Community-ownership models offer an alternative path for the Chronicle Herald

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I skipped my last few columns out of deference for the fact that journalists and editors at the Chronicle Herald are on strike, on the expectation that things would be either settled or at least moving by my appointed return. Neither is happening. On the assumption that something will happen before things get too negative, let me suggest that the time may be ripe for some serious third-party intervention, like mediation or arbitration, to ignite the stalled forces and explore the ways forward.

Meanwhile, let's review the turbulent backdrop. The good news is that this newspaper, regardless of problems which are faced by all newspapers as the Internet swipes more and more of their revenue, is a rare "independent" -- that is, not part of a chain -- and thus far better placed than most to do what a newspaper is supposed to do in a democratic society: serve its community, and hold the powers-that-be to account.

The bad news would be if it was in the same boat as a number of other venerable titles with deep roots in Canadian history, but now mere hollow shells: Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, Regina Leader-Post, Montreal Gazette, plus some 125 or more smaller dailies and weeklies and the not-so-venerable National Post which are part of the Postmedia chain, now by all accounts slowly headed for bankruptcy, which the chain is trying to avoid by stripping journalistic assets ever more desperately.

There's a cautionary tale here which is primarily political and economic, with journalism as victim. It starts with the creation of the National Post in 1998 by media mogul Conrad Black, then head of the third-largest newspaper chain in the English-speaking world, as a mouthpiece for the new right-wing politics.

I remember it well, because Black threatened to sue this newspaper for a column I wrote saying just that -- me, six other journalists across the country and then-prime minister Jean Chrétien caught in a billionaire's dragnet meant to intimidate and snuff criticism.

Black went on to see his empire collapse and he himself landed in jail in the U.S. for his financial shenanigans.

But others picked up the slack. First CanWest Global bought the National Post to add to its own empire. Then it staggered and the whole thing was bought by Postmedia, led by Tory bigwig Paul Godfrey (who ordered all his papers to support Harper last election), with hedge fund money from New York.

Then Postmedia bought out Quebecor's Sun chain last year for over $300 million.

A few weeks ago the Toronto Star's business columnist, David Olive, created a commotion by summing it up this way: "There's a cancer on Canadian journalism. The malignancy is Postmedia Network Canada Corp., a foreign-controlled, debt burdened contrivance flirting with insolvency" that represents "a far greater concentration of news media ownership than exists in any other major economy. And a degree of foreign ownership of the free press that would not be tolerated in the U.S., France, Japan or Germany."

Now the federal government has launched another media inquiry, led by MP Hedy Fry, to look into the nefarious effects of all this concentration and why it was allowed to happen despite standing Canadian antitrust laws and restrictions on foreign ownership of cultural assets.

It will be the fourth such inquiry since 1970 -- all ignored. It covers the electronic media as well, also a playground for monopolists strip-mining local news coverage. A Senate report on the matter in 2006, the last such inquiry, slammed a "complete absence of review mechanisms to consider the public interest in news media mergers."

It accused the flaccid federal Competition Bureau of "neglect." Fry says there comes a time "when stuff is staring at you so hard that you have to do something about it. That time has come."

We shall see.

The point is that media whose main aim in life is other than journalism -- notably, profits for shareholders, politics, or information control -- deliver mainly a lousy product of little value to the constituencies they underserve. The larger chains, including ones that have sucked up most of the weeklies and turned them into the walking dead, exist mostly for these other reasons.

In the small rays of light department, some attention is being paid to newspapers owned by non-profit trusts or other forms of community ownership.

The Tampa Bay Times, owned through a local journalism school, winner of 10 Pulitzer prizes since 1964, is one of them. The Philadelphia Inquirer is another. Britain's sister papers The Guardian and Observer also. There are also smaller ones.

I can only hope that if the Dennis family, owner of this newspaper for several generations, ever decides that it has had enough of this difficult business, that it will consider this model and retain this immense historic asset in Nova Scotian hands in some such arrangement, keeping it out of the clutches of some money-grubbing conglomerate. When you're not taking orders from and sending cash to a distant head office, anything is possible.

Meanwhile, let's get this strike settled.

This column was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: faungg's photos/flickr

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