Sunday, 24 January 2016


A Second Rate Fourth Estate

For most of the duration of one of my advertising jobs in Calgary I frequented a dingy pub near the shop at lunch hour. When you turn up in a place at pretty much the same time five days a week for almost a decade and sit on the same stool, people get to know you. The owner added the National Post to his Calgary Herald subscription because he realized pretty quickly that I am a newspaper junkie. The waitress always had the paper positioned at my usual spot at the bar like a placemat. Of course I got to know the other regulars.

Mr. Ed was an elderly man with an impish twinkle in his eye. He always sat at the same table with Ken, his best friend of 60 years or more. Sometimes their grown children and their spouses would join them for lunch. Mr. Ed believed that the City of Calgary’s use of the colour red, specifically on its mass transit vehicles, was a subliminal conspiracy orchestrated by the federal Liberal Party. Rational discussion of graphic identity, its usages and applications, was impossible.

The Edmonton Journal has been our city’s paper of record since 1903. The province of Alberta was admitted into Confederation in 1905. The Journal is one of many Postmedia titles in Canada. Postmedia is possibly the most inept media company ever, excepting the evil Carver Media Group Network (CMGN) featured in Tomorrow Never Dies (Hello, Mr. Bond.), Fox News and Canada’s own hysterical Sun Media. Naturally and needlessly, Postmedia acquired the Sun newspapers in 2014.

Sidebar: Paul Godfrey, currently Postmedia’s CEO, engineered the sale of Sun Media to Quebecor Media, a company run by the man who would be king of Quebec, Pierre Karl Peladeau. Mr. Godfrey then bought the tabloids back on behalf of Postmedia for less than a song, merely a chorus and a bridge. Suddenly many major Canadian cities had one proprietor overseeing their two competing daily newspapers. Mr. Godfrey then paid himself and other senior executives handsome bonuses even though Postmedia is crippled by some $670-million in debt, its shares are pretty much worthless and its employees tend to get fired, victims of continual cost cutting measures.

Last September the Edmonton Journal was graced by the ballyhooed Postmedia makeover. The paper’s front page masthead, formal and elegant black type, was transformed into a square, literally and virtually an enlarged app icon. That the square was two tones of orange led to paranoid cries that the Journal was tacitly supporting the provincial NDP government elected the previous spring. I thought of Mr. Ed, how could I not? ( In fact, Mr. Godfrey had ordered all Postmedia newspaper editorial writers to endorse Stephen Harper's Conservatives in last October's election.)

In a note to its readers the Journal explained that the box designed by media experts in Europe suggested Edmonton’s river valley and its fall foliage at sunset. Really? The note went on to crow that the Journal was now a tiered publication, craftily refined to serve its diverse readership across multiple platforms. The note on page A2 did not indicate that the Edmonton Journal was now some kind of fertility drug runt; that it looked exactly the same as the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald except for the hues of its logo square.

The reimagined Journal launched with a creepy print and outdoor campaign featuring a giant index finger dressed in various costumes. The message was whatever your interests, whatever your platform, the latest news was at your fingertips. National and international news was packaged into a special National Post insert. The business section was rebranded as the National Post’s Financial Post. Content throughout the paper became increasingly meaningless and fluffy as a lot of it now flowed from a central source based in Hamilton. I stopped picking up the National Post because half of it including some of its already thin sports coverage was reprinted in the Journal. Articles grew shorter.

I soon noticed a change in my morning habits. While I still spent half an hour or more with the Globe and Mail, the Journal was relegated to two or three sips of coffee. Every edition of the paper seemed Monday-skimpy. The layout grew increasingly bizarre, television listings would turn up in the business pages which were tucked away in the back of the National Post insert which wasn’t thick enough to line a bird cage or wrap a fish anyway.

Postmedia announced that the company was integrating its dual, competing newsrooms across the country as yet one more cost cutting measure. Many respected reporters, columnists and editors lost their jobs; the non-unionized papers in Alberta were particularly decimated. Here in Edmonton for instance a local beat will now be covered by just one Postmedia journalist filing on behalf of both the broadsheet Journal and the tabloid Sun. That story will then go to a copy desk where it will be smartened up for Journal readers or dumbed down for Sun mouth readers.

The Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun used to be fierce competitors. Up until last week they continued to spar at least somewhat as rivals under the same ownership umbrella. Mr. Godfrey has always maintained that Postmedia’s competition is not other newspapers, either his company’s own or others in the industry, but digital entities such as Google or Facebook. The only content that matters to him is advertising content.

The Catch-22 is that lame editorial content however cost effectively sloughed off on an alienated and disaffected readership (whatever their preferred platform) by an organization that once specialized in the gathering and dissemination of news does not bode well for the future of Postmedia. Advertisers like an audience; they’re fussy that way. My sense is that if Mr. Ed is right about a nefarious Liberal scheme to paint parts of the prairies red, Postmedia is without the resources, acumen or inclination to investigate. Real stories, and the many angles and points of view any story has will go unreported too.

Prediction: Postmedia will surely shutter its Sun tabloids citing their inability to effectively compete with the free Metro transit tabloid. The resulting cost savings will only enhance the performance of the remaining titles in the ever shrinking chain of fools.

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