PHOTOS: A typical daily newspaper press, once a common sight in small cities and larger towns throughout North America. This one was photographed through a window Tuesday in Brigadoon, Alberta, so it should be good as is for another 10 years. Oh, wait, I made it out of town this afternoon … it must’ve been in Lethbridge! Below: The late Canadian newspaper magnate Ken Thomson and Calgary-based Teamsters Local 987 Secretary-Treasurer David Froelich.

There are appropriate ways for governments to deal with epochal disruptive technological change, such as that wrought by the digital revolution, but they probably don’t involve big tax-supported subsidies to obsolete and badly run industries.

A good example of such a poor use of tax revenues would be the brainstorm thought up by a coalition of newspaper publishers in Quebec who want the government of that province to establish a subsidy program “to help them shift to digital.”

kenthomsonExcuse me? Nobody had more warning of the extent and nature of the coming digital revolution than the Canadian newspaper industry, and it has turned the wrong direction at every step along the way to its current disastrous destination.

I speak, as many readers of this blog know, as a veteran of 30 years or so in the activity known as print journalism. I can’t think of a worse use for our tax dollars than subsidizing an industry that has proven time and again it doesn’t have a clue in a carload about how to deal with the challenges it faces.

And what about those of us, on our own or as part of co-ops or corporations, who have managed the shift to digital quite nicely, thank you very much? The newspaper industry now wants our taxes to help them compete with us?

I’m just guessing here, but I’d be willing to bet they’re also not all that interested in giving up the appalling human resources practices that drove many of us into unemployment, and then creative new careers, in the first place. The industry seems to conduct itself in much the same way in 2016 as it did in 1999, at any rate.

Indeed, since digitization has been an excuse in many industries – transportation, for example – to disempower workers and bust their unions, I imagine the newspaper industry sees the same excuses as a side benefit of the late-in-the-game digitization strategies they want us to pay for.

Regardless, you can be very sure that if newspaper publishers in Quebec are demanding this sort of measure to give them a temporary respite from the consequences of their own incompetence, and incompetence it is, the same people here in Alberta are bound to ask both the provincial and federal governments for the same thing.

Indeed, the Trudeau Government has already made moves to do just that. Operating on the questionable assumption newspapers still play a role in a healthy democracy, Ottawa has paid a think tank run by a former Globe and Mail journalist $130,000 to come up with ideas to keep newspapers from closing and, as the Toronto Star put it, deal with the “looming debt bomb” facing Postmedia Canada Network Corp., Canada’s largest owner of newspapers.

The reason for that Postmedia debt bomb? Nothing more complicated than years of mismanagement and imprudent business decisions. Oh, and huge bonuses for the top executives who are responsible for this slow-motion train wreck.

Don’t forget that not all newspaper owners were incapable of reading the handwriting on the wall. Starting in the mid-1990s, the late Canadian newspaper magnate Ken Thomson began selling off all of Thomson Corp.’s newspapers, which at one point had combined worldwide circulation of more than one million. In 2000, he dumped all but one of the last 54 dailies he owned – and that was the politically influential Globe and Mail. All of the corporation’s 75 remaining community papers went on the block at the same time. As the New York Times observed, “Thomson was able to move past other players who were more cautious about digital conversion.” No kidding! The brainiacs who want your tax money now were the clowns who went into debt to pay top dollar for those papers.

Then there is the matter of the drivel published by Canada’s monochromatic and universally far-right newspaper industry. These are papers that, here in Alberta, are on a holy crusade to get the Wildrose Party, preferably led by Jason Kenney, elected as the government of Alberta. If there’s a difference any more between the Postmedia Alberta Frankenpaper and, say, Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media, it’s barely visible to the naked eye.

I suppose newspaper owners will promise to deliver just a little bit more than their current formula of crime, crime, more crime and anti-NDP propaganda provided free by the shills at the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and their multitudinous market-fundamentalist imitators, but don’t count on it ever actually happening.

As Shannon Rupp of The Tyee astutely summed up ideas like this one: “I don’t believe there’s anything worth ‘saving’ in for-profit publications that run bloggers-cum-floggers, plagiarists or shills for advertisers. Or the ones that do things like un-publishing journalism that offends advertisers. Or who run free articles by self-promoters. Or that promote health-threatening products – homeopathy, for example – because an advertiser buys editorial.”

She stated: “If the public wants to read this sort of thing, let them buy a subscription.”

The Quebec coalition is demanding five years of “temporary” subsidies from Quebec’s taxpayers, plus the abolition of sales taxes on newspapers. If they got their way, the subsidies would take the form of a refundable tax credit covering 40 per cent of their production costs plus 50 per cent of their investments in digital platforms.

As for those who have already successfully invested in digital platforms – especially small independents – I very much doubt newspaper owners will be in favour of a sweet deal like this being extended to them as well.

You can also count on it that if newspaper owners anywhere get a deal like this, nothing much will change about the incompetent way they do business, except that at the end of five years they’ll ask for another “temporary” extension.

That temporary measures sometimes become permanent, of course, is not a bad thing in itself. Alert readers will recall that Canada’s income tax was introduced as a temporary wartime measure in 1917, and it has in fact worked out quite well for Canada and Canadians.

But while an income tax makes sense, a straight-up subsidy for an industry that can’t manage its own long-expected decline is not.

By the way, the Quebec publishers pointed to similar tax breaks in Scandinavia and Finland, but seem to have forgotten to mention those places have newspaper sectors representing a wide variety of points of view, not just one.

The right often criticizes government investments in industry as “picking winners and losers.” What’s being proposed in Quebec, and apparently in Ottawa too, is nothing more than picking a loser. Period.

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Edmonton ride-sharing service the first to unionize, likely in the world

Speaking of the right way and the wrong ways to respond to digitization, an interesting development in Alberta suggests digital technology need not be used to weaken and impoverish working people.

davidforelichLeastways, the city of Edmonton yesterday saw a little bit of history made with the first unionized ride-sharing service in North America, and quite possibly the world.

TappCar, an Edmonton ride-sharing service loosely modeled on Uber, has signed a collective bargaining agreement with Teamsters Local 987. The contract provides TappCar drivers and other employees/contractors health care coverage and a pension, boasted Teamsters Local 987 Secretary Treasurer David Froelich.

We’ll need to take a close look at this agreement to see how good a deal it is for TappCar’s drivers, most of whom like Uber drivers own the cars they use. Still, this suggests at least that in a modern economy digitization doesn’t have to mean a continuation of the Right’s War on Workers.

The same union local represents drivers employed by three Edmonton taxi companies.

It’s interesting to note that TappCar’s two principal founders – lawyer and former MLA Shayne Saskiw and lawyer Jonathan Westcott, both principals in the lobbying firm Alberta Counsel – have a long association with the right-wing Wildrose Party. TappCar invited the Teamsters to represent its employees.

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  1. Once upon a time (1970s) I was a newspaper reporter. I loved seeing each day’s edition rolling off the press. Crisp newsprint was a joy to handle.I worked for a small daily in Cape Breton. My favourite newspaper at the time was the Montreal Star which was the best designed paper in the country. I deserted the news business for the public relations business (going over to the dark side ha ha). Got with the Internet early on. And I have witnessed the ongoing decline of newspapers now over 40 years. I still find some of the most interesting journalism in small local newspapers (usually weeklies). I maintain a hard copy subscription to The Globe and Mail (I like a reason to open the front door every morning.) Newspapers suffered from the conflicting priorities of judicious reporting and making a profit.But I a going to miss them when they are gone.

  2. Why not try this idea: If we taxpayers give newspaper publishers subsidies to stay in business, does that not then give us real leverage with them over content? Just thinking out loud, understand?

    1. We worked together at the Calgary Herald, Jim, so based on our shared experience, how likely do you think it is that Postmedia would do anything different if handed cash from taxpayers? Personally, they would get worse, because they’d conclude they could get away with anything. Since they love the market so much, I say let the market they love take care of them in its usual loving way.

  3. All that you say about the newspaper industry Dave, which I don’t doubt, is also true of the petro-industry. The drillers and service guys, the rest of the upstream production side and their political and regulatory lap-dogs and stooges are (mostly) all ignorant, incompetent and living in a 50 year old fantasy world subsidized by taxpayers.
    I don’t doubt what you say about the newspaper biz but it’s a much bigger story. Pretty much the whole corporate set needs to be re-rationalised.

  4. When we examine the profitability of the newsprint industry today, we also need to consider the concentration of media ownership. Over the years, two Royal Commissions and a Senate Committee expressed concerns over the concentration of media ownership, the most recent being 2006. With all the expressed ills and dire warnings of media concentration, it now appears the concerns expressed by those commissions and committees have finally come to fruition.

    If the concentration of media ownership had been curtailed and the recommendations of the Royal Commissions implemented, major Canadian markets would be much better off today. Instead, we are left with all the dire predictions the Royal Commissions and the Senate Committee warned us about, simply because greedy media conglomerates failed to heed the warnings.

  5. I come from a newspaper family. In the early 80s my stepfather, who was the production manager at a Thomson-owned regional paper, who’d been a pressman and steer-typer back when there was lead everywhere, came back from a Thomson strategic planning conference and mentioned briefly that the takeaway from the conference was that in very short order people would all read newspapers on their personal computers (which they were just installing in the newsroom) or Alcatel-like kiosks, and they *needed to prepare*.

    Which makes this an odd request: They saw this coming 35 years ago and now that the train has rolled over them and left them behind, they want some help to move their stuff out of the way.

    1. I remember thinking of Thomson in the 90s, “they must be insane, getting out of a great business like that.” But, there’s no question, they saw it coming and acted appropriately. What’s astonishing is that no one else did. Hubris? That said, as another commenter about this post noted, concentration of ownership is part of the problem too. Without it, the Sun chain (which I’m assuming would nevertheless exist as a chain) would be forced to produce a better product to compete with local papers, instead of turning what’s left of Southam (later known as Hollinger, Can West and Postmedia) into a (literally) pale version of the Sun. But it’s done. Nothing is going to bring back good local print media. The entry costs are too high, as they always were.

      1. I think it is hubris. Thomson Corporate was reviled for tracking the size of the pencils and the number of pages left in the reporters notebooks at the end of the day. And then Conrad Black set the tone for the industry in Canada, and things got immensely worse. Thomson wanted to be in the information delivery business, and they still are, in an enormous way. Black wanted to be in the flamboyant influence industry, a far different thing than old Roy Thomson was interested in, and look where the industry is now: begging for handouts from the same government it reviles for picking winners and losers.

        There’s a lesson here, something about how dogmatic conservatives (as opposed to the old-school Clark/Stansfield cooperative conservatives) always seem to ruin the things they try to change. Its as true here in the US as it is in Canada, but these new-style conservatives seem to lack the strategic sense to avoid creating enemies unnecessarily.

    1. Fair enough, but the fact there exist a very few papers in Quebec with a slightly different take on structural politics, although not really on the market fundamentalist assumptions that drive all major Canadian political parties nowadays, changes nothing. All I’m conceding is that while the situation is very bad in Quebec, it’s even worse in the rest of Canada.

  6. Tell you what, we’ll save the Postmedia newspaper chain, if first we save all the left-wing newspaper chains – oh, right there are none!

    I guess Postmedia will have to beg the Koch brothers for a bailout.

  7. I think we need to remember the corporate world’s mantra:


    …(unless it’s wasted on me)

    1. I’m with you there. There should be no subsidies to allow them to cover their asses.
      Let the market determine the future of this poor replica of journalistic integrity.
      I wonder what will happen, or maybe is already happening, to the pulp and paper industry.
      I hope they are preparing for the future like Post Media did not.

  8. A revival of local journalism may recapture some honest to goodness in depth investigation of issues that is lacking in the current Post media Era. Which is rapidly becoming post ( past ) media.

  9. So, David, while I don’t entirely disagree with you on the fate of news outlets like Postmedia, you have harped on & on about the incompetent business practices and “porous paywalls” of print media trying to go online. However, I don’t recall you stating in so many words, how you think the dead tree press should have adapted to the Internet.

    One of the founding cultural principles of the Internet was that everything on it should be free, both from the perspective of censorship and from the perspective of not having to pay for any of it. So any and all attempts to monetize content on the ‘Net are targets of free Web hacktivists who develop ways around paywalls and other payment systems and then circulate their methods widely across the Internet. As a result, the whole notion of having to pay for news has become simply obsolete. Given that incontrovertible fact, how would you suggest professional journalism, as we have known it, pay for itself? Journalists have to eat too.

    Sure, there is lots of free news online, via Twitter, Facebook, and bloggers like yourself. But that sort of news is hobbled by lack of resources for investigative work, clear and often blatant bias, and a lack of ethical constraints like “always have at least two sources”. We are seeing the slow demise of an entire industry, and I for one don’t see a viable replacement for it coming along.

    1. It’s a long and complicated story, Jerry, too long for a mere answer to a blog post comment. The newspaper industry’s leaders made errors of omission and commission. They unthinkingly gave away their valuable content from the start, creating an expectation that their analysis, as well as their basic news, would be free. The time to have created an effective paywall would have been Day 1, not after two decades of giving content away. Many of us in the trenches knew this, and spoke up, and were ignored by incompetent managers who thought, for all intents and purposes, this Internet thing was a fad. They (willfully?) refused to understand how the Internet worked, or online advertising. To this day, they equate the amount of real estate devoted to an ad with the value of same. Hence the irritating and never-read flyer pop-ups that appear on their websites. Google and Facebook got the formula right. Incompetent newspaper management still doesn’t recognize this. At every step of the way, the things they have cut to save money were the things their customers valued about their product – quality writing, serious research, a variety of opinions, accurate spelling. They cut their ties to their own communities … Postmedia’s Calgary and Edmonton dailies are mostly edited in Hamilton, Ont. They slammed the door shut on anything but far-right, market-fundamentalist ranting. They attacked their own best resource, their people, relentlessly eliminating positions, cutting pay, slashing or eliminating pensions, outsourcing essential work to don’t-give-a-f**k contractors and making all jobs insecure. Who in their right mind would go into journalism as a career today? And, the greatest irony of all, they fought bitterly and successfully against any attempt to limit concentration of ownership, so that even still-barely-profitable publications like the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal are being wrecked by the debt bomb their corporate managers armed and dropped. Local ownership may have been the only thing that could have saved them. Too late now. They could have chosen a different road that would, at the least, have managed their journey to irrelevance. They did not. I have no sympathy for them. As for replacing them, that is a topic for another day. DJC

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