Paper Thin

Deathwatch for Alberta’s big-city newspapers

By Ian Gill

On January 19, 2016—call it Black Tuesday—Postmedia Corporation merged its Sun newsrooms with those of the Journal in Edmonton and the Herald in Calgary. That day, 35 staff in Edmonton and 25 in Calgary lost their jobs. More cuts would come. In October Postmedia announced buyouts and layoffs on the heels of another corrosive fiscal update.

Black Tuesday wasn’t just about wrenching layoffs. The newsroom mergers—a mushing of distinct journalistic formats, cultures and audiences—heralded the end of Alberta’s big-city newspapers as we had known them. When the dust settled, Edmontonians and Calgarians had to adjust to uniformity in their leading newspaper titles. The quality of the Journal, Herald and Suns, already in decline, fell precipitously.

It’s no mystery what’s behind all this: Postmedia has been slashing costs across the country. CEO Paul Godfrey said in October, “You don’t know when you’re cutting to the bone until you’ve done it. We’ve said over the last five years, three or four times, ‘God, we can’t go any further, we can’t go any further.’ And yet we always have been able to.” After he bought Sun Media promising that he would not merge newsrooms, Godfrey was paid a $400,000 bonus.

Newspapers don’t willingly reveal their newsroom staff sizes any more than Postmedia breaks out profits and losses for individual papers. But a former Herald editor responsible for “cityside” reporters—the core daily news team—recalled having about 35 reporters in the late 1980s “to cover a city of 700,000 people.” Today, half a million more people live in a city covered by far fewer reporters. “My most recent information,” the former editor said in confidence in late 2016, “is that the city-reporting complement for both the Herald and Sun is around 15 people.” These reporters, he added, “work much harder than we did, because there’s so much to cover and so few of them. They also do more, including visual journalism, social media and other chores.”

A former editor at the Journal, who also asked for anonymity, remembered having a cityside staff of about 40 in the late 1980s. Her rough count towards the end of 2016 put the Journal’s cityside roster at around 15.

This wholesale contraction of journalistic capacity is happening across the country—Postmedia’s full-time-equivalent staff has dropped by more than half, from 5,400 in 2010 to 2,500 in 2015. An estimated 10,000 journalists in all Canadian media lost their jobs between 2008 and 2013 alone. Alberta’s situation is arguably the worst.

Some might say: What sector doesn’t suffer from workforce, market or technological disruptions? The Internet has changed the business model for journalism worldwide. Meanwhile, the profession is consistently ranked among the least trusted, behind police, bankers and lawyers, and only marginally more trusted than corporate CEOs and politicians. A pox on all their houses.

“You don’t know when you’re cutting to the bone until you’ve done it.”- Paul Godfrey, Postmedia CEO

But good journalism matters precisely because there is a pox on all these houses. Journalists hold those in power accountable. A 2009 report by the US-based Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy wrote that news and information are “as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools and public health.” Newspapers perform an essential public service.

“Our society needs journalists… because journalists are the only real-time truth seekers and truth tellers we have,” Sean Holman, a Mount Royal University journalism professor, told the CBC last October. “If you don’t have newspapers, you are eliminating a huge chunk of the accountability mechanism that is supposed to exist in Canada via the media.”

You also risk exacerbating a shrinking interest in public life. A 2016 study by the US Pew Research Centre noted that “two particular aspects of civic engagement stand out as most closely associated with the habit of reading local news: a strong connection to one’s community and always voting in local elections… In local communities, the civically engaged—the people who vote, volunteer and connect with those around them—play a key role in community life.” These social actors read news to be informed about their own civic lives.

Another trait closely associated with broad community attachment is how well people know their neighbours, which is itself a function of an interest in the news. Pew reported, “Fully half (52 per cent) of those who know all their neighbors, for example, follow local news very closely, compared with 32 per cent who don’t know any of their neighbors.” But the collapse of newspapers is treated with little more than a shrug—particularly in Alberta. Statistics Canada reported in 2013 that only 53 per cent of Albertans follow news and current affairs daily, the lowest level of interest in the country. As Holman said of the plight of local newspapers, “The real troubling question is whether Albertans are actually going to care.”

Back in 1970 Senator Keith Davey conducted a landmark commission into the state of Canada’s media. Each daily newspaper edition, Davey said, was “the result of hundreds of human decisions, each calling for swift judgment, instant clarity and the fine balancing of other people’s perceptions. Journalism, however humble, is a sort of art; there can be very few occupations that are so demanding in terms of speed and judgment … The wonder is that newspapers are as good as they are. They really are a daily miracle.”

In the 1980s in Vancouver, having learned at least something about miracle-making in my native Australia, I worked for Southam Inc., at that time owners of the Vancouver Sun and its rival, the Province, and also owners of the two big-city papers in Alberta. The Vancouver Sun was a broadsheet, the “newspaper of record” for BC, just as the Journal once purported to be in Alberta. We employed experienced reporters and photographers and civic sages; we had bureaus in Ottawa and Victoria and our journalists travelled widely. Those “hundreds of human decisions” allowed us to chase breaking stories, dig up new ones, report them, factcheck them, tighten prose, apply consistent grammar and style, weigh the risk of libel (and usually take the risk anyway), lay out pages, run the presses, get the papers out and then reset for another edition—a constant sea of barely controlled chaos that was about as exciting a vocation as you could find that came with a desk.

We had a library (“the morgue”) where mostly sour-faced but unbelievably resourceful researchers could recall and find the most obscure references to inform a breaking story, to add context and depth to history being written on the fly or illuminate an investigation that might be months in the making. The service desk at the morgue was also one of the Sun’s and Province’s few shared spaces. Other than a random encounter there, or a ritual one at the press club bar across the street, we took pains to never meet. We had the same owners but competed fiercely, and our journalism was better for it.

“If your local paper shares the same design and same pages as the one in Ottawa… is it still your local paper?”- Margo Goodhand, Former Edmonton Journal Editor

As the Sun’s assistant city editor and assignment editor for a time, I had more than 70 reporters and photographers to deploy, and was surrounded by acerbic, cantankerous and occasionally brilliant copy editors on the “rim” who saved young reporters from their exuberance and old ones from their laziness. We put out a pretty good paper and set the daily agenda for other media. Radio hosts read out our headlines; producers in TV and radio followed our lead. In cities across Canada and around the world, newspapers were the hearts of any news ecosystem. Now they often resemble nothing so much as an appendix.

Canada has for decades had an unconscionable level of media concentration—you can go all the way back to 1970 and Keith Davey’s The Uncertain Mirror: Report of the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, for the first warnings about the dangers of too much media ownership in too few corporate hands. In 1981 the Kent Commission warned that “industrial conglomerates produce poor newspapers.” In 2006 another Senate report on Canadian media said much the same thing.

In 2016 three separate government-sponsored inquiries were wringing hands over the state of Canadian media. If history is any guide, nothing useful will come of the exercise. Canada has let the market have its way.

Way back, under the long-time ownership of the Southam family, the Herald and especially the Journal developed reputations as better than decent newspapers. When I worked at the Vancouver Sun,we were always glad to lure a reporter or columnist away from Edmonton, which had a track record of turning out terrific journalistic talent.

Then came Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. in the mid-1990s. The news became “much more ideological,” said David Climenhaga, a former Herald reporter and editor who says both papers turned sharply to the right and became “less interested in coverage of a whole range of stories.”

The Journal and Herald were profitable in their own right, and had historically been “the big money makers for the chain,” said Gillian Steward, a former Herald managing editor. In 1998 Black launched the National Post. All Hollinger papers had to feed money to the National Post to keep Black’s vanity project alive. The National Post “was and still is an unfathomable and unsustainable albatross,” according to Margo Goodhand, former Journal editor-in-chief.

The 1999–2000 Herald strike destroyed journalists’ faith in that paper (over 90 per cent of editorial staff didn’t return to the job) and is credited with alienating many of the paper’s readers.

Then in 2000 came CanWest, debt-saddled and dumb as a hammer. Its strategy seemed hell bent on “sucking all the initiative, not to mention life and personality out of their big-city news teams,” Goodhand wrote in a Walrus article in early 2016. This included a centralized (in Hamilton, Ont.) copy-editing service for the chain, and a central desk in Toronto to produce each paper’s non-local content.

Postmedia bought out CanWest in 2010 and sold off most of its newspapers’ physical assets—office buildings, printing plants—to reduce debt. Debt then ballooned again when it bought the rival Sun chain in April 2015. At the time, Postmedia CEO Godfrey assured everyone (including Canada’s dim-witted Competition Bureau) that the Sun newsrooms would remain separate from the big-city broadsheets’, and, according to Goodhand, promised “they’d be competitive, distinct and entirely independent.” That pledge lasted less than a year.

“The Sun merger bombshell… really hurt the Journal base,” Goodhand told me.

One long-time Journal reader, Grant Ainsley, wrote a blogpost in October 2016 called “My Divorce from the Edmonton Journal.”

“I recently received my notice to review my annual subscription,” he wrote. “It’s for $403.20. It seems like a lot of money but it’s only about $1.33 per paper. After a lot of thought, I’ve decided not to renew. For the first time in over 50 years, I won’t be reading the Edmonton Journal every day.” Ainsley says it’s because veteran reporters were let go; because the two dailies have “basically the same stories written by the same reporters. Only the front pages look different”; because “I can’t remember the last time I saw a real scoop on the front page of the Edmonton Journal”; because of layout mistakes and because seeing someone who had written for the Journal for 30 years now appearing in the Sun as well was like having “Wayne Gretzky playing for both the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames.”

Concluded Ainsley: “What we’re left with is a product that’s not as good as it used to be, one that’s provided less often, and at a price that continues to increase.

…If a dedicated newspaper reader like me is leaving the Journal behind, there can’t be many others left.”

“What we’re left with is a product that’s not as good as it used to be… at a price that continues to increase.” -Former Journal reader, Grant Ainsley.

The former Herald editor who spoke with me anonymously said the same is happening in Calgary. “I can tell from reading the Herald regularly that coverage is down, and that’s clearly attributable to the number of people involved in producing local and Alberta news, not the effort those people are putting forth,” he said. “Another yardstick I follow is the number of stories I see each day that involve research that isn’t based either on institutional coverage (city hall, the courts, the legislature) or news releases. There hadn’t been a great deal of that for some time already, but it’s down almost to zero now. The two papers closely mirror what we see and hear on local TV and radio. You can decide for yourself if you think that adds value.”

Another merger of sorts—the intrusion into Postmedia’s local papers of section inserts from the National Post—was a “brilliant corporate move,” Goodhand told me, because it boosted the Post’s circulation. “But there’s the rub. If your local paper doesn’t look local anymore—if it shares the same design and many of the same pages as the one in Calgary, Ottawa etc.; if it shares all of the same business, arts and sports stories and columnists; if its editors can’t respond to your concerns about content because they have no say in that content; if your salespeople are trying to sell the Journal and also its 30-year rival the Sun tabloid; if your Canada/World section now looks like a mini-replica of the National Post—is it still your local paper? …I heard from a number of unhappy readers, but most hung on to their beloved Journal. Some cancelled because, as they said, if they had wanted to subscribe to the National Post, they would have.”

Postmedia touts its “nationwide readership of 11.1 million people on all platforms,” claiming readership gains of 19 per cent at the National Post alone. “Readers across Canada are responding to the quality of our journalism,” Gordon Fisher, president of the National Post, told one of his own reporters in 2016, “and we are very hopeful our story of growth will be of high appeal to our advertisers.”

Readership, however, is not the same as circulation, which historically has been the benchmark indicator of the health of a newspaper and thus its viability to advertisers. Readership includes people in doctor’s offices, family members, library readers—all sorts of people can read a paper without having paid for it. Circulation tells another story.

The Journal’s “Advertise with Us” webpage states that the paper’s average daily circulation as of 2015 is 94,891. The Herald, meanwhile, claims average daily circulation in 2016 of 113,579. Both cities have over one million people. Each title, in other words, claims circulation totalling about 10 per cent of its city’s population.

But even these numbers are misleading. A 2015 report by Newspapers Canada puts the Journal’s average weekday circulation—print and digital—at 91,776, but of that, only 59,244 is paid circulation; the other 32,533 is non-paid print and digital circulation to classrooms, public locations (e.g., libraries) and “copies served to employees, retired employees, independent agents and correspondents.” So more than one-third of the Journal’s claimed circulation is essentially given away.

The Herald’s claim is even shakier: Its average weekday circulation—print and digital—is actually 107,954, according to Newspapers Canada, but of that, only 58,865 is paid. So the Herald gives away 45 per cent, or almost half, of its average weekday circulation.

As Steward said, “It seems like it’s free everywhere all the time, so why would you subscribe?” She still looks at the Herald online but prefers, and pays for, the New York Times online, which “makes me realize what we’re not getting” in Calgary. Steward said she doesn’t expect the Herald to be the Times, but she wants something better than a paper that rewrites press releases and lets industry get its story across largely unchallenged.

There’s another way to measure the health of Alberta’s newspapers. Each city, according to the 2011 federal census, had around 450,000 households. In both cities, total paid circulation of the broadsheets is around 60,000; if you add in the paid circulations of the Sun (26,925 in Edmonton; 23,541 in Calgary), you get about 85,000 apiece. That means roughly 19 per cent of households subscribe to a newspaper in each Alberta city. In 1995, 50 per cent of households subscribed to the daily local newspaper. Media analyst Ken Goldstein predicts that if these declines continue, circulation will amount to only 5–10 per cent of households in 2025—too little, he concluded, “to support a viable print business model for most general interest daily newspapers.”

Meanwhile what of those advertisers responding to readers’ appreciation for the “quality” of Postmedia journalism? One reason for the round of layoffs last October was that in the previous quarter, revenue from ad sales fell 20 per cent. No matter what Postmedia claims, advertisers aren’t fooled.

As Postmedia declines, newspapers such as the Herald and Journal could shut down on its deathwatch, like switches being thrown on the lights in a ballpark. “The lights are pretty dim right now,” said Steward. Calgary is a complex, fascinating place, she says, and if nothing else its publications “should be North American authorities on the energy industries and the environment.”

Mack Male, who blogs about media in Edmonton, said the Journal remains Alberta’s newspaper of record only “in the absence of anything else. It’s certainly not what it was.” What’s left? Just one legislative reporter and columnist. More “prurient” coverage of the courts, in the words of ex-staffer Karen Unland. Sloppy editing and poor grammar, according to Brian Gorman, who teaches journalism at MacEwan University. Gorman placed summer students at the Journal in 2016 who reported back that “morale was low and nobody had any time for them.”

The Journal no longer does sponsorships or aids local charities, Goodhand told me, which “might have saved head office some money, but the Journal lost face in the business community.” And there was, of course, the infamous edict that all Postmedia titles endorse Stephen Harper in the 2015 election, which came on the heels of Godfrey, in the words of Goodhand, “assuring the public that all the papers… would retain their editorial independence and integrity.”

Postmedia has said it won’t close the Herald or Journal—but it said it wasn’t going to merge its newsrooms either. “At every step they’ve gone and done what we didn’t think was possible,” said Male. Gorman said the fact that none of its four Alberta dailies are unionized makes it easier for Postmedia to try to find the “bone,” as Godfrey would have it, because “they don’t have to negotiate… I think the best thing for Canadian newspapers is if Postmedia would just die, and these things (its daily newspapers) would come up for grabs.” Or as Unland told me, “It doesn’t have to be normal, this chain ownership. I mean, the economies of scale made sense until they didn’t. It’s not a bad idea that local journalistic outputs should be locally owned.”

Steward told me, “To be honest, I don’t see how the newspapers in Alberta can recover.” Edmonton’s two main papers “are in tremendously awful shape,” said Goodhand. “I don’t know what will emerge in Alberta when Postmedia finally goes under.”

The current majority shareholder of Postmedia—and thus the real owner of the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal—is GoldenTree Asset Management, a US hedge fund.

A sliver of hope is that readers have lost their trust in newspaper owners rather than in newspaper journalism itself. #

Ian Gill is a Vancouver-based critic and the author of No News Is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse—and What Comes Next (Greystone, 2016).

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