Free press allies in Congress like Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who have proposed a multi-million-dollar federal COVID-19 ad campaign as a lifeline for local news outlets, may want to learn from Canada’s stalled effort.
So far, Canadian publishers say, they’ve seen almost none of the $30 million Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would spend on pandemic-fighting public service ads.
“We were pretty happy with the initial announcement, but we’re waiting,” said John Hinds, President of News Media Canada, the trade group that represents 700 Canadian newspapers “It’s just been really slow.”
It has been more than a month since Trudeau said his government would use a public health campaign to quickly feed ad revenues to local media outlets, and would avoid buying digital ads through U.S. companies like Facebook and Google. During that month, Canada’s news business has suffered the same drastic loss of ad revenue hammering U.S. newsrooms, where tens of thousands have been laid off, furloughed or had their pay cut since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit.
Most of Canada’s advertising stimulus for local news has been spent on broadcast ads. This has included three 30-second national TV ads; two 30-second national radio ads; print advertising in daily, weekly, indigenous and ethnic newspapers; and digital advertising across a wide variety of platforms, said Anna Maddison, a spokesperson for Public Health Agency of Canada.
While Public Health may have signed off, the ads have not reached the papers yet,” Hinds said, adding that the Canadian government’s ad agency of record has not placed all the ads yet.
“Our chief revenue officer has been negotiating with the powers that be in government for probably about four weeks now,” said Phillip Crawley, Publisher of the Globe & Mail, one of Canada’s biggest newspapers. “What we’re trying to do is make it easy for them to book with all the Canadian publishers at once. Instead of using Google and Facebook, do it directly with the publishers.”
Crawley said he thinks most of Trudeau’s ad buy has already gone to TV and radio ad campaigns, regardless which newsrooms are producing the most original local content about public health.
The ad agency, Cossette, has also not responded to requests for comment on the stalled effort. Maddison said she could not provide a breakdown of what has been spent so far.
Due to rapid changes in the government’s pandemic response, the ad campaign planning took longer than expected, said Eric Morrissette, media relations chief for the agency, in emailed responses to questions.
While some of that planning is still underway, Morrissette wrote that ads appeared in approximately 950 daily, weekly, indigenous and ethnic papers and that a print ad ran in the Globe and Mail on March 27 and that a video ad ran on the Globe and Mail website for the month of April.
In the U.S., TV, radio, internet and print companies battle for audience, but research shows newspaper companies – almost all of which publish online – produce more than 60% of the original local news available to the public.
Even if newspapers had gotten every dollar, the national government’s campaign would be less than 3 percent of total ad sales in a year by Canada’s newspapers, Hinds said.
Meanwhile, both Hinds and Crawley said provincial governments, the equivalent of U.S. states – have been faster and made a bigger impact, getting ad campaigns funded and moving in days instead of weeks.
Victoria Times Colonist Publisher Dave Obee wrote in an email that his paper has numerous local advertisers who typically spend more with him in a month than the Canadian national government is likely to spend with the Times Colonist all year on this campaign. “The revenue is nice, but it’s not going to be enough to float anyone’s boat through this.”
The U.S. newspaper industry’s annual ad revenue is estimated by the Pew Research Center at $14.3 billion, which means an ad campaign equivalent to Canada’s would require Congress to spend more than $357 million. That equals about 11 days’ worth of typical ad revenue.
The U.S. ad campaign proposal has been picked up by at least six press organizations as one part of their proposals for support of the news industry.