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The last insignificant link between the Calgary Herald and downtown Calgary will fall soon ... but so what?

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Author and blogger Brian Brennan

It seems that the Calgary Herald is the only media organization some corporate executives will talk to when it comes to the news stories they'd rather not talk about.

This convoluted fact goes a long way to explaining why, even though the last link between that newspaper and downtown Calgary is about to fall, it makes little difference because the ties that mattered were severed ages ago. And not just in Calgary.

The other day, a blogger working for one of those online news aggregators -- no doubt for mere pennies -- plaintively recounted a problem she had encountered while researching a story about extreme corporate executive pay packages.

She wrote: "In the case of Niko Resources Ltd., whose CEO Edward Sampson pocketed $16.4 million in 2010 … an operator at the head offices explained that the company only entertains media requests from The Calgary Herald." (Emphasis added.)

Well, you can hardly blame Niko Resources or Sampson, now, can you? I'm sure they'd be just as happy not talking at all about how much the boss took away last year. But since it sounds as if the Herald's mandate now includes not reporting the sorts of things oilpatch CEOs don't want reported, how convenient for them!

Alas, we've come a long way from 1930, when the Herald and four other Alberta newspapers were honoured with a special Pulitzer Prize for what my friend Brian Brennan called in a recent post on his blog "its spirited crusade against the Social Credit government's attempt to gag the press."

In the post in question, Brennan lamented the fact that the 100-year-old Herald Building at 7th Avenue and 2nd Street in downtown Calgary, where both he and I worked together in the early 1970s, is about to be torn down to be replaced by a 50-storey office tower.

"A lot of good journalism was done in that building," Brennan wrote -- a good deal of which, I should add, was done by him. "A columnist for the competing Albertan used to dub our paper 'The Old Grey Lady of 7th Avenue,' which he intended as an insult but which we accepted as a compliment because of the obvious comparison with The New York Times. … We earned that trust by dint of hard work and independent reporting. We didn't pander to politicians and we didn't pander to advertisers."

"I always felt we were standing on the shoulders of distinguished predecessors," Brennan went on, "who believed their fight to preserve the freedom of the press was a fight for democracy itself."

Well, he was right about that. That's what we thought, and we were right. Alas, that fight is over now. It's been lost -- and not just at the Herald.

Indeed, it's a little unfair for me to slam the Herald for the demise of journalism that is more than perfunctory because that is a trend throughout the media business -- and it has been ever since newspapers like the Herald started, metaphorically and literally, to leave their cities behind.

They did it by abandoning their downtown offices for suburban plants where they could more easily distribute their products during rush hours, and they did it by abandoning their local ownership to out-of-town media barons would saw towns like Calgary and Edmonton as profitable cash generators but looked down their noses at local journalists and the local issues that mattered to them.

It was business decisions like the moves to suburban plants like the one the Herald opened in 1981 near Deerfoot Trail and Memorial Drive that contributed long before the Internet to the unhappy, and increasingly unprofitable, situation in which most of Canada's urban dailies find themselves today.

The Herald's new building -- known as "The Bunker" during my tenure there -- was a long enough and expensive enough cab ride from downtown, where the political and corporate decisions still got made, that it wasn't long before corporate bean-counters in Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, or wherever they happened to be located that week, were discouraging such fripperies as actually going to an event to report on it. (The notable exceptions, of course, were hockey games.)

As Brennan put it better than me -- as is so often the case -- the Herald Building "was connected to the downtown's beating heart in a way that's never possible when you live in the suburbs. City Hall, the police station, the courts, the library, the school board and the corporate head offices were all within easy walking distance. We did most of our interviews in person, not over the phone. If a freight train had derailed near the Palliser Hotel, the Herald's reporters and photographers would have gotten to the scene before the fire trucks."

The irony of course, is that the technology and business practices that mandated the move to the Bunker on Calgary's east side were soon irrelevant -- the Herald switched to morning publication, partly eliminating the need for a suburban press location, and communications technology not long thereafter meant the press and the newsroom hardly needed to be at the same address.

As Brennan wondered back in 1981, why not leave just the editorial offices downtown? That's what the Edmonton Journal did, and perhaps that's why the Journal is arguably a marginally better newspaper than the Herald today.

Similarly foolish decisions were being made all over Canada at about the same time -- another disadvantage of chain ownership.

Here in Ottawa, for example, where I am momentarily residing, the press and offices of the Citizen were moved in the same general time period to a location so far in the city's west end that it's practically on the Prairies -- remote from all the things on Brennan's list, and Parliament and the Supreme Court as well!

Canadian newspapers everywhere also switched from afternoon to morning publication at about the same time as the Herald -- mainly to solve the traffic problem of moving papers from the downtown core at rush hour. This was also the problem the move to the suburbs was also supposed to fix. Morning publication guaranteed the news in their pages was almost a full day behind the electronic news cycle -- another shot in the foot.

And finally, there was chain ownership -- soon concentrated into the hands of people like Conrad Black and Izzy Asper. This resulted in an editorial creep toward the right, as well as the bleeding of editorial opinion into the news columns.

For all the constant justification by newspaper bosses that this reflected their readers' biases -- and their claims that what resulted was "fair, balanced and accurate" -- it is said here readers didn't like it. When the Internet came along, it was the opportunity many newspaper readers were waiting for to get out of info-dodge and find their news somewhere more agreeable to their centrist sensibilities.

Newspaper profits began to fade. Newspaper executives, whose minds and hearts had long ago left their cities and the people who lived in them, couldn't figure out how to pick up the pieces.

Postmedia News, which owns the Calgary Herald, continues to talk about "transformation and revenue development" but like most of the rest of us remains unable to figure out how to generate sufficient profits from the Internet. According to a report in the Globe and Mail earlier this week, Postmedia still relies on print advertising, a dying medium, for 63 per cent of its revenue.

As for providing the kind of genuinely fair, balanced and accurate news coverage readers crave, it's become instead the favoured medium of executives who want only to massage the news, or keep things out of it.

So yesterday the Globe reported on how Postmedia is begging Ottawa to let it sell its Canadian newspapers to foreigners. There was a day that would have seemed like an outrage. Today, it hardly matters.

As Brennan rightly noted, the Herald Building itself is of no particular architectural significance. Still, he wishes Calgary wouldn't destroy the landmark.

On this one, though, I have to say think he's guilty of sentimentality. Let it go. The last real links between the Calgary Herald and downtown Calgary fell a long time ago and nothing is likely to restore them.

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

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