SAINTS PRESERVE US
It’s Not Me, It’s You
I’m currently immersed in a door stopping, wrist-breaking, bedtime belly-busting tome called Rise to Greatness by Conrad Black. The book surveys Canadian history from the first intermittent Viking settlements proximate to the Grand Banks fishery to the present day. Mr. Black posits that Canada is a unique place on Earth because we managed to shed our colonial yoke nonviolently, we have never suffered through a sustained civil war and, somehow, despite a shared respect for democracy with our neighbours south of 49, we never became one of the many United States of America.
Lord Black of Crossharbour infamously renounced his Canadian citizenship in order to accept a British peerage. In the eyes of the intricate American justice system he is a fraudster. While Mr. Black’s days as a media baron are done, he should be lauded in this country for his time as head of Hollinger when he transformed the Ottawa Citizen into an authoritative paper of record as befits a broadsheet in a national capital and his audacious launch of the National Post in 1998 which, by the simple virtue of competition, forced the rival Globe and Mail to become an even better newspaper. And the man can write.
Dribs and drabs from Mr. Black’s crumbled empire now trade publicly as Postmedia, whose CEO is a gentleman named Paul Godfrey. Mr. Godfrey is a Member of the Order of Canada. He’s also a bit of a dilettante, having left his mark in Toronto politics, sports and media. Mr. Godfrey was once president of the Toronto Sun, the mildly hysterical flagship rag of a murder and sports tabloid chain which pegs the lowest common denominator of its readership a few inches beneath Toronto’s deepest subway tunnel. He was instrumental in selling Sun Media to Quebecor (run by Pierre Karl Peladeau, the would-be dauphin of a sovereign Quebec) at an inflated price; as chief of Postmedia he bought it back for a song.
Postmedia’s results for its last financial quarter were spurting blood, not just red ink. Print circulation and advertising, and digital subscriptions and advertising are on the ground outlined in chalk. The dilemma for a pair of newspaper titans such as Mr. Black (still a major investor in Postmedia and a weekly columnist) and Mr. Godfrey is how to sell the news in this day and age, oh boy. They’re butting loggerheads. A conference call late last week with business reporters indicated that the men have parted ways at a fork in the road back to profitability.
Edmonton’s two daily newspapers, the Journal and the Sun are both owned by Postmedia. Mr. Godfrey sees obvious, expensive redundancies: two newsrooms, two printing plants, two digital platforms, two admin departments; all of which make for one complex org chart. The same concentrated state of affairs exists in other Canadian markets including Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa. Mr. Godfrey has arrived at the conclusion that it is no longer practical for newspapers to compete amongst themselves; scoops are for ice cream and wouldn’t it be nice if Breyers bought a four-colour double truck. The enemy now is a tech company like Google and to the victor the spoils of advertising revenue.
The National Post is an anorexic shadow of itself. It does not publish a print edition on Mondays during the summer months. The once essential weekend edition is now a pointless purchase as a goodly portion of its content is reproduced in the Edmonton Journal. Mr. Black’s contrarian message to Mr. Godfrey was refreshing. Stop slashing costs, stop churning out generic newspapers, invest instead in quality of content. His views align somewhat with an existing public awareness campaign called JournalismIS (JournalismIS.ca). Its message to readers (and scanners) is Sesame Street simple: reliable information comes from reliable sources. Vested sponsors include Postmedia, the Globe and Mail, universities with well-regarded journalism programs and industry-relevant unions and associations.