Even if they’ve never heard the term, folks who live in major Canadian cities are all familiar with the concept of the “freesheet” — free newspapers handed out in the central part of town or aboard public transportation.

Here in Edmonton, we’ve got Metro, with its cheerful green banner, and 24 Hours, in a nice hopeful shade of orange. Truth be told, there’s not enough news between the two of them to keep a hungry reader with no iPad entertained through a full breakfast! But hey, the price is right!

Canadians may grab these things because they’re too polite to say no to the poor guy paid a pittance to hand them out. However, that hardly explains the recent success of such publications, which, thin though they may be, print 44 million editions daily throughout the world.

Or, they may take them because they figure, “Why pay for something you can get for free?” And, truth be told, their product may not be all that different from the local daily anyway. Indeed, in the case of 24 Hours, many stories are virtually identical — no surprise, seeing as the same overworked journos who put out the Edmonton Sun and will soon also be television reporters for the nascent Sun TV must knock-off the little freesheet in their spare moments each day.

So if this is what many Canadian newspaper readers think, the publishers of many local paid dailies are at least partly to blame. As their papers have gotten thinner, more dependent on out-of-town news-service copy and shrinking local reporting staffs, readers are entitled to wonder, “What’s the difference?”

Still, there are some things you still get even with a lousy paid daily, and one of them is the right to reply to something you disagree with. As the Alberta Press Council says, “It is the duty of newspapers to allow a fair opportunity for reply when reasonably called for. Individuals and organizations should be given a fair and reasonable opportunity to reply to a personal attack or criticism.” Even the Sun’s letters policy, little potshots and all, is better than nothing.

So, consider Metro Edmonton, part of a hugely successful Luxembourg-based, Swedish-owned international chain, which publishes no letters from readers. Metro doesn’t state its reasons, but they’re not hard to figure out. For one thing, handling letters is a labour intensive activity, so the policy saves money. For another, Metro’s formula is presumably designed to offend no one, the better to sell advertisements — the way all Metro papers make their money.

But what happens when Metro prints something that offends someone — perhaps because someone wasn’t paying attention, more likely because discourse in our troubled democracy has grown so debased that overworked editors don’t even recognize the potential to offend when they see it?

Recently a noxious little anti-union screed appeared in the pages of Metro Edmonton — and presumably other Metros too — written by someone described as an employment lawyer who nevertheless didn’t appear to differentiate between a firing and a layoff.

The first happens when an employee does something justifying dismissal; the second when economic circumstances or business decisions result in the elimination of positions or work. Unions energetically defend even the worst workplace offenders not merely because they believe in due process, but because in all Canadian jurisdictions they are almost always required by law to do so.

The author’s complaint seemed to be that unions are often good at their job of representing members, which must annoy the employers who pay for his services when he’s not writing columns. As an example, he cites a case of a federal employee supposedly allowed to keep his job after being accused of searching for porn on an office computer.

Now, full disclosure here, I work for a union and I asked Metro for an opportunity to respond to this piece, which I believe was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of labour law, misinterpreted facts and provided readers with incomplete information on which to make a fair judgment.

Alas, the response I received from Charlotte Empey, Metro’s national editor-in-chief, was that if anyone was offended, all that was available to them was an e-form for brief comments online. The view of Metro — which like the Sun is not a member of the toothless though well-meaning Press Council — seems to be that since a column expresses the columnist’s opinion, whatever the columnist says is OK.

Sorry, but that dog won’t hunt. A point-by-point rebuttal of this piece belongs in the pages of Metro, to be handed out to that paper’s readers wherever the offending matter was distributed.

Doesn’t sound like that’s going to happen, but it’s something to think about the next time someone stuffs a free newspaper into your hands.

You’re not getting much … in more than one way.

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga’s column in the 10 edition of See Magazine, a weekly publication in Edmonton, Alberta. It also appears on his blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...