Succession planning: what do we do when the great Canadian newspapers die off?

Posted on November 09, 2015, 1:58 am
9 mins

PHOTOS: Never mind the world. Who will save Canadian democracy now? With apologies to Superman. Below: Joseph Howe in his prime, and with his ottoman; the author, holding forth while explaining something about the Edmonton Journal; Journal columnist Paula Simons.

Yesterday’s claim by Frank Magazine that Postmedia Network Canada Ltd. will amalgamate its daily newspapers in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa next spring just pulled the fire alarm on the parlous state of this country’s print media.

Large numbers of Canadians were already shaking their heads at the nearly complete disconnect between Canada’s foundering commercial news industry, especially its major metropolitan and national newspapers, and the huge national audience the industry supposedly serves.

HOWEThe fact that pretty well every one of them endorsed the late Harper government, which Canadians had overwhelmingly turned against with fear and revulsion while our democracy still functioned, was greeted, quite justifiably, with disgust, contempt, incomprehension and a certain amount of wry amusement.

The Globe and Mail set the standard for idiocy with an editorial calling on Canadians to vote for the Conservatives, but opining hopefully that the then re-elected Cons should get rid of Stephen Harper. Well, the Tory knives are out for Mr. Harper now, but only because we Canadians had the good sense to ignore the Globe’s tortured reasoning.

These newspapers have reporters in every community, wondering Canadians observed, asking themselves: How could they be so out of touch? That’s a very good question.

Nowadays, Canadian daily newspapers have far fewer reporters than you might imagine. Postmedia, the country’s dominant chain, has half the employees it had only five years ago. Major metropolitan newspapers have become adept at keeping up a busy looking front when the newsroom behind the electronically locked front door is virtually empty, and the editors who used to enforce accuracy and grammar have gone away to centralized offices in other provinces, or even other countries.

Anyway, the brainiacs in Postmedia’s head office in particular aren’t paying much attention to those few newsroom employees who remain. Indeed, its only because of brave journalists like the Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons Tweeting out what happened that we even know the orders to write pro-Conservative editorials were came down from Postmedia’s head office in Toronto.

Newspaper owners, as they say, can endorse anyone they want – they’re their papers after all. Freedom of the press for those who own one has always been an operating principle of our democracy, useful for proprietors in a day when a modern printing press cost the equivalent of $20 million or more in 2015 dollars, which did tend to keep the amateurs out, and there were no alternatives to print.

CLIMENHAGADWell, those days are gone and its tough times all ’round for all media companies, but nowhere more so than at Postmedia, which nevertheless dominates the Canadian newspaper scene, especially here in Western Canada, in extremely unhealthy ways.

If it were only editorials endorsing political parties, it wouldn’t matter so much. It’s hard to say if editorial endorsements influence voters very much anyway in an era when people whom we know and respect (or not) in our own communities seldom own the local media. Why would we listen to some corporate bureaucrat from Toronto? (This rule apparently applies even when you live in Toronto!)

For the past 20 years, particularly at Postmedia and Sun Media, which since its acquisition in last year has been part of Postmedia anyway, writing the news has become an increasingly ideological exercise, and the ideology in question has been the market fundamentalist extremism with which Canadians have been demonstrating their disillusionment at the polls. This is the real story, by the way, not the paranoid delusion of the truly loony right, which fantasizes that media is dominated by liberals, which has never been true, and has never been less true than it is right now.

As former newspaper magnate Conrad Black openly admitted in his National Post column last month, it was “to help reunite the Conservatives and promote an alternative to what had almost been one-party Liberal rule for a century” that he founded the Post in 1999. (We were served cake in the pressroom of the Calgary Herald that night to celebrate the establishment of Mr. Black’s ideological project. The cake wasn’t bad. The Post was a cancer that would afflict the newspapers now owned by Postmedia.)

The trouble is that the Post now owns the soul of Postmedia, to the point where the latest version of the Edmonton Journal contains precious little locally produced copy and page after page of sections drawn directly, and overtly, from the National Post.

SimonsAlas, here in Edmonton at least, there is no market for the Post’s drivel, including Mr. Black’s windy columns. Before its copy was shoved into the pages of the Journal, the Post is reliably reported to have had only about 700 subscribers in the Edmonton area!

Part of the problem, I believe, is that Postmedia’s owners keep cannibalizing its once excellent parts – the Journal was an outstanding newspaper in its day, serious about its role as the regional paper of record – to keep the ideological project Mr. Black founded afloat.

But that is not all. As Britain’s Guardian newspaper pointed out in an excellent Nov. 1 story on the state of the Canadian newspaper business, all the major papers are now operating at a loss, and Postmedia, which “achieved its market dominance in step with the rise of Harper’s Conservatives,” is debt-ridden and being sucked dry by the foreign vampire capitalists who took over after the previous corporate owner went bankrupt.

The Guardian quotes Carleton University journalism professor Dwayne Winseck, who observed of the U.S.-based owners: “I don’t think they care much about the economic viability of these newspapers over the long run. They’re just riding this thing down and milking what they can out of it until the papers disappear, except for maybe a handful.”

We could shrug and say they have sealed their own fate through bad management and by ignoring the market they serve, which would certainly be true.

The trouble is, our democracy still needs good journalism of the sort that can only be provided by major enterprises, not lonely bloggers churning out copy in dark corners of the Internet. (As amusing as some of their copy can be.)

So we Canadians need to do some serious “succession planning” to determine who or what will do the vital job done by our once-great newspapers – because you can be assured Postmedia and its ilk will not.

“I conjure you,” said Joseph Howe, Nova Scotia’s great journalistic voice at his seditious libel trial in 1835, “to leave an unshackled press as a legacy to your children. You remember the press in your hours of conviviality and mirth – oh! do not desert it in this its day of trial.”

This is its day of trial. Time for us to do some conjuring too, methinks.

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18 Comments to: Succession planning: what do we do when the great Canadian newspapers die off?

  1. Eric Cameron

    November 9th, 2015

    Have you ever considered the possibility of engaging somebody to proofread your articles before you post them. Not cit o censor, just to minimize the number of grammatical errors and punctuation problems.

    • Jim Clarke

      November 9th, 2015

      Oh, now. David’s not perfect, but pretty good, and he writes nearly every day. I’m a bit is a nitpicker myself, but have learned to let errors go unless they actually threaten the foundations of civilization.

      (It would be beneath me to ask what “Not cit o censor” means, wouldn’t it? Or whether, perhaps, that first period should be a question mark?)

    • Jim Clarke

      November 9th, 2015

      And furthermore … what does seem to me to strike at the foundations of civilization, or at least English, is the misuse of words rather than mere typos. Too often in the newspapers I read (the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star), words are chosen apparently because they sound right and impressive to the writers, while they in fact mean something else — or used to. We’ve lost alternative and parameter and exponential and maybe literally that way, but the carnage (the internecine decimation, maybe?) is not over yet.

      If newspapers could afford editors to fix those things and those writers, we’d be in better shape. Thanks for this article, David.

      [Proofreading before posting … Yep, looks OK. Fire away!]

    • Linda Marshall

      November 9th, 2015

      (cough) pot, kettle (cough)

    • David Climenhaga

      November 9th, 2015

      Actually, this string raises a serious question. I am responsible for typos and errors of the ordinary sort from time to to time, as we all are. As has been noted in this space, I am grateful to those readers who point them out to me and when they do so I correct them as quickly as possible … if they are truly typos or errors. Referring to the School of Public Policy as the Skool of Public Policy and to family as fambly, of course, are usages that are intended to be ironic. It’s my blog and I’ll be as ironic as I like whenever I feel like it.

      Grammar and usage, however, especially in our English language, is not science, and there is plenty of room for intelligent disagreement. Mr. Clarke is quite right that some words are simply frequently misused by journalists, and no doubt we have all done this on occasion too. “Vowed” for “said,” for example, “refuted” for “argued,” are examples common in journalism of simply using the wrong word. Others are not so clear: Many dictionaries now define “civilian” to mean “not a member of the military or police,” despite the fact most police are civilians. This crosses my line, but apparently not the Toronto Star’s. Moreover, words do change meaning in English. “Presently” has moved over the centuries from “now” to “in a little while” and back to “now.” Who is right? It’s not clear, but civilization as we know it is almost certainly safe regardless. A little resistance may be useful, and certainly understandable, but in the end the cause is usually lost.

      And, by the way, I reserve the right to start a sentence with “and” or “but,” on the authority of H.W. Fowler, no less.

      If Mr. Cameron has a specific concern in this post with which he wishes to take issue, I would encourage him to bring it to my attention.


      • Adam

        November 10th, 2015

        Fowler is a vastly better guide than Strunk and White, but sadly Strunk and White have successfully imposed their idiocy on North America.

    • anonymous

      November 9th, 2015

      @Eric Cameron

      I find Mr. Climenhaga’s spelling and grammar to be of high quality. Ironic uses of words like ‘fambly’ and ‘skool’ should be celebrated, not denounced, in this bland world of blandness.

  2. Sam Gunsch

    November 9th, 2015

    Related/implicated phenomena:

    Tech is eating media


    Last resort some day: Publicly funded print journalism?

    Will never happen, of course, so long as market-fundamentalist view of society/government’s role dominates, as illustrated by the steady stream of RW commentary about the need to shut down public funding for CBC, our radio/TV public broadcaster.

  3. Sam Gunsch

    November 9th, 2015

    FWIW… Some 2009 research about impacts of public funding

    excerpt: • Government newspaper subsidies are alive and well, and have been for a long time — many since the 1970s. They help keep afloat struggling newspapers and create a diversity of opinion. In some cases, they are even sponsoring innovation online. They exist in Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

    • Research fairly consistently shows that public television, simply put, makes for better quality news.
    • As a corollary, public service television, at least in Denmark, Finland, the UK, and the US, makes people better informed and encourages higher levels of news consumption.
    • The most trusted public broadcasters are those that are perceived as closest to the public, and most distant from the government and advertisers.
    • While some countries play around with appropriations, many of these are for multi-year periods, creating some insulation from political pressure. And other countries, like the UK, Japan, and the Netherlands, rely primarily on license fees.
    • Independent buffers between governments and the broadcasters help keep the government out of the content.
    • Public broadcasters are all over the board when it comes to Internet transitions. Some are trying to figure out how to raise the money to make things more innovative, while others, like the BBC, are pioneers.
    • Government newspaper subsidies are alive and well, and have been for a long time — many since the 1970s. They help keep afloat struggling newspapers and create a diversity of opinion. In some cases, they are even sponsoring innovation online. They exist in Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.
    • Public broadcasters, even in Europe, are facing pressure from commercial broadcasting — and hedge between trying to fulfill public service missions and compete by appealing to large audiences.
    • It could be a lot worse.

  4. Sam Gunsch

    November 9th, 2015

    A couple thoughtful essays about publicly funded journalism:

    The Truth — So Long As It’s Profitable

    Ezra Klein October 4, 2007

    Journalism trends prove that profit-seeking and truth-telling don’t really mix. Is publicly supported media the answer?

    “I have always been firmly persuaded,” wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “that our newspapers cannot be edited in the interests of the general public, from the counting room.” Increasingly, the slow decline of American media is proving him right. As the Internet deprives newspapers of the monopolistic business models of yesteryear and the cable channels construct a realm of perfect competition in which mild consumer preferences — say, for the channel with a bright American flag in the corner rather than the one without — can be expressed with a click of a remote, the newsroom’s traditional buffers against triviality and hollow sensationalism are showing themselves to be deeply inadequate.


    and this:

    excerpt: Thankfully, society has developed models for funding things we deem important but don’t entirely trust to the private market. We have public universities and public centers for disease research and public firefighting departments and a public military and public roads. Why should news be different?

  5. Lars

    November 9th, 2015

    David, seeing as you’re holding forth on the newspaper business here, and it’s an area of expertise for you anyway, would you mind answering a rather simple-minded question about it?

    What’s the difference between a newspaper publisher and a newspaper owner?

    • David Climenhaga

      November 10th, 2015

      Sometimes nothing; sometimes a lot. A newspaper owner can be an individual, group of individuals or corporate entity that owns a newspaper. A publisher can also be the owner or, more often nowadays, a senior executive hired to run a single paper or group of papers. Chief Executive Officer would mean roughly the same thing, or maybe managing director where there’s tight corporate control. The editor-in-chief is the executive in charge of the department where things get written, whereas the publisher’s writ (as it were) extends beyond to other aspects of the business.

      • Lars

        November 10th, 2015

        I think I see now. Thanks, David.

  6. Northern Loon

    November 9th, 2015

    I used to seek out and consume ‘news’ in all its forms. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s I made sure to watch at least 2 TV news programs a day; I read at least one broadsheet daily; I read many weekly and monthly magazines on a regular basis. Today, well not so much of the ‘commercial’ news, but as much time seeking out news from the old inter-web.

    However, I find my appetite for news drawn from the web is diminishing. Why – because so much news has become contaminated by partisan interests, or boring sameness – just as had occurred with traditional news sources. Science, politics, health and healthcare etc. is dominating by competing interests where it is difficult to determine what is based on ‘real’ information and what is based on some corporations bottom line.

    As a result I find myself drawn to blogs such as this, some very few sources that do not seem to be dominated by a corporations bottom line and somewhat perversely to entertainment sources such as 22 minutes, The Daily Show, (how I miss the Colbert Report) and other similar shows as they often appear to have more fact checking than any conventional news source. I also look into some unconventional sources such as Al Jazeera as they seem to be able to provide a more reliable perspective on world affairs.

    I now find myself to be a perpetual sceptic (not a bad place be in) who seldom places down a thin dime to purchase news, but of course I do ‘pay’ through relentless stealth advertising. I would love for a news source where facts were regularly checked, where opinions of alternate thinkers was reported where the major source of income was from subscription, or at least where conflict of interest was freely included. I guess one is never too old to dream.

  7. indus56

    November 9th, 2015

    “Newspaper owners, as they say, can endorse anyone they want – they’re their papers after all. Freedom of the press for those who own one has always been an operating principle of our democracy, useful for proprietors in a day when a modern printing press cost the equivalent of $20 million or more in 2015 dollars…”

    Wish I could find more to agree with here. There seems in this statement no consciousness of the immense structural power that this confers upon the oligarchy. Much as the the radio frequency spectrum could be treated as a commons, so should we treat the bandwidth of our society. Ownership and control should be local, widely distributed, committed to and legally bound by certain undertakings aimed at social outcomes.

    Never, perhaps, has a particular civilization trafficked in a quality of thought and information so greatly inferior to that available to it–in economics, foreign affairs and science in particular.

    A pox on their whorish houses. What I would like to see explored would be the full withdrawal of corporate tax deductions for advertising. The billions of savings to the public coffers could be recycled into a diverse menu of new and old media paid for by subscriptions awarded to all citizens equally.


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