders gussied up with language that aligns with the broader concerns with Big Tech’s influence. And Canadian media is absolutely full of it right now.
See? So please, subscribe today. Government bailouts or a Big Tech tax are not the model. You are the new model, and we need you.
In other news, yet another pissfight is currently underfoot in the media. This time, one of the hosts of a podcast called Reply All has resigned amid allegations of racism. An episode of podcast connected to the popular property featured an in-depth investigation of a culture of racism and microaggressions at foodie magazine Bon Appétit. This prompted another journalist, Eric Eddings, to post an extensive tweet thread alleging a similar culture at Reply All.
The primary allegation against Reply All's hosts is that they opposed a union drive at their parent company Gimlet Media. Now the hosts are personae non gratae, and one of the hosts, PJ Vogt, has stepped back while issuing another one of these buzzword-laden struggle session confessions.
At least, that's what we think is happening? The Blocked and Reported podcast devoted a full episode to the drama, which can be heard here. Honestly, we at The Line tried to listen to it twice. We've skimmed the devoted Reddit threads on the subject, and ... we're struggling to understand what is happening here. The clique counter-clique interpersonal warfare is becoming so loaded with jargon, unchallenged allegations, and ideological assumptions, that the whole scandal is almost impenetrable to anyone who doesn’t live and die in New York media. Which sounds like a great time, by the way.
Does failing to support a union drive supported by racialized individuals merit public censure, regardless of the rationale? PJ Vogt's apology — the only acceptable response now for a person in his position — only muddies the drama because it fails to provide any insight into his decision making. A statement that reads: "I'm a Bad. Burn me!" doesn't get us further than the pleasure of the flame. When that goes out, so begins the search for the next log.
These flare ups are usually complicated, and understanding the issues, both hidden and exposed, often takes time. It's possible that these hosts are big baddies, and are now receiving karma that they richly deserve. But we also believe that the jury of peers convening itself on Twitter in these unholy days is no guarantee of a fair hearing, or a fair process. If trial-by-Twitter isn’t good enough for the innocent, it also isn’t good enough for the guilty.
The Trudeau government is proposing a series of sweeping language reforms that will “intervene vigorously to counter and remedy” the decline of French in Canada.
In a roughly 30-page document titled “English and French: Towards the substantive equality of official languages in Canada” published Friday, the government makes over 50 proposals that aim to counter the decline of French across the country and “reinforce a sense of linguistic security.”
For example, making employers of federally regulated industries (such as telecommunications or airlines) communicate with employees in French in Quebec and other strongly francophone areas; making bilingualism mandatory for future Supreme Court judges, and increasing the number of French immersion teachers (and thus, classes) outside of Quebec.
Good Lord. Where can we even start with this? French is an official language in Canada. But government efforts to preserve and promote it beyond where it is already in common natural use is going to work about as well as a government trying to boost church attendance back to 1867 levels. Polices that incentivize more bilingual education are all well and good, but language will always be defined by the cultural and social facts on the ground, not federal fiat. And frankly, if Ottawa is looking for work to do, we’d suggest there’s far more need for protection of the rights of non-French speakers inside Quebec than there is for French speakers outside of it.
This would be a waste of time even if we believed this government was competent enough to pull this off. We don't.
Hang on, what? Really? Who says? Melanie Joly? Oh, for God’s … OK, OK. Fine. Sigh. Here goes:
Seigneur. Où pouvons-nous même commencer avec cela? Le français est et doit rester une langue officielle au Canada. Mais les efforts du gouvernement pour le préserver et le promouvoir au-delà de là où il est déjà d'usage naturel commun ont autant de sens que d'honorer notre patrimoine historique par le gouvernement qui tente activement de ramener la fréquentation de l'église à 1867. La langue française doit avoir une place au Canada, mais cette place doit être définie par les faits culturels et sociaux sur le terrain. Et franchement, si Ottawa cherche du travail à faire, nous suggérons qu’il y a beaucoup plus besoin de protection des droits des non-francophones au Québec que des francophones de l’extérieur.
Ce serait une perte de temps même si nous pensions que ce gouvernement était suffisamment compétent pour y parvenir. Nous ne le faisons pas. Pire encore, cela créera inévitablement des controverses au lieu de promouvoir l'unité. Marquez nos mots, amis.
There. Are you happy, now? Huh? Ugh, we’re going to go take a shower.
A shorter work week ensures that you have less Line to catch up on. On Wednesday, Ken Boessenkool said what no conservative has said before: Jagmeet Singh is destined to become the most powerful politician in Canada. After botching the vaccine roll out, the Liberals — once keen for a spring election — will be very eager to avoid accountability at the polls. What that means for Singh? Leverage.
Further to previous conversations we've had here at The Line, professional chemical engineer Ed Brost offered a few points on the coming Electric Vehicle revolution. Those clinging to the prospects of oil's return will be disappointed, he argues. Even a marginal decrease in oil demand over time will compound into terrible financial news for Alberta if she doesn't get her economic act together. Brost notes: "The stone age did not end because we ran out of stones. The oil age is ending … and there will be oil left in the ground when it does."
Lastly, Jen Gerson goes a little deeper on Canadian hypocrisy on Chinese genocide. "Why were there no consequences for admitting that Canada was genocidal?" she asks. "Because, at heart, the term wasn't accurate and everybody knew it — although saying so was highly impolite. Admitting to genocide was the act of atonement. It was a ritual of self abasement in the pursuit of absolution for the original sin of taking the land upon which we live." Gerson expected to get a lot more hell about this piece than she actually received, but it's sound.
Finally, a quick note of appreciation to all of our Line readers and, especially, our regular commenters. We made a strategic decision to limit commenting privileges to those who have forked over for a paid subscription to The Line and we're glad we did. Almost without exception, all of the discussions that take place under our pieces are thoughtful, engaging and worth reading. In many years of journalism, we can honestly say that this is the first time we've ever worked at an outlet at which the comments were not a trash fire. So here's a note to all of our people: Thank you! You're genuinely the best.
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