SAINTS PRESERVE US
Way, way back in 1998 Quebecor Media Inc. forked over $1 billion to acquire the tabloid newspapers of the Sun Media chain. News broke Monday that these diminishing print assets will be sold (pending federal approval) for $316 million to Postmedia Network Canada Corp. which publishes competing broadsheet newspapers in the same markets. Postmedia already competes against itself in B.C.’s Lower Mainland as it owns both the Province and the Sun (which is not a Sun Media paper). The proposed deal is being financed by U.S. investors, vulture bonds and stolen credit card numbers.
Former Sun Media chief and current Postmedia president and CEO Paul Godfrey (this guy’s been recycled more times than an NHL coach) told a group of his business reporters, ‘In fact, I don’t consider other newspapers competitors at all, because everything is going digital.’ The rival Globe and Mail had the same quote this way: ‘I think the world is different now. I don’t consider the other newspapers competitors at all.’
While the difference is subtle, it is there and that’s why any engaged reader should always seek alternative points of view of major events. Both reports agree Mr. Godfrey perceives his competition to be Internet entities such as Google, Yahoo! and FaceBook. And he doesn’t mean well crafted editorial content, he means advertising revenue. A quarter page full colour General Motors ad matters more than the news of G.M.’s absurdly escalating, never ending vehicle recall; partnership is paramount.
Both Postmedia and Sun Media have taken giant steps to eliminate jobs, centralize production and streamline content across their suites of titles. If this deal goes down, debt-ridden Postmedia will have essentially doubled its workforce, doubled its print presence in major Canadian centres, doubled its real estate holdings and doubled its digital platforms. Despite the usual assurances of business as usual, you can write the story’s ending. In Calgary the Herald/National Post plant is up for sale.
The message is clear. Canadians will be left with a media monolith, albeit one that is a shell of itself, intent on being all things to all people anywhere, anyhow. It’s about siphoning mouse clicks from Twitter. A cynic or a realist may argue that advertising is the true backbone of democracy because its monies are the traditional means of support for our beleaguered fourth estate. Mr. Godfrey sure gets that part; his company will be able to provide media buyers a multitude of attractive options among numerous platforms across the country. You worry about the other part of the equation. The primary function of the free press, whichever form it may take, is to gather and disseminate news, provide diverse and informed opinion and hold society’s leaders to account. This role, this ability to provide meaningful content has already been diminished in both chains, sacrificed to operational efficiencies.
Admittedly things have changed since we began to browse the World Wide Web with a certain ease back in 1993. Classified ads, a cash king for newspapers, migrated to the Internet; the market adjusted prices for this service accordingly. Morning newspapers became fusty and staid, readership dropped off the face of the Earth as the world kept turning online. Savvy governments, politicians, special interest groups, companies and sports teams quickly realized they could speak around the hardboiled cynicism of veteran beat reporters. We lick the mucous from the palms of our hands.