Missing Mars Lander

About 178 million kilometres from us yesterday, give or take, Europe’s Schiaparelli spacecraft went missing and is presumed to have come to a bad end somewhere on the Martian surface.

The lander’s parachute failed to properly deploy, as the military-scientific-industrial complex loves to say; its retro-rockets turned themselves off too soon. The probability is said to be a small new crater on the Red Planet.

“The European Space Agency has not yet conceded that the lander crashed but the mood is not positive,” the BBC reported with delightful understatement.

Back here on the corner of Earth’s surface known as Canada, also yesterday, Postmedia Canada Network Corp. appears to be experiencing a fate not dissimilar to the final moments of the Schiaparelli lander we have just been speculating on.

Postmedia is rapidly descending toward the surface. Its parachute seems not to have deployed quite properly. Will the retro-rockets slow the hurtling object before nothing is left but a crater?

Judging from Postmedia Network’s news release on its fourth-quarter financial results yesterday, the giant Canadian media corporation’s managers have not yet conceded that their craft cannot possibly land safely. But, reading between the lines, the mood is not positive.

In both cases, the disasters are the result of the nexus of hubris and technology.

Postmedia Network is the owner of the largest newspaper chain in English Canada. It is the descendant of Canada’s once-mighty Southam Inc., publisher of such quality newspapers as the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. Hollinger Inc. and CanWest Global Communications Corp. had a hand in it along the way to the present state of affairs.

Postmedia also owns the National Post, founded in 1998 by former newspaper mogul Conrad Black, apparently in part to push the Canadian media to the political right. If that was the plan, it worked spectacularly. But the cost of maintaining the vanity publication has dragged sound publications like the Herald and the Journal toward the planetary surface.

In its fourth-quarter financial results posted yesterday, Postmedia reported losses of $99.1 million, 84 per cent more than the Toronto-based company’s loss of $54.1 million in the same quarter last year.

You don’t need a calculator to know that if Postmedia keeps losing money at this quarter’s rate, it’ll soon be burning through $400 million a year. And that, my friends, is not sustainable, as they like to say in Postmedia’s regular bloviations on governments in general and the Alberta NDP in particular.

I’ll just quote the key paragraph from the Postmedia press release: “Revenue for the quarter was $198.7 million as compared to $230.2 million in the prior year, a decrease of $31.6 million (13.7%). The revenue decline was primarily due to decreases in print advertising revenue of $26.4 million (21.3%) and print circulation revenue of $5.6 million (8.0%). Digital revenue increased by 0.8% in the quarter.” (Emphasis added.)

Again, it doesn’t take an MBA to see where this is going. Revenues crashing, losses piling up, principal business dried up and blown away in the wind and the big technological hope for the future, digital advertising? … barely on life support.

Then there is the matter of what the Toronto Star — another once-great Canadian newspaper with financial troubles of its own — has termed Postmedia’s “looming debt bomb.” (Toronto Star editors of old would have deleted that phrase, by the way, on the grounds such a metaphorical device wouldn’t loom).

The explanation of the debt bomb, though, is easy enough: Years of mismanagement and bad business decisions, plus huge bonuses for the top executives responsible for bringing the company low.

But Postmedia managers — like the ESA’s hopeful technicians — say they have a plan. Despite constant layoffs, 800 of them this year, Postmedia has kept about 4,000 employees since buying Sun Media’s English-language newspapers last year. They say they’ll now get rid of some more, saving another 20 per cent of salary costs.

If that was numbers of employees, it would mean another 800 down the chute. It may be a few less, though, because they’re bound to cut older, more experienced journalists — the kind you need a few of to run a decent newspaper. So maybe it’ll only be 700 that go over the side.

Regardless, they’re cutting pretty close to the point where there won’t be anything left to cut, at least if the idea is still to publish news.

Oh, they also have some “acquisition synergies” in mind. We’ve actually seen some of these, in the form of combining the newsrooms of the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, as well as the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun. It appears the Suns’ deplorable corporate culture has emerged triumphant in both places and nothing about that should encourage readers about the future of print journalism in English Canada.

Despite having been transformed into a highly ideological market fundamentalist propaganda system over the past 20 years, I suspect Postmedia’s managers have another survival plan not mentioned in yesterday’s news release — government bailouts. Certainly other newspaper organizations are openly lobbying Canadian governments for just such relief.

Now wouldn’t that be ironic, you and me, the victims of the neoliberal era for which the National Post and its increasingly clone-like regional frankenpapers have constantly agitated being asked to bail out these business failures with our taxes!

If bailouts don’t come — and maybe we can enlist the assistance of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a favourite Postmedia source, to make sure they don’t! — the company is going to have to come up with some more synergies if it’s going to keep slouching along much longer.

Well, that’s what senior corporate managers are paid to think big thoughts about, and why their parachutes are typically in better working order than the Schiaparelli Mars lander’s.

Here’s a small wager: One of these ideas will involve killing off local papers and just operating a small bureau in each province that puts out a local edition of the National Post.

Labour lawyer William Johnson to lead Alberta Labour Relations Board

The appointment of William Johnson, Queen’s Counsel, as chair of the Alberta Labour Relations Board was announced yesterday by Labour Minister Christina Gray.

Johnson, a well-known and respected Calgary labour lawyer since the early 1980s, has since the start of this year been vice-chair of the of the board.

He replaces Mark Asbell, also a Queens’s Counsel., who has been a member of the board for more than 20 years and chair for 17 years. The news release did not say why Asbell is departing, only that he will return to private practice.

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

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David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...