The Case for Newspapers

As readership shrivels, Alberta's daily newspapers have never been less relevant—or more necessary.

By Susan Ruttan

Conrad Black pulled a giant roll of bills out of his pocket, looking for change to tip the barmaid in Edmonton’s ritzy Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. The top bill was a $50, the one under it a $100, and who knows what the rest were. A fifty was the smallest he had.

“That’s all right,” I said, grabbing my purse. “I’ve got change.” I gave the barmaid $5. So ended my only encounter with Canada’s most infamous newspaper owner, now in a Florida prison serving a six-year sentence for fraud.

Conrad Black’s role can’t be emphasized enough when one assesses what’s gone wrong with Alberta’s two leading newspapers in the past decade. Although the former newspaper mogul is far from being the only cause of today’s problems, without question he played a huge part.

The Calgary Herald strike of 1999–2000, an eight-month battle which Black helped create and prolong, did enormous damage to that important newspaper and ended the newspaper careers of scores of talented writers and editors. Always one to inflame a bad situation, Black called the strikers “gangrenous limbs.”
At least as damaging was the creation in 1998 of his right-wing National Post, a costly vanity project that has been supported for years by sucking resources out of the Herald and Edmonton Journal. As well, Black damaged journalism by putting a chill into liberal voices in the newspapers, who either quit or became more cautious in what they wrote.

I met Black in the hotel bar in February 1997, less than a year after his Hollinger Inc. took control of the venerable Southam newspaper chain. The chain included most of Canada’s leading English-language dailies: the Vancouver Sun and Province, the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, the Ottawa Citizen and Montreal Gazette.

In the months after Black took over, a kind of panic gripped many of the senior managers of the chain; they knew Black’s libertarian views clashed radically with the mild-mannered liberal stance of most editorial pages. Black had made his views clear in an interview with The Globe and Mail in which he cited “the overwhelming avalanche of soft, left, bland, envious pap which has poured like sludge through the centre pages of most of the Southam papers for some time.”
In September 1996, the editor of the Gazette, Joan Fraser, quit. A month later, the editor of the Citizen quit, followed days later by the Citizen’s editorial page editor.

In those early days of his reign, Black’s focus was on the eastern newspapers, not his Alberta papers. But those of us writing editorials in Alberta—I had left the Herald in May 1996 to write editorials at the Journal—knew the great man’s gaze might at any time swing our way.

The editorial page editor of the Journal, Duart Farquharson, was a guy with a lot of personal friends among federal Liberals. When he decided to retire in February 1997, I was asked to take his place. By mutual agreement of myself and my bosses, however, I was to be called the “chief editorial writer” instead of editorial page editor. The goal was to keep me, and the Journal, below Conrad’s radar so I wouldn’t become a target of his right-wing wrath, and so that Black wouldn’t inflict some Fraser Institute type on the Journal as editorial page editor.

And I might have stayed below the radar if it weren’t for Barbara Amiel. Just as I got my quiet appointment—there was no job posting, no announcement—Black’s wife took sick while travelling to Calgary on the company plane. When she landed in Calgary, she was rushed to the Foothills Hospital, where she stayed nearly a week. Black came to Calgary to be by Amiel’s side, but he quickly got bored and started looking for things to do. When he heard there was a new appointee heading the Journal’s editorial pages, he decided to jet up and meet me.

He showed up 15 minutes late, and I asked if he wanted to sit in the bar’s non-smoking section. He said yes, then added: “Oh yes, you’re one of these people who want to prevent people from indulging in their bad habits, aren’t you?” No small talk, no politeness. Right into attack mode.
I tried to steer the conversation to more neutral ground, but Black persisted. He’d read something I’d written on smoking, and kept pushing me on it. I finally gave up and said: “Yes, I think tobacco should be a controlled substance.”

“You really are quite an authoritarian, aren’t you?” he replied, citing a column I’d written in support of photo radar. It turned out that Conrad Black hated photo radar, as well as speed limits on the highways, seat belts for city driving and police check stops at Christmas time. Turns out, he’d read nearly all the weekly columns I’d written since I came to the Journal—and he disagreed with most of them. “Why do you like the CBC?” “Why do you say [former Quebec premier] Lucien Bouchard is an honourable person?” “Why do you defend socialized medicine when the American system is so much better?”

I defended my views, hoping to win points for spunk. I heard afterward that he wasn’t happy with me, but he didn’t interfere with my new job. One reason, I think, was that Black viewed Edmonton as a backwater. Calgary he respected because it was the oil capital, but Edmonton—he couldn’t be bothered. That backwater status proved an advantage in the years to follow. I continued to run columns in the Journal by Gwynne Dyer, a foreign affairs commentator who occasionally criticized Israeli policy, long after other papers in the chain dropped him. (The Journal dropped Dyer after the Asper family, a strong supporter of Israel, bought the chain in 2000.)

Still, while few heads rolled at the Alberta papers when Black took over, we became more cautious about expressing non-conservative views. The Herald, which had been a mildly conservative paper, became stridently conservative during the Black years. The Journal, which had been confidently liberal and a frequent critic of the long-reigning Alberta Conservatives, began to pick its battles—it continued to defend public health care, for instance, but avoided a steady barrage of anti-Klein criticism.

Part of that shift to the right was an acknowledgement of the times, not just an attempt to placate Black. Radical neo-conservatism was the hot new political philosophy in the mid-1990s. The newspapers naturally reflected some of that, particularly in a province that spawned neo-cons like Lorne Gunter and Stephen Harper.

In the summer of 2000, right after the Herald strike ended, Black sold the chain to Canwest Global Communications, which owned the Global television network. The Asper family, owners of Canwest, proved to be as difficult to deal with as Black, at least in their initial years. David Asper, older son of company founder Izzy Asper, was especially heavy-handed when he was put in charge of editorial content. He instituted “national editorials,” which all papers in the chain were obliged to run. The opinion in each national editorial became the opinion of every newspaper in the chain, and they steadily whittled away at the independent voice of each newspaper.

The national editorials were eventually dumped and David Asper was reassigned. He currently is chairman of the National Post.
Even more controversial was the Canwest decision in 2002 to fire Ottawa Citizen publisher Russ Mills for running an editorial highly critical of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, a pal of Izzy Asper. That firing made publishers across the chain fearful of saying anything on their editorial pages. A few months after Mills was fired, I bailed out of the Journal’s editorial board and went back to reporting. The situation had simply become too stressful.

The Aspers—younger son Leonard is Canwest Global Communications president—have settled down since then and the two Alberta newspapers in recent years have gotten bolder in what they say and publish.

The Herald has had a rebirth since the 2000 strike, and in recent years has done some sharp political reporting that has called the Alberta government to account. After hitting rock bottom in 2000, the Herald is again attracting talented young reporters—including some from the Journal.

Evidence of the Herald turnaround came when the paper won a 2004 National Newspaper Award (NNA) for an exposé on the power company Direct Energy. That same year, it broke the top story of the provincial election by reporting Premier Klein’s offhand criticism of AISH recipients. The Herald won a second NNA the next year, for reporting on voting irregularities in a Calgary civic election.

The Journal escaped the terrible Herald strike but not a steady decline in the quantity and quality of its product in the past decade. It won its own NNA for coverage of the 2005 Mayerthorpe RCMP killings, but today there is weaker commentary in the paper, less investigative news (Charles Rusnell, the Journal’s only full-time investigative reporter, left for the CBC earlier this year) and fewer examples of great writing. In the mid-1990s the Journal was a superior newspaper to the Herald in many ways; that is no longer true.

Weak leadership is part of the Journal’s problem, but the main problem for both papers is money. While the newspaper owners are meddling less in content these days, they’re squeezing budgets like never before. The newspaper business has been in trouble since the advent of television and TV news in the late 1940s. Things got worse when cable TV came along, and now the lure of the Internet is the new challenge.

The industry has fought its slow decline with new formats and more recently with online editions, but the slide has continued. Increasingly, it’s become respectable even for professional people not to subscribe to a daily newspaper.

The circulation of the Edmonton Journal has dropped from 168,000 in 1987 to 123,000 in the spring of 2008, according to figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. In 1987 the Calgary Herald’s circulation was 133,000; in the spring of 2008 it was 128,000. That, despite a population growth in Calgary during that period of nearly 400,000.

Even more telling is what newspapers call the “penetration” of their product—the percentage of households in the metro area that get the newspaper. In 1987, 48 per cent of Edmonton and Calgary area households still got the paper. As of last March, that ratio had shrunk to 26 per cent for the Journal, 27 per cent for the Herald. This means that when one of the two dailies breaks a big story, most people in town aren’t reading it. Important public issues pass by, issues that can’t be dealt with on a superficial TV or radio news clip.

The newspaper used to be the place that people being screwed over by the system called to tell their story. When their story was legitimate it went in the paper and reluctant bureaucrats or politicians were shamed into action. These days, this happens less often—because the low-income people who tend to be screwed over are so unaware of the big dailies that they don’t think to call. That disconnect starts to undermine the watchdog role that newspapers play in our society.
The results of declining newspaper readership can be serious for a healthy democracy. For a province like Alberta, where voters rarely defeat the government and opposition parties struggle to survive, it’s even more serious. One reason why less than half of Albertans bother to vote on election day is that so few citizens follow public affairs by reading the paper.

I think former premier Klein held on to his “Ralph’s a good guy” public image as long as he did because so few people were reading the newspapers during his last years as premier. If they’d been reading, they would have seen what a disaster his government had become.

The two metro dailies are by far the most important news outlets in Alberta. Even with the staff cuts of recent years, the Journal and Herald each have many times more reporters than other media outlets, including the CBC. The two papers have beat reporters devoted full time to understanding and reporting on health, education, civic politics, the legislature and the environment, not to mention sports, the arts and business news. No other news media do that.
At Edmonton’s City Hall, where I worked until last June, I was one of two full-time Journal reporters (as of this writing, I have not been replaced). The Edmonton Sun had a reporter at City Hall four days a week. CBC had no one assigned to City Hall. CHED “all-news” radio had a reporter who covered City Hall, the legislature, the school boards, the health region and any other non-crime thing that was going on. TV stations primarily cover press conferences and other official events.

I’m told the Herald and the Journal both make money; revenue from advertising and circulation more than offsets costs. However, this has been achieved by keeping spending to a minimum. Long gone are the days when the Herald had bureaus in Brooks, Banff, Olds and Edmonton and the Journal had reporters in Yellowknife and Ottawa. Canwest has serious debt problems, so its Alberta papers are on a tight spending leash.
That tight leash has been incredibly frustrating. Editors know their papers are making money—money they desperately need to maintain a quality product so that people will keep reading it. They haven’t had much luck convincing Canwest executives.

The Herald went through a brutal downsizing during the strike, which ended in a defeat of the union and a buyout deal for most of the strikers. The Journal, spared the strike agony, went through a voluntary buyout in early 2008 that cut 28 reporters and copy editors from a newsroom of 175 writers and editors. That’s a huge cut, made up only in small measure by hiring a few young reporters.

This struggle for survival is producing some desperate measures. Canwest has pulled its newspapers out of the Canadian Press news agency, which distributes stories from papers across the country. By doing this, Canwest hopes to hurt the rival Sun papers (which rely on CP news), but the loss of CP and its related AP news service has also hurt Canwest papers.

The Sun chain made its own move in the spring of 2007, launching a free commuter tabloid called 24 Hours in both Calgary and Edmonton. The rumour was that the Sun hoped eventually to use 24 Hours as its only printed newspaper in Alberta, reducing the regular Sun to an online paper. If that was the plan, it was quickly thwarted by the appearance of two rival commuter tabloids: Metro, co-owned by Torstar and Metro International SA of Sweden, and Canwest Global’s Rush Hour. These are not serious newspapers; they have few or no reporting staff; their pages are filled with wire copy and photos. But they’re cheap to produce and they’re one more nail in the coffin of traditional newspapers, particularly the tabloid Suns, which rely on street sales. Indeed, the Suns have serious circulation problems. They go to only 11 per cent of Edmonton homes and 13 per cent of Calgary homes—half the penetration they had in 1987. That’s getting pretty marginal.

I’m not giving up on newspapers. I don’t think society will either. The traditional model of a newspaper, the thing that thumps on your doorstep at 6:00 a.m., may go—but that’s not the essence of newspapers. The essence is the content, the daily reporting by trained journalists who have sat through council meetings, read secret government reports, attended press conferences, interviewed parents of murder victims and cultivated contacts on their beat. No amount of chat room pontificating (or CNN talking head) can replace that grunt work. You may say “Mayor Bronconnier’s a good guy” or “Edmonton needs a downtown arena,” but how do you know? Few people have the time to regularly watch Bronconnier at City Hall, or to talk to experts about arenas. A reporter will do that for you.
We are an educated society, hungry for information. Increasingly, we turn to the Internet, not newspapers, for our information. That’s the new battleground for the news business, and newspapers are now shifting to an online format. It’s a move still in the early stages; advertisers in particular are slow to be convinced it’s a good deal for them. But it’s coming.

Some people think small printed daily newspapers will survive, perhaps with a focus on deeper background articles. But the Internet is where people will turn for breaking news—they already do, in fact. People who once read the paper at breakfast now read it online at their desk at work.

I loved writing for the Journal’s website. For the first time in my career I was “published” minutes after the news event, before TV or radio reporters. At last, newspapers are on a level playing field, instead of being stuck reporting the news a day late. Web-based news also spares papers the huge cost of newsprint, the headache of finding paper carriers, and a lot of staff positions. The tricky part is that it’s free to Internet users, so revenue comes only from advertising. Radio and TV stations also know that Internet news is the future, and they’re scrambling to beef up their websites. They know that traditional audiences—those that watch the six o’clock news or tune in to the noon radio news—are being undermined by iPods and text messaging and the thousand and one allurements of the Internet.
“Convergence,” a buzz word for years, is now a reality, and not just because companies such as Canwest own papers, radio and TV stations. Today, radio reporters are trained to post digital photos on their station’s website, while newspaper writers are learning to upload audio clips. In the online world, the differences between media—radio, television, newspapers—are blurring.

The newspapers’ great advantage in this new convergence is their local reporting strength. Compare the Journal or Herald websites to those of radio stations (except CBC) or TV stations and you’ll see how much more they offer. Newspapers’ disadvantage is that they’re lumbering institutions that may find it hard to change to the online world fast enough to survive.

The Journal and Herald are precious Alberta assets. Doing your bit to preserve these assets is easy: read the paper. If you can, buy a subscription; if not, read it online. If you quit the Herald back in 2000 in support of the strikers, realize that the entire local mediascape, from owners to reporters, has shifted since then—it’s time to give the paper another chance.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, reading the newspaper is the worst way to get informed about your world—except for all the alternatives. You can get “the news” from many sources, but the quality and range of that news differs widely. Even in its beleaguered current state, the newspaper still offers unmatched quality and range of news.

It’s important to know what’s going on in the world. It’s useful to have one’s prejudices and convictions challenged from time to time. And even though we may not be interested in politics, business or sports, information in those areas affects our lives. Albertans face huge issues—the future of the oil sands, a growing water crisis, nuclear power. So don’t look for excuses to stop reading the newspaper. Forgive its weaknesses. Appreciate how infinitely greater a daily picture of our city, nation and world it still presents than any other media source.

Susan Ruttan worked 15 years at the Calgary Herald and 12 years at the Edmonton Journal as a columnist, editor and reporter.


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