This article originally appeared in C2C Journal.
By Peter Menzies, April 12, 2023
Twenty years ago, the newspaper I worked for earned an easy $50 million-plus a year in profit. Less than three months ago, its building was sold (and will probably be turned into a storage facility), the remnants of its once-bustling newsroom work from their homes, its print editions are ever-more infrequent and its press run is of such secondary interest it can’t accommodate last night’s sports scores. Its owners beg and bully the federal government for public assistance. Some in the industry shamelessly use their pages to lobby for legislation that constitutes little more than an extortionary shakedown. Or so their critics say.
This month Bill C-18, the Online News Act, goes under review in the Senate where there may well be more former journalists these days than there are active ones in the newsrooms of once-proud titles such as the Regina Leader-Post and Kingston Whig-Standard. There is virtually no doubt the bill will pass.
Those in favour have no qualms about creating a news media industry permanently dependent upon the good graces of the two most imposing powers in the lives of citizens these days: Big Tech and Big Government. They claim the likes of Facebook and Google have been “stealing” and profiting from their journalism. The merits of their argument – most publishers long ago designated newsrooms as pure “cost centres” – remain dubious and are convincing mainly through their continued assertion. Their most effective defence often consists of refusing to publish critical commentary and the maintenance of a Big-Tech-as-robber-barons narrative. This, in turn, insists democracy will crumble should their decrepit companies fail. In other words, whatever it takes to get the loot.
We are a long, long way from the days when newspaper publishers would have made any hint of subjugation by the state a hill to die on. For those generations, the trust of their readership was everything. This generation, which has watched Canadians’ trust in media sink to record lows, clearly sees things differently.
The last time it was suggested that the government should involve itself in regulating the press – in 1980 through the Royal Commission on Newspapers, aka the Kent Commission – the idea was repudiated. As Richard Keshen, now Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Cape Breton University, wrote 20 years later: “The negative reaction that met the Kent Commission on publication was unprecedented in the history of Canadian Royal Commissions. ‘Idiot’s delight’, ‘monstrous’, ‘vindictive’, ‘unacceptable and dangerous’ were typical of the insults hurled at the Commission (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix 1981). Innumerable references were made to ‘Big Brother’ and to the end of press freedom. Personal attacks were levelled at Tom Kent. He was said to be ‘authoritarian’ and a dupe of the Liberal Party. Often, the Commission was simply treated as a joke. Fred Hagel, Editor-in-Chief of the two Irving newspapers in Saint John, proclaimed, ‘It reads a bit like a psychedelic dream’ (Saskatoon Star-Phoenix 1981).”
How did that defiant, ruggedly independent mentality transition to today’s supplicancy?
Back when newspapers were a licence to print money, 30-40 percent of the revenue generated by the Toronto Stars, Edmonton Journals and Vancouver Suns of the world came from classified advertising. In a world long before Kijiji, society’s cavalcade of births, deaths, marriages and engagements passed through those pages, along with Help Wanted ads, plumbing, carpentry and other services. If you had something to sell, you bought an ad. Looking for some used furniture? A house? A rental? A career change? Need to sell your old car? That’s where you went for pretty much everything and, while journalists hated to hear it – and still do – this comprehensive and unmatched utility was a primary reason for subscribing to a newspaper.
Thanks to upstart online entities such as Craigslist and Kijiji, that money was the first to disappear. According to this article in the Harvard Business Review, by offering online ads for a pittance – sometimes nothing at all – Craigslist saved American consumers $5 billion in just its first seven years. Which means it cost newspapers the same amount, with proportional impacts in Canada where Kijiji is the undisputed leader in online classifieds.
Newspapers had no response. Nor did they when car dealers, real estate agents, grocery stores and others discovered they could sell directly to customers through their own online presence. All the gates once kept by newspaper publishers were blown wide-open by a free and open internet. Concurrently, Google and others developed search engines that assumed the role of matchmaker between buyers and sellers and then – boom – along came Facebook where people could announce their OMG I said Yes! engagements, the births of their children and the deaths of their parents. The only thing press barons had left to sell was news – something they had long ago defined as mere cost centres.
The business effects, extended over a number of years, were cumulatively devastating. The relentless culling began in the first decade of the century following the acquisition by CanWest Global Communications Corp. of most of the nation’s big newspapers and its then-desperate attempts to survive in an era of decreasing profitability. After CanWest’s collapse and the creation of Postmedia Network Canada Corp., the “efficiencies” became even more pronounced. The overall headcount of newspaper company employees in Canada is difficult to determine but between 2014 and 2020, employment at just four locals of UNIFOR (Canada’s largest private-sector union, which includes “media workers”) dropped by 45 percent. Of 1,587 jobs, only 877 survived just that six-year period of downsizing.
The more eyeballs moved to the much, much shinier objects available online, the more advertising followed and the more jobs disappeared from newsrooms until there literally isn’t even any furniture left. Almost 500 Canadian newspapers (many of them weeklies in smaller cities and towns) have died.
On the bright side, more than 200 new online news platforms based on internet delivery have started up as entrepreneurs unshackled by legacy encumbrances embraced change and found willing buyers for what they were selling. But they lack lobbyists, which means it’s the aging dailies and “supper hour news” constructs that remain our political class’s fixation. At a time when the nation needs to look to the future, federal Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez – or so his critics say – has opted to preserve the past.
“What they produce has so little value that they need to evolve into parasites of the state,” wrote former Postmedia journalist Jen Gerson in her online platform, The Line. The legacy media, Gerson continued, are “little more than a zombie in nun’s drag,” an industry “in a state of terminal decline and keeping it alive poisons the earth for the generations to come after.”
Zombie drag queens, it turns out, have plenty of pull on Parliament Hill. Representatives of the Canadian newspaper industry, most of which is now consolidated under Postmedia and its majority owner, the American hedge fund Chatham Asset Management, had been lobbying Ottawa for subsidies since 2016. At the time, Terence Corcoran of the libertarian-leaning (and Postmedia-owned) Financial Post bristled at the thought of government involvement.
“The first battles against government control were fought centuries ago in England over Licencing of the Press laws and other variations on measures that limited press freedom,” Corcoran wrote. “The fight was waged by the likes of John Milton, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. The result became known as the libertarian theory of the press. In Four Theories of the Press, a classic 1950s book once on reading lists in journalism schools, Frederick Siebert summarized the theory. ‘Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favour of one side or another.’”