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Globe and Mail head wants ‘level playing field’ in battle for ads with CBC

By Tim Naumetz      

'The CBC is the Globe’s largest competitor in the digital-ad space amongst Canadian based media,' says Phillip Crawley.

Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley, right, testifies at the House Heritage Committee on Nov. 15. Also pictured is Jean-François Dumas, president of Influence Communication. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

The CBC came under fire Tuesday at the Commons committee inquiry into the effect of the digital news revolution on media and communities, as the publisher and CEO of The Globe and Mail said the public broadcaster is squeezing out private-sector news outlets in the competition for online advertising.

“We do like to play on a level playing field,” Globe publisher Phillip Crawley told the House of Commons Heritage Committee. “It’s not level if taxpayer dollars directed to the public broadcaster make the competition for digital ad dollars more difficult.”

“The CBC is the Globe’s largest competitor in the digital-ad space amongst Canadian based media,” he said, telling MPs that other colleagues in the news industry also oppose the growing online ad share CBC is acquiring as it expands its digital presence not just in straight news, but also coverage of the arts and, more recently, opinion columns.

Mr. Crawley asked MPs to consider proposed restrictions from the British government on digital advertising for the BBC.

Much of the spotlight has been on the CBC in this inquiry as the Heritage Committee probes the state of local media as more eyeballs turn to the Internet for news, smaller community newspapers across the country close, and larger papers continue to downsize.

Mr. Crawley pointed out how The Globe and Mail‘s print advertising revenue plunged by 40 per cent between 2011 and 2015. At the same time, he said it has been able increase online subscriptions and derive “significant revenue” from this platform.

“No other paper in Canada has been able to derive significant revenue from readers paying to access content in digital,” Mr. Crawley said. “Others have tried and failed because the content is not sufficiently compelling.”

Mr. Crawley cited a list of long-term projects the newspaper has mounted, including an investigative series on the British Columbia real estate market explosion, and a series on Canadian veteran mortalities that involved a reporter scouring obituaries across the country for more than a year because of government resistance to providing information about veteran deaths.

TheRebel.media co-founder Brian Lilley, a former Sun News Network TV host, told the committee he opposed public funding for the CBC and that there’s “no reason on God’s green earth” that CBC should have expanded its digital sphere to include a music streaming channel that competes directly with private-sector radio states and commercial online sources of music.

Asked by Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) what the CBC should do with its $1-billion annual budget from Parliament, Mr. Lilley, who battled against the government subsidy for years while with Sun News, said: “I won’t flog that dead horse. I’ll just say stick to your knitting.”

In its first budget following the 2015 federal election, the new Liberal government increased CBC spending by $150 million, directed specifically to the broadcaster’s online programs and growth.

Mr. Lilley told the committee how he and conservative political figure Ezra Levant have beat the odds by creating a successful website in TheRebel.media, launched about two years ago. That came with no government funding, he noted.

“People laughed at us,” Mr. Lilley said, informing the committee that the conservative-oriented news and commentary site now has 25 staff and 425,000 YouTube subscribers. “We’ve been able to grow by providing content to the audience.”

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