Edmonton's pyramidal City Hall on a winter’s night (Photo: Mack Male/Flickr).

With the implication there’s no alternative solution, Edmonton’s city administration has asked City Council’s Executive Committee to ratify a $3-million sole-source contract with Postmedia tomorrow to provide print and digital advertising to the city for another three years.

After all, says the administration’s report, we’ve been putting ads in the Edmonton Journal for 20 years, so let’s just keep on doing business with Postmedia, which nowadays owns that once-respectable newspaper.

The Edmonton Journal’s downtown headquarters, nowadays largely empty (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

But this lazy proposal not only misses the potential to do good, it could actually use Edmonton taxpayers’ money to do harm. It needs to be reconsidered.

The Executive Committee should at least kick it back to the administration to answer some salient questions before making a decision.

Now the Municipal Government Act requires that the public must be informed through advertising of public hearings, meetings, bylaws and the like. Edmonton, like most cities, also advertises many other things, including recruitment for city boards, safety campaigns, construction notices and so on. 

So, says the administration’s awkwardly worded recommendation to the committee: “Given that Postmedia 1) is a daily print outlet, 2) has wide reach in Edmonton and also offers digital advertising options and 3) allows the City to use it as a method to meet its obligations under the Municipal Government Act for public notifications. (Sic) For those reasons this is deemed as a sole-source (no alternative competitor can fulfill City’s requirement). A future (2024+) reassessment will be undertaken to evaluate if it is feasible to pursue a competitive procurement process.”

The administration, in other words, is asking the committee to endorse the easiest way for it to sign off on this requirement without really thinking about what’s good for Edmonton, or whether it’s that good a deal.  

The promise of a future reassessment, sometime after 2024, sounds like an effort to pre-empt any more objections to the sole-source deal with Postmedia like those raised three years ago when this last came before the committee.

Back in 2018, Taproot Publishing founder Mack Male pleaded with the committee to invest some of that money in outlets “that are building a brighter future for journalism right here in Edmonton.”

Taproot Publishing founder Mack Male (Photo: Mack Male).

He noted that changes in the Municipal Government Act no longer required advertisements to be placed in newspapers, increasingly moribund institutions with a shrinking readership. 

And he argued, accurately, that, “given the declining print reach of the Edmonton Journal, and the City of Edmonton’s own substantial digital reach, this spending is effectively a subsidy to a single outlet.” (Emphasis added.)

Mr. Male was too polite to note the increasingly negative role played by Postmedia, now owned by U.S. venture capital funders with close ties to the Republican Party, in Canadian political discourse. 

How bad is Postmedia? In 2016, business journalist David Olive, never one to mince words, called the corporation “a cancer on Canadian journalism.

“The malignancy is Postmedia Network Canada Corp., a foreign-controlled, debt-burdened contrivance flirting with insolvency that nonetheless is relied upon by about 21 million Canadian readers,” the Toronto Star writer said. (Postmedia’s readership is reported to be about half that now.) 

Postmedia has certainly downsized the Journal’s journalistic operations, sold off its own press, emphasized right-wing opinion over unbiased news reporting, and rolled the Journal’s operations in with the Edmonton Sun’s. 

Journalist David Olive (Photo: Bernard Weil, Toronto Star).

The resulting mash-up, it is fair to say, reflects the Sun’s tabloid sensibility more than the Journal’s tradition as a newspaper of record – a pattern repeated at Postmedia newspapers throughout English-speaking Canada. 

Acting on the orders of head office, the Journal has also been all-aboard with intentional blurring of real news and paid “commercial content” – essentially paid advertisements disguised to look and sound like news.

It hired a lobbyist connected with the United Conservative Party in 2019 to try to get a contract writing propaganda for the notorious Alberta Energy War Room. Despite claims there is a clear demarcation between the newsroom and advertorial writers, many readers felt Postmedia copy reflected that commercial aspiration. 

Postmedia has a long-established symbiotic relationship with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the secretive right-wing propaganda organization that provides an endless stream of free articles to Postmedia attacking public services, organized labour, fair wages, and Liberal or NDP governments wherever they are elected.  

Postmedia newspapers also run opinion pieces produced by other groups on the right and left, from the Fraser Institute to the Alberta Federation of Labour. But the Postmedia-CTF relationship is unusual in its intensity.

And Postmedia and Torstar, another large Toronto-based newspaper chain, cut a deal in 2019 to simultaneously shut down 36 of the 41 newspapers they had agreed to swap in a deal to carve up parts of Canada into largely competition-free zones. Torstar’s free Star Metro newspapers in Edmonton and Calgary were shut down in that deal, to the detriment of journalism in this province. 

So, it’s said here, City Council’s Executive Committee should just say no to this and instruct its administration to come up with a more balanced program that will not just subsidize one company but will as a matter of policy encourage other journalistic enterprises with a variety of viewpoints in the Edmonton region. 

Failing that, though, it should at least require the administration to answer some important questions about this deal. 

How much, for example, will signing this sole-source deal with Postmedia actually save Edmonton taxpayers? It shouldn’t be too hard to estimate the actual savings made by the 2018 deal. 

If they’re not all that much, the administration at least should be told to negotiate something better. 

And what is the Edmonton Journal’s actual reach, measured in a meaningful way? 

Newspapers nowadays love “readership” estimates – loosey-goosey calculations of how many people might pick up a single copy of a newspaper sold to a single customer in some kind of imagined world. 

But the Journal should have to produce meaningful numbers: For example, how many subscribers does it actually have? To how many homes is it actually delivered? How many copies of its daily editions are actually sold, not given away?

And the administration should produce some comparators for alternative media. There are better deals out there, and better ways to spend $3 million.

I’ll give the last word to Mr. Male, three years ago. “I ask you to consider not approving this agreement,” he said. “The status quo it represents neither reaches a substantial number of Edmontonians nor uses taxpayer dollars effectively or locally.”

He was right. With a more progressive council, Edmonton has an opportunity to do it right this time. 

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14 Comments

  1. Old habits die hard, I guess. By this, I not only mean doing what has been done in the past with advertising, but the approach the City Administration takes to dealing with, or perhaps I should say leading around City Council. Yes, a council needs to be guided and assisted by the administration, but in this case it seems they are being led to the decision someone wants like a new bunch of brand new sheep.

    That approach may have worked well with the last administration who seemed very comfortable generally deferring to the administration. However, this is a new group of councillors, some who may be more independent minded, particularly having the concerns of voters so fresh in their minds.

    It seems a bit too cute and clever to put this forward while new councillors are trying to figure things out and to wrap it with the twin bows of we have always done it this way and there is no alternative.

    I suppose with this sort of thinking city advertising would still be on the back of horse buggies. I suggest councillors, if they don’t already have an idea, take a poll of where their constituents get their news from these days. Yes, some still do read Postmedia, but there are a number of new emerging sources. Some of them are even more local. So, I believe it is time to get more creative here, perhaps something that the city administration is not that good at.

  2. So…

    The City of Edmonton is asked to renew a contract for a media outlet that has actively worked against Edmonton’s interests and is allied with interests that intend to harm the City as much as possible. It’s a lazy recommendation to the point of being utterly brain-dead.

    The claim that the Edmonton Journal is a local daily is not only completely off the mark, it can and should be called an outright lie. The Journal is, in fact, nothing more than a UCP mouthpiece, a propaganda wing on the level of the C´EC War Room. Anything that allows even a faint hope that David Staples and Lorne Gunter will continue to be employed must be stopped and crushed.

    For this, heads must roll.

  3. Good morning Dave

    Two small typos for you consideration:

    “…should at least be asked to kick it back…”
    “…the Journal should be asked to produce meaningful numbers…”

    As usual, you have flagged a bite-sized feature of a huge and important topic – our failing and flailing traditional news media. So many problems and so many interesting potential solutions. I always enjoy morning coffee more with your articles!

    cheers
    DB

  4. Were it not for the fact that the Edmonton Journal does provide some local coverage that we value and does employ people locally, we might have convinced ourselves to cancel our subscription and not look at this yellow rag at all. The Journal is often no better than the Sun, sometimes worse in my view, because of the pretense, largely based on reflexive memory, that it is a balanced news organization. Sadly, the days when the Journal provided neutral, balanced news are long past. Although the Journal does still have a (much diminished) pool of talented writers, it gives too much of a platform to execrable hacks, such as David Staples and nutbar opinion columnists, such as Danielle Smith.

    If you still want to do some old-school news consumption and read an actual physical paper in the morning, there is no other option than a Post Media rag (well there is the G&M, but that is both expensive and much diminished as well). We are showing our age by wanting to consume an actual, physical newspaper. However, the number of us that desire this experience is, quite literally, quickly dying out. That said, there are other options for advertising and city council should explore them, rather than support this monopolistic organ of right-wing propaganda, which does more harm than good to our city, province, and country.

    Post-media does still have a lot of reach, especially among the boomers, so the city should use it for some limited and strategic advertising. But, the bulk of its advertising dollars should go elsewhere.

    Thanks for the column, DC. I will likely be writing my city councilor because of it.

  5. Newspapers are (impressively) even more obsolete than televised news, both of which only continue to exist as a vector to deliver propaganda to the elderly, poorly-informed, easily persuaded, and/or epistemically delinquent. I would like to see us breaking up all of these privately owned propaganda empires and bringing back hard limits on the amount of media outlets that can be owned by one person or organization.

    If only someone could have foreseen that allowing the world’s Rupert Murdochs to profit off of pouring poison into our ears might harm society…

  6. Why do we need the Journal/Sun in Edmonton, and the Herald/Sun in Calgary, it makes no sense whatsoever as they are virtually the same papers.

  7. “…effectively a subsidy to a single outlet.”
    This $3 million would not just be a municipal subsidy, but more than likely Provincial money also goes to Post Media, and let’s not forget the $500 tax federal tax credit for “CRA approved” media outlet subscription charges.
    Post Media publications make up the bulk of this list.
    The power of lobbyists in this country has eroded the very notion of democracy.

  8. Another demonstration of how the civil service has been captured by business. Same thing happened to sabotage Notley’s NDP administration.

  9. The Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald used to have credibility. That changed due to Ralph Klein and his right hand man, Rod Love, chastising any columnist who criticized Ralph Klein’s very pricey shenanigans, and other misdeeds he and the Alberta PCs did. Ralph Klein and Rod Love set the spark for Postmedia supporting the conservatives. The Sun has been more conservative supporting for longer.Take a good gander at what is printed in these papers, especially in The Sun. Any very pricey shenanigans that are done by the conservatives, never make front page headlines anymore. This has been going on for 10 plus years. The Alberta PCs Redwater upgrader blunder, which has a very hefty pricetag of at least $35 billion, was never on the front page of the Edmonton and Calgary Sun, prior to the 2015 provincial election in Alberta. They cleverly put it in, a few pages back, in a very narrow article. The Sun editorial staff were telling Albertans to support the Alberta PCs. Prior to the 2012 provincial election in Alberta, The Sun was endorsing Danielle Smith and the Wildrose. Prior to the 2019 federal election, The Sun supported Andrew Scheer for PM. Newspapers aren’t supposed to have a political leaning, but Postmedia clearly does. In The Sun, 99% of letters that get written to the editor, bash the Liberals and Rachel Notley and the NDP, and they support the UCP and CPC. Furthermore, Postmedia has to have some connections as to the UCP getting into power, in 2019. The head honcho of the UCP was featured in full covered ads, prior to the provincial election that happened, at that time. Rosa Ambrose endorsed him. Columnists in Postmedia newspapers, like Lorne Gunter, has a wife who is employed by the UCP, for who knows what. Nothing suspect there either, not at all. Who are they kidding?

    1. Anonymous: When Ralph Klein was premier, deals were worked out with the Calgary Herald to, in effect, receive news releases a day early, and thereby get the scoop, on the condition they didn’t seek “reaction” to the government policy, as was traditionally considered best practice in journalism. This was encouraged by Ken King, the publisher brought over from Sun Media, still a competing corporation in those days. Up until King, this kind of thing had been strongly resisted by publishers. This was the beginning of the end of quality print journalism in Alberta, in my opinion. I know whereof I speak. I was night city editor of the Herald at the time and watched it done. I recall on one occasion assigning reaction to a story on which such a deal had been made, and refusing to remove it when. Another more compliant assistant city editor volunteered for the job of removing it. Points to anyone who can guess what that person does now for a living. DJC

      1. DAVID J CLIMENHAGA: I remember columnists, like Mark Lisac. He was one with integrity, and he didn’t dance around issues of Alberta PC bad behaviour, cronyism and very pricey shenanigans. He was a great columnist for the Edmonton Journal. The Alberta PCs had something to do with why he isn’t a columnist there any longer. He got under the skin of politicians, like Ralph Klein. I also think the UCP isn’t going to support columnists speaking out against their very bad job of handling different things, economy, Covid-19, employment, the very costly things they leave Albertans, or even Ottawa to pay for, and so on. Pretty bad.

  10. I am really glad you brought this up David; City of Edmonton advertising in the Edmonton Journal has been a bit of a sore spot for me for many years, especially after I saw page after page of ads notifying residents of expropriations required by LRT construction. Ads notifying people of permits being issued by the City also seems like a waste of money. The items in an ad are so randomly ordered it is clear municipal officials didn’t really think people are reading them anyway. Besides, the City also mails out notices to people living close to the affected property.

    I believe the whole issue is a perfect case study for what a Ministry of Red Tape Reduction should do. To me, Step 1 of cleaning up unnecessary red tape should be identifying why a rule was written in the first place (Newspaper ad was the most effective way to advise residents of an upcoming change). Step 2 should be to either argue the rule was never necessary, or to identify why the situation has changed the rule is no longer necessary.

    ‘No longer necessary is exactly what has happened with newspaper ads on 2 scores. First, as you put forward very clearly, the newspaper no longer reaches enough people to adequately inform the city’s residents. (Once upon a time the Journal posted their publication numbers in the paper daily, but that has long since stopped. I did find a publication number on the ‘advertise with us’ page of their website a few years ago, in which said they printed 100,000 papers for all of Northern Alberta. I looked this morning and even that has disappeared; they just have a form to ‘contact us’ with regards to buying advertising.)

    The second thing that renders the newspaper redundant is the advent of automatic email. Rather than use a newspaper advertisement, municipalities could set up a page where residents could register an email address to be notified of the things that are normally reported in a newspaper ad. This would come with an additional advantage of allowing residents to set up filters where they would only be advised of things that are of interest to them.

    I would have sent the suggestion to Grant Hunter if I thought there was any chance it would be acted on, but I really can’t see any government removing the advertising requirement from the Municipal Government Act. There simply is no upside to it for a provincial government. To do so would, of course, produce a flurry of bad press from the affected newspapers, and since any government savings that would result from revising the Act would go to the municipal government, a provincial government doesn’t even get the tax saving brownie points. Sadly, even municipal politicians don’t dare complain about their obligation, again because of the bad press it would produce from the newspapers.

    1. Bob: No point writing to Grant Hunter. He has been determined to be too dull, in every sense of the word, for even the ministry or red tape reduction. He has been replaced in that role by Tanya Fir. We’d have to sneak into the St. Albert Gazette to find out how many copies of the Journal they actually print these days, but it will certainly be less than 100,000. Less than half that on a weekday, I would guess, and weekends haven’t really been what they used to be since the death of TV guides. DJC

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