Edmonton City Hall on a winter's night.
Edmonton City Hall on a winter's night. Credit: Mack Male / Flickr

With the implication there’s no alternative solution, Edmonton’s city administration has asked City Council’s Executive Committee to ratify a $3-million sole-source contract with Postmedia today to provide print ad digital advertising to the city for another three years.

After all, says the administration’s report, we’ve been putting ads in the Edmonton Journal for 20 years, so let’s just keep on doing business with Postmedia, which nowadays owns that once-respectable newspaper.

But this lazy proposal not only misses the potential to do good, it could actually use Edmonton taxpayers’ money to do harm. It needs to be reconsidered.

The executive committee should at least kick it back to the administration to answer some salient questions before making a decision.

Now the Municipal Government Act requires that the public must be informed through advertising of public hearings, meetings, bylaws and the like. Edmonton, like most cities, also advertises many other things, including recruitment for city boards, safety campaigns, construction notices and so on. 

So, says the administration’s awkwardly worded recommendation to the committee:

“Given that Postmedia 1) is a daily print outlet, 2) has wide reach in Edmonton and also offers digital advertising options and 3) allows the City to use it as a method to meet its obligations under the Municipal Government Act for public notifications. (Sic) For those reasons this is deemed as a sole-source (no alternative competitor can fulfill City’s requirement). A future (2024+) reassessment will be undertaken to evaluate if it is feasible to pursue a competitive procurement process.”

The administration, in other words, is asking the committee to endorse the easiest way for it to sign off on this requirement without really thinking about what’s good for Edmonton, or whether it’s that good a deal.  

The promise of a future reassessment, sometime after 2024, sounds like an effort to pre-empt any more objections to the sole-source deal with Postmedia like those raised three years ago when this last came before the committee.

Back in 2018, Taproot Publishing founder Mack Male pleaded with the committee to invest some of that money in outlets “that are building a brighter future for journalism right here in Edmonton.”

He noted that changes in the Municipal Government Act no longer required advertisements to be placed in newspapers, increasingly moribund institutions with a shrinking readership. 

And he argued, accurately, that, “given the declining print reach of the Edmonton Journal, and the City of Edmonton’s own substantial digital reach, this spending is effectively a subsidy to a single outlet.” (Emphasis added.)

Male was too polite to note the increasingly negative role played by Postmedia, now owned by U.S. venture capital funders with close ties to the Republican Party, in Canadian political discourse. 

How bad is Postmedia? In 2016, business journalist David Olive, never one to mince words, called the corporation “a cancer on Canadian journalism.”

“The malignancy is Postmedia Network Canada Corp., a foreign-controlled, debt-burdened contrivance flirting with insolvency that nonetheless is relied upon by about 21 million Canadian readers,” the Toronto Star writer said. (Postmedia’s readership is reported to be about half that now.) 

Postmedia has certainly downsized the Journal‘s journalistic operations, sold off its own press, emphasized right-wing opinion over unbiased news reporting, and rolled the Journal’s operations in with the Edmonton Sun‘s. 

The resulting mash-up, it is fair to say, reflects the Sun‘s tabloid sensibility more than the Journal‘s tradition as a newspaper of record — a pattern repeated at Postmedia newspapers throughout English-speaking Canada. 

Acting on the orders of head office, the Journal has also been all-aboard with intentional blurring of real news and paid “commercial content” — essentially paid advertisements disguised to look and sound like news.

It hired a lobbyist connected with the United Conservative Party in 2019 to try to get a contract writing propaganda for the notorious Alberta Energy War Room. Despite claims there is a clear demarcation between the newsroom and advertorial writers, many readers felt Postmedia copy reflected that commercial aspiration. 

Postmedia has a long-established symbiotic relationship with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the secretive right-wing propaganda organization that provides an endless stream of free articles to Postmedia attacking public services, organized labour, fair wages, and Liberal or NDP governments wherever they are elected.  

Postmedia newspapers also run opinion pieces produced by other groups on the right and left, from the Fraser Institute to the Alberta Federation of Labour. But the Postmedia-CTF relationship is unusual in its intensity.

And Postmedia and Torstar, another large Toronto-based newspaper chain, cut a deal in 2019 to simultaneously shut down 36 of the 41 newspapers they had agreed to swap in a deal to carve up parts of Canada into largely competition-free zones. Torstar’s free Star Metro newspapers in Edmonton and Calgary were shut down in that deal, to the detriment of journalism in this province. 

So, it’s said here, City Council’s Executive Committee should just say no to this and instruct its administration to come up with a more balanced program that will not just subsidize one company but will as a matter of policy encourage other journalistic enterprises with a variety of viewpoints in the Edmonton region. 

Failing that, though, it should at least require the administration to answer some important questions about this deal. 

How much, for example, will signing this sole-source deal with Postmedia actually save Edmonton taxpayers? It shouldn’t be too hard to estimate the actual savings made by the 2018 deal. 

If they’re not all that much, the administration at least should be told to negotiate something better. 

And what is the Edmonton Journal‘s actual reach, measured in a meaningful way? 

Newspapers nowadays love “readership” estimates — loosey-goosey calculations of how many people might pick up a single copy of a newspaper sold to a single customer in some kind of imagined world. 

But the Journal should have to produce meaningful numbers: For example, how many subscribers does it actually have? To how many homes is it actually delivered? How many copies of its daily editions are actually sold, not given away?

And the administration should produce some comparators for alternative media. There are better deals out there, and better ways to spend $3 million.

I’ll give the last word to Male, three years ago. “I ask you to consider not approving this agreement,” he said. “The status quo it represents neither reaches a substantial number of Edmontonians nor uses taxpayer dollars effectively or locally.”

He was right.

With a more progressive council, Edmonton has an opportunity to do it right this time. 

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...