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

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Joseph Howe

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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.

The 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 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 orders to write pro-Conservative editorials 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.

Well, 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 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.

Alas, here in Edmonton at least, there is no market for the Post's drivel, including 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 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.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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