Friday, October 12, 2018

Newspaper chains demand ransom from Ottawa

Canada’s largest newspaper chains seem locked in a bizarre standoff with the federal government, demanding financial assistance while killing off community newspapers as if they were hostages. A major round of executions came almost a year ago, when Postmedia Network and Torstar Corp. traded 41 mostly Ontario titles and closed 37 of them. The occasion of “Newspaper Week” saw Torstar chair John Honderich author a column on Tuesday that resembled nothing less than a ransom note. 
Under the headline “Where is Ottawa’s help for Canada’s newspapers?,” it listed 25 defunct dailies and 112 closed community newspapers for a total of 137 titles that have ceased publication in the past decade. Honderich wanted to know where the $50 million was that Ottawa had promised in February’s budget to assist Canadian journalism over the next five years. “One or two exploratory talks have been held but there has yet to be even a request for proposals,” he groused. “Maybe next year, we are told.” Of course, the promised $50 million is a far cry from the more than $1 billion the industry had requested last year in a bailout bid that Ottawa couldn’t quash fast enough.
On closer inspection, however, Honderich’s list of dead papers doesn’t pass the laugh test. It includes more than a dozen titles Torstar killed off after its swap last year with Postmedia, and almost two dozen more it sent back the other way to be euthanized. Executives of both companies swore up and down they had no idea the other planned to close the newspapers they traded, but their denials were never convincing. The Competition Bureau soon came knocking with search warrants issued as part of its investigation on rare criminal charges of conspiracy. Documents submitted to the Ontario Superior Court to obtain the search warrants detailed a written agreement dubbed “Project Lebron” after the basketball star. In them, Postmedia and Torstar reportedly agreed not to compete for years in the markets they vacated and even on the almost 300 workers who would get the axe. The companies and their executives are now facing the possibility of charges that could bring $25 million in fines and 14 years in prison.
Two dozen more community newspapers on Honderich’s list were B.C. titles closed or merged this decade by Black Press or Glacier Media. The provincial chains provided the template for Postmedia and Torstar by trading almost three dozen titles between them from 2010-14, then closing most of them to eliminate local competition. Of the 13 paid circulation dailies lost in Canada from 2010-16, nine were killed by Glacier or Black Press (no relation to Conrad). Their dealings somehow avoided the Competition Bureau’s notice, perhaps due to them being out of mind way out on the west coast. This no doubt emboldened Postmedia and Torstar, who may still be able to use the regulatory inaction as a precedent to allow their collusive closures.
Honderich’s list of defunct dailies also includes a number of freebies that once littered our porches and transit stations unbidden, such as the Peace Arch Daily News in White Rock, which briefly circulated 3,700 copies from Tuesdays to Fridays before retreating to twice weekly publication in 2014. Nine were commuter dailies which proliferated a dozen years ago under the successful model pioneered worldwide by Swedish company Metro International. Metro editions sprang up from coast to coast in Canada in partnership with Torstar, which recently rebranded the survivors StarMetro. Quebecor responded by launching 24 Hours papers in numerous cities and now-defunct Canwest countered with its short-lived but hilariously titled Dose. The model has been in retreat everywhere since the bursting of the print advertising bubble a decade ago left room for only one in each market. Last year Torstar traded Metro Ottawa and Metro Winnipeg to Postmedia and got back 24 Hours Toronto and 24 Hours Vancouver, all of which were closed. Yet according to Honderich we are supposed to lament their passing, along with those of 24 Hours Calgary, 24 Hours Edmonton, Metro London, Metro Regina and Metro Saskatoon, as some great loss to democracy. Puh-lease.

Honderich’s count of 112 closed community newspapers at least comes with names, unlike others who have come up with inflated totals by using the questionable research method of “crowdsourcing.” It almost seems like an industry campaign to railroad Ottawa into a bailout. But for those who have studied Canada’s newspaper industry intently, a bad odor emerges. “This is such a distortion of facts that it isn’t funny,” blogged Ontario author Alexandra Kitty in response to Honderich’s list. A former community newspaper journalist and author of the brilliant new book When Journalism Was a Thing, which is a compendium of corporate crimes against the craft, Kitty knows from personal experience that most of the defunct small-town newspapers hardly churned out quality journalism.
The stories in those local newspapers were happy, happy soft news junk. It is not as if local papers were in the habit of uncovering real items. They covered photo ops of local corrupt politicians. They never bothered pointing out the open affairs they were having and how they rewarded their mistresses with patronage appointments, for instance.
But what Honderich and others who inflate the magnitude of Canada’s newspaper shakeout ignore is that not only do they close, but in the normal course of events they start up as well. The annual count kept scrupulously by the Canadian Community Newspaper Association shows there were only 10 fewer titles last year than there were in 2011, before which it counted only its member titles. The total fluctuated considerably in between, however, as community newspapers tend to come and go. 
                 Community newspapers in Canada


Titles
Circulation
(weekly)
2017
1,032
18,802,329
2016
1,060
19,454,115
2015
1,083
20,973,352
2014
1,040
20,577,994
2013
1,019
19,612,930
2012
1,029
19,736,168
2011
1,042
19,312,842
At least, they tend to come and go unless you allow corporate collusion and non-compete agreements. Then they only go away, along with competition.

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