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Shakeup? Lobby firms launch new publications to compete in a previously comfortable niche under the dome

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At least two new lobbying firms now active in Alberta's capital have introduced legislative newsletters designed, in theory, to highlight their owners' analytical capabilities and lobbying potential.

But whether by accident or design, the publications recently launched by Impact Consulting and Alberta Counsel take direct aim at a profitable and little-known niche business long associated with the fringes of Alberta's government: the publication of subscription-only newsletters about the opaque goings-on under the dome of the provincial Legislature.

Who knew that the chaos wrought by new communications technology, the related slow-motion collapse of traditional media, and the unexpected rise of a social democratic government in supposedly ultra-conservative Alberta would combine to shake up this cozy and rather old-fashioned corner of the news business?

For years, publications like journalist and former political insider Paul McLoughlin's Alberta Scan and author and veteran political reporter Mark Lisac's Insight into Government, later sold to former Calgary Herald columnist Ric Dolphin, were about all there was to give corporations a hint to what was going on behind the obvious headlines within the dark recesses of the province's Tory-dominated government.

Alberta's major print and broadcast news operations -- especially the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and major national broadcasters -- dominated daily coverage from the press gallery. But, practitioners of press release journalism, they mainly just reprinted what the Tory government wanted Alberta voters to know.

The newsletters, meanwhile, provided nitty-gritty detail helpful to deep-pocketed corporations that wanted to understand what was happening in the murky insider-dominated world of Tory Edmonton and its tiny coterie of connected lobbyists, provided at a price that was chump change for corporate big shots but a little steep for the rest of us.

Now it seems as if mainstream media are teetering on the brink, combining newsrooms and watching their best journalists race for the exits. Toronto-based Postmedia -- owner not just of the Herald and Journal but nowadays of the two largest Alberta cities' tabloid Sun newspapers as well -- has just posted second-quarter losses of more than a quarter billion dollars. Even the company’s U.S.-based hedge-fund owners appear to be edging toward the doors. Journalistic wags are starting to refer laughingly to the company as Toastmedia.

Surely it can't be that long before the corporation that dominated Alberta media for generations finally flatlines! 

Meanwhile, the arrival of an NDP government under the dome shone a light on the weird way lobbying was done in this province -- with the Tory insiders who used to haunt the dimly lit Legislative rotunda seemingly confused that the lights have been turned on, and rattled by an apparent shortage of connected Alberta New Democrats interested in helping them figure out how to fix their business model.

Onto this chaotic stage, enter Impact and Alberta Counsel, with a smattering of names listed on their websites that are known in NDP circles, like former NDP communications director Brookes Merritt at the former and Pascal Ryffel and Heather MacKenzie at the latter.

Don't be fooled, though, the movers and shakers at both firms seem to have connections to conservative circles. Elan MacDonald at Impact was a former senior political adviser to PC premier Ed Stelmach. Shayne Saskiw at Alberta Counsel was well known as a Wildrose MLA once touted a potential leader of the Opposition party.

Impact's Beyond the Headlines and Alberta Counsel's News are both slick and colourful publications.

The former seemingly takes aim at Alberta Scan's analytical style, although without much information about who is actually writing up the analysis. MacDonald's name is the only one on the publication, as publisher.

The latter appears to target Insight's more news-oriented presentation, with coverage provided by senior editor Alexandra Zabjek, late of the Edmonton Journal, and feature writer Samantha Power, well known to readers of alternative online media in Western Canada such as The Tyee.

Beyond the Headlines promises "weekly analysis and perspective on Alberta's government, politics and current affairs."

The News calls itself "an original source of political news and commentary (that) will provide a fresh look at legislation, policy, committee debates, the civil service, along with party updates and events."

It's not immediately clear if these two new publications are expected to earn a profit on their own for their proprietors, or merely act as loss leaders for customers of the two firms' lobbying departments and a come-on to potential clients.

Count on it, though, they're bound to shake things up for the emailed PDFs that currently occupy this niche. Moreover, they are likely a sign of more disruption to come, including similar publications pushed by similar lobbying firms, advocacy groups and general rabble-rousers.

This has the potential to upset the applecart for the folks who used to have this business to themselves. Well, you know what they say ... Get used to it! Because everything changes again tomorrow!

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

Photo: Hiroki Nakamura/flickr

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

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