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Guest Series: A Platform for My Enemy
Marc Edge - author, academic, erstwhile journalist - wants the National Post to die. Or to be "allowed to die." He has his reasons. I'm letting him have his say.
Marc isn’t really my enemy. He’s an old friend, and our career paths in the journalism racket have been crossing from the days when went to the same high school.
We’ve worked for the same bosses. We’ve both detoured in and out of gigs teaching at universities. We once drank too much gin and tonic at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, over billiards, and yes it’s true: Back in the day when Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling were lounging around at Raffles, a tiger was cornered and shot under that billiards table.
But it’s complicated. I write for the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen, which is owned by Postmedia, otherwise known as the Postmedia Network Canada Corp, which owns dozens of Canadian newsrooms, about four out of every ten newspapers remaining in the country. And Marc wants Postmedia to die.
Marc is the media writer for Canadian Dimension magazine, which you could call the “left-wing” answer to Ezra Levant’s Rebel News. Or something. I am fond of neither and neither are fond of me and Marc is notably not fond of Postmedia. Here’s his latest, just-published book: The Postmedia Effect: How Vulture Capitalism is Wrecking Our News.
But, like I said, it’s complicated. Marc doesn’t really want mainstream journalism of the Postmedia variety to die. His claim is that as a news media organization, Postmedia is already among the living dead in a zombie mass-media landscape, surviving only on government media bailouts that are just prolonging everybody’s agony.
I’m making room here for a three-part series Marc has written especially for The Real Story - The News: Past Tense, Present Tense, Future Tense - starting today.
Earlier this year, Postmedia shuttered a dozen community newspapers in Alberta and the company is currently working through staff cuts aiming to chop 11 percent of payroll costs. Here’s an opinion piece Marc wrote for the Globe and Mail last week: Postmedia is in a crash dive – Ottawa should let it decline. Marc says he’d have preferred the headline writers to have gone with Ottawa should let it die.
Without telling tales out of school I am reliably advised by senior editorial people I trust at Postmedia: Marc’s raggedy revenue calculations notwithstanding, there’s impressive compression in the old engine’s cylinders yet, and an open road ahead. Bumpy, but open. There’s much to Marc’s argument about Postmedia’s pauperized editorial condition that I think is wrong, and perhaps contradicted most graphically last week with the Bell Media massacre, the shedding of 1300 jobs. But Marc is no dope.
Bell Media is a company with operating profits that exceeded $10 billion last year, a 42 percent profit margin. By “wrong” I mean Bell is hardly eking by on federal subsidies with sunset clauses that are just around the corner, and yet it’s run by vulture capitalists all the same. Marc himself does a terrific job of boxing Bell’s ears here, where he savages Bell’s bosses for having “no concept of the social responsibility they owe Canadians.”
Bell says it simply can no longer afford to continue operating without consolidating CTV National News, BNN, CP24, and its local TV and radio stations. Go figure. Several Bell media properties are being dumped altogether. Among the better-known CTV journalists laid off in last week’s bloodbath: National News chief Paul Workman, Ottawa bureau chief Joyce Napier, Los Angeles bureau chief Tom Walters, London news bureau correspondent Daniele Hamamdjian, and senior political correspondent Glen McGregor.
The culling is everywhere, except, of course, at the CBC. Some seasoned journalists are striking out for new territory without getting pushed, like the Global News’ dynamo Sam Cooper. My podcast conversation with Sam over the weekend is here, in case anyone here missed it. I’m living in both worlds. I’m sticking with the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen and curating The Real Story simultaneously.
These historic upheavals in the new media’s human terrain have been underway for a while now and the tectonic shuddering was a major reason I launched The Real Story last year. Paradoxically, it was the Night of The Lifestyle Editors at Macleans magazine, when I was put up against the wall along with all the senior staff, columnists and reporters, that ended up allowing me the time and space to put The Real Story in motion.
What we’re witnessing in real time is the bleeding out of conventional journalism in Canada, along with the emptying out of legacy newsrooms across the country. If you want the Real Story’s journalism to persist, you know what to do.
Whatever you think of Marc’s standpoint, this much is unimpeachable: journalism can’t be done for free. So subscribe to the Real Story if you don’t already, and take up a paid subscription if you want the backstory and the best inside stories in the beats I cover.
I’m going to get out of the way now and let Marc tell a story to kick this three-part series into gear.
Part One: The News, Past Tense
by Marc Edge
Back in the late 1960s when Terry and I delivered Vancouver Sun editions of 100 pages and more across South Burnaby six days a week (the sabbath was needed to recover from schlepping the 120-page Saturday Sun, which also had dozens of extra subscribers), the news business was subsidized by black gold. Not by oil, but by the six-point agate advertising that made up the classified ad section. Sometimes, such as on Saturdays, it was several sections.
The money those ads brought in paid for some of the best writers in Canada. Back then the Sun boasted must-read columnists such as Allan Fotheringham, Jack Wasserman, Denny Boyd, and Jim Taylor. Foth in particular delighted in poking The Establishment, which earned a regular flow of lawsuit threats. They were inevitably answered by the four most important words in journalism: Sue and be damned.
The underdog Province, which I joined in the mid-1970s while Terry toiled first at the suburban Columbian before moving to the Sun, did its best to compete in a crowded marketplace fuelled by mass market advertising. It was dominated in radio by CKNW and CJOR, which boasted opinionated talk show hosts like Jack Webster and Pat Burns.
The Mighty 98, as ‘NW was known, may have had the most comprehensive newscast in Canada under veteran news director Warren Barker, and was known for its “major” news at 6 p.m. It was owned by Frank Griffiths and his Western International Communications, which also owned powerhouse BCTV. It expanded into a provincial superstation and became known under news director Cameron Bell for its frequent investigative exposés.
The relationship between the Sun and Province was complex, as they had formed a partnership called Pacific Press in 1957 that was ruled an illegal monopoly but allowed to stand as an “economic necessity.” I know that I competed as hard as I could in that situation, and I’m sure Terry did, too. Then the Thomson chain sold the Sun to Southam, which already owned the Province, and the competition wasn’t quite as fierce. I remember having my picture taken for an ad campaign in the 1980s that was nixed when Province sales threatened to pass those of the Sun, which charged a higher ad rate.
Southam spent lavishly on news, unlike penny-pinching Thomson, which was known for issuing pencils individually and requiring reporters to use scrap paper instead of providing them with notebooks. Southam ran its own news service with bureaus around the word, along with a generous fellowship program for mid-career journalists. Then the money men moved in. I could see them coming down the road. There was a large, tubby man named Conrad Black and his squirrely sidekick, David Radler.
I got out of the business as fast as I could, taking a buyout in 1993. Terry departed the Sun not long after. Black and Radler had a formula they applied at newspapers they acquired. “I visit the office of each prospective property at night and count the desks,” explained Radler, who became known as the “human chain saw” for his cost-cutting prowess. “If the place has, say 42 desks, I know I can put that paper out with 30 people, and that means a dozen people will be leaving the payroll.”
Black claimed he exposed “one of the great myths of the industry: that journalists are essential to producing a newspaper” when he broke a strike at the Daily Telegraph in London by publishing with only management personnel. He bought the failing Tely for a bargain price in 1985 and soon cut almost three quarters of its staff. From a loss of £8.9 million in 1986, it recorded a profit of £41.5 million in 1989.
Black and Radler pocketed hundreds of millions by dismantling the former Southam newspapers they acquired in a hostile 1996 takeover, then flipping them just in time at the millennium. Marshall McLuhan had seen decades earlier what would happen to newspapers if they ever lost their grip on agate information. “The classified ads (and stock-market quotations) are the bedrock of the press,” noted McLuhan in his 1964 book Understanding Media. “Should an alternative source of easy access to such diverse daily information be found, the press will fold.”
The Thomsons also saw what was coming. They sold their almost 400 titles at the millennium, including iconic UK dailies like the Times and one of the largest chains in the U.S., except for their hometown Globe and Mail. They invested the proceeds in online databases and in 2008 scooped up the historic Reuters news service to form Thomson Reuters.
Meanwhile the money men left the news business in ruins. Black and Radler fobbed the Southam dailies off on the Asper family of Winnipeg, who added them to the Global Television network they already owned. This was part of the “convergence” fad, as multi-media ownership was supposed to be the way of the future but crashed in flames within a decade. Even the Thomsons briefly got in on the act, marrying their Globe and Mail to Bell Canada’s CTV network first as Bell Globemedia, then as CTVglobemedia, before calling a halt to the farce in 2010.
The Southam dailies were scooped up out of bankruptcy that year by even more rapacious money men, U.S. hedge funds who cared nothing about journalism or Canada and only about money. They added the Sun Media tabloid chain in 2014 and, despite promising not to, merged the newsrooms of their duplicate dailies in four of Canada’s largest cities, including Vancouver, where the original partners in Pacific Press had promised to always keep them separate.
The last laugh, however, is going to the digital platforms which now vacuum up most of the advertising dollars that used to go to mainstream media.
Google and Facebook are laughing all the way to the bank while the money men have been reduced to begging Ottawa for bailout after bailout. Their latest scheme would see the platforms subsidize them under Bill C-18, which has Google and Facebook threatening to quit carrying links to Canadian news stories instead.
Meanwhile our news is now a thin shell of what it once was, filled with political partisanship and even advertising disguised as news. . .
Stay tuned for Part Two in the series, The News: Present Tense.