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Blame the National Post when quality dailies in Alberta wheeze their last

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The inexorable decline of the Canadian newspaper business continues, well, inexorably, as the new owners of the delightfully named Postmedia News set about trimming the deadwood from their regional newspapers by offering buyouts to aging and expensive employees.

If this effort at "rightsizing" is like those in the past -- and of course it will be -- the "deadwood" trimmed will be the most solid planks in the vessel, the ones keeping Postmedia's foundering ship barely afloat.

In other words, too many of the folks who put up their hands for the buyout will be employees with options in other media or other lines of work. The deadest wood, of course, will cling like barnacles to Postmedia's doomed hull.

It was interesting to learn in the Thomson family's Globe and Mail that while employees at the Victoria Times-Colonist, the Ottawa Citizen, the Vancouver Sun, the Vancouver Province and the Montreal Gazette were all offered generous buyouts, equally deserving toilers for the chain's Alberta newspapers simply got canned.

About 20 lost their jobs at the Edmonton Journal and another 30 or so at the Calgary Herald.

So why were employees of the two Alberta papers, among Postmedia's most profitable franchises, treated so shabbily compared to the company's other workers? It boils down, pretty obviously, to a matter of unions.

Journalists at the two Alberta papers don’t have them, and so were easy prey for the beancounters in Postmedia's head office, wherever that happens to be this week. Other departments at those papers may have unions, but they are emasculated by Alberta's unconstitutionally weak labour laws.

A decade ago, journalists at the Calgary Herald fought a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful strike to secure their legal right to be members of a union and bargain collectively with what was then Southam Inc., was later Canwest Media and is now, appropriately enough, Postmedia News.

As one of the journalists who walked that picket line for eight months only to face decertification and the need to find a new career, I must admit to mixed feelings about this situation. On one hand, it is a shame to see Postmedia sucking the blood out of good regional papers that have served their communities imperfectly but well for more than a century. On the other, considering that so many of the non-union journalists now contemplating the high jump are the very people who crossed picket lines to keep the paper publishing during its long effort to bust the union, it’s hard not to think: “Well boys, cry me a river!”

Still, it will probably be better for Alberta if the Journal and the Herald survive as viable businesses.

So it had to be considered an optimistic sign when the Canadian Journalism Project reported yesterday that the entire National Post newsroom had been offered buyouts. A reasonable interpretation might have been there was a chance, finally, that the newspaper chain’s new owners had decided to pull the plug on the whole questionable National Post project.

But this story, which seems to now have disappeared from the CJP’s website, turns out to have been overstated. Leastways, Postmedia's head-office spin-meisters were hard at work yesterday recasting the offer as a routine business tactic.

This is a pity because the National Post is the cancer on Postmedia's flagging corpus that threatens to kill good daily journalism throughout Western Canada and elsewhere too.

If Postmedia, and Canwest before it, possessed an ounce of sense, they’d have long ago killed the propaganda sheet founded in 1998 by former Florida felon Conrad Black to advance his far-right agenda at the expense of the facts, and, as it turned out, a goodly portion of the Canadian newspaper business.

The Post has been a money loser on a grand scale since its first day. According to a 2009 Globe and Mail story, no longer available on-line, it "suffered an unbroken string of losses since its inception." In just one year, 2001, it lost $60 million!

The tragedy of the Post, of course, is not that it bleeds cash. After all, for the wealthy right, quality propaganda costs big bucks. And luckily for them, gullible investors can usually be found to pay, even for a paper read by no one but the weary occupants of hotel rooms and airport lounges, who are handed their copies for nothing.

No, the tragedy is the damage wrought by the deadweight of the remarkably unmarketable pro-market Post. Combined with laws that encourage the concentration of media ownership in Canada, the Post's losses have dragged down valuable and still viable community daily dailies like the Journal and the Herald.

The CJP's bulletin this week offered a brief flash of hope the Post’s latest owners had finally seen the light. Alas, it was not to be. They are as enamoured of this rag's propaganda potential as the previous proprietors.

This can only be bad news for Canada’s few remaining newspaper employees and their dwindling supply of readers.

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

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