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ToastMedia News announces cuts, dropped editions: Welcome to the world of zombie newspapers

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PostMedia News CEO Paul Godfrey

Welcome to the world of zombie newspapers, the era of the living journalistic dead.

Last week it was the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the venerable Louisiana newspaper with the best name in English-language journalism, which announced it would only publish three days a week and send most of its staff packing.

Yesterday it was PostMedia News, the tattered remnant of Canada's once proud Southam family newspaper chain, also known for a spell as CanWest Media. At newsroom meetings and in a flurry of internal communications, PostMedia bosses told frightened sluggos at the former quality dailies they'll be slashing staff, centralizing most editing and many writing jobs and dumping whole days' editions at the 10 moribund "properties" owned by the flagging chain.

Alberta's two PostMedia daily newspapers, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, along with the Ottawa Citizen, will drop their Sunday editions as well as shedding even more staff.

So, call them what you will, these papers are post media all right. PostMedia is becoming so post media it ought to be rechristened ToastMedia News!

"The only way we can be competitive is to create a new company that leverages its history and moves aggressively into the future," PostMedia CEO Paul Godfrey told employees in a widely circulated memorandum in the incomprehensible Orwellian language of modern biz-speak. (Translation: "We'll be throwing as many of you as we can over the side to keep this sucker afloat for another year or two.")

The reason? PostMedia’s advertising revenues -- the once-unstoppable flow of cash that sustained the Canadian newspaper business through whole generations of bad management -- are going down, down, down like the flaming punch line of a Johnny Cash song.

As the Globe and Mail's Steve Ladurantaye cleverly explained it -- after feeding media watchers through the day with an excellent string of Tweets -- "for every $7 publishers are losing in their print editions, a recent study suggests they are only earning $1 of digital revenue." He added, "even that previously stable digital revenue has been in freefall through the first half of the year."

Now the same brainiacs who responded to the rise of broadcast news a generation ago with a universal switch to morning publication, leaving the entire news cycle a full 24 hours behind the newspaper industry's then-rising competitors, are going to confront the 24-hour-a-day Internet by such stratagems as:

-    Slashing already stretched journalistic staff -- firing another 20 journalists from each of the papers' already shrunken newsrooms

-    Transferring all local copy-editing and many writing jobs to a single non-union plant in the bustling metropolis of Hamilton, Oct.

-    Putting the papers' uninspired and easily duplicated stories behind "metered payrolls" -- childishly easy-to-defeat technology that allows readers to view a few stories before demanding money from them for the privilege

-    Dropping Sunday and holiday editions

With the exception of the decision to cut editions most readers are ignoring anyway, each of these gambits will drive away more profit than they create.

Cutting staff eliminates metropolitan dailies' chief competitive advantage, the ability to cover their communities like no other news organization. Moreover, it will further degrade the quality of their already weak and derivative stories. Local coverage, and the local angle on national stories that was once the Southam chain's great strength, will be lost forever.

Paywalls, meanwhile, drive away online readers -- who are demonstrably unwilling to part with money for picayune tripe that can be found elsewhere with ease. Moreover, paywalls will chase away their few remaining advertisers, who won't pay to place ads where readers can't see them.

What's more, if PostMedia uses the same paywall technology as the New York Times, soon to be adopted by the Globe and Mail as well, determined readers can defeat it with ease by simply deleting their Web browsers' cookies. Ironically, if PostMedia makes its paywalls more effective, they will drive away even more advertisers. This spiral goes nowhere.

Transferring copy-editing jobs to Hamilton will increase the number of bonehead mistakes that irritate local readers. Sending writing jobs there will make local papers more generic and less useful. Gone are the days of local features, local arts and restaurant reviews, local sports stories -- and gone too will be the readers who were prepared to pay to read them.

When all that doesn't work -- or makes things worse -- one supposes PostMedia's post-management will emulate the Times-Picayune again and move to publishing on paper only three days a week, or two, or none … and, bingo, you're the Seattle Post-Intelligencer!

Alas, PostMedia will never do one thing that could reinvigorate its flaccid bottom line -- scuttle the National Post, the ideological vanity publication that has long played a leading role in the chain's financial and spiritual woes.

The Post was Conrad Black's prideful flagship, created in 1998 as a personal hobbyhorse for the millionaire publisher and international neo-Con blowhard. To its founder's credit, one supposes, it more or less succeeded in its goal of remaking Canadian journalism through the relentless application of right-wing snake oil and outright propaganda. The other Southam-CanWest-PostMedia papers soon followed suit.

But the cost was high. From Day One the Post has been more of a plague ship, hoovering financial resources and local scoops from other chain papers. When we were all served cake in the pressroom of the Calgary Herald the night the first edition appeared, only a few of us suspected there was hemlock in the sweet vanilla icing!

By sucking the life out of the chain's other papers at a time when the Internet was about to give readers more options than ever before, the Post sowed many of the seeds of PostMedia's current troubles. It is ironic, of course, that the Post's raison d’etre was to spread the false gospel of the omnipotent free market when it turned out there was only a limited market for such drivel.

Now things are too far gone for there to be much hope for increasingly irrelevant businesses like PostMedia News. Today’s news was just another painful image from the slow-motion demise of the zombified newspaper industry that is unfolding before our eyes.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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