Newspapers Killed Themselves

By October 9, 2014Issues, Mike Archer

By Mike Archer. A great deal of concern is being raised by many who care about journalism in Canada that the purchase, at bargain-basement rates, of Sun Media’s English language newspapers by Post Media means a reduction in diversity and quality in the journalism at Canada’s newspapers.

I’m afraid that horse already left the proverbial barn.

Back when newspapers mattered, several royal commissions and enquiries pointed out that what was one of the most centralized and concentrated news media industries in the world (this was back in 1981) would become too concentrated if the five or six newspaper chains (national and regional) were allowed to sell to one another and make for even fewer owners.

The industry didn’t care and neither did legislators.

The industry further concentrated itself. The number of opinions being expressed across the country shrank and the number of journalists writing about issues shrank.

Then an awful lot of noise was made when newspaper companies started buying up radio and television networks. The CRTC became involved and, with a great deal of fanfare, the players were ‘forced’ to divest themselves of some of their belongings in markets where the same company would end up owning basically every media property in the market.

And yet, when the Vancouver Sun and the Vancouver Province became one company the owners argued that, unless they were allowed to cash in and make one company out of two newspapers, one of them would have to close.

The government bought that argument as though it meant anything to anyone but the rich owners who would lose money and the concentration continued.

In the Lower Mainland, we ended up with one company owning both daily newspapers, a chain of community newspapers, the biggest television station, as well as magazines and radio stations. For a city of only 600,000, (by comparison – one Toronto suburb – Mississauga – has a population of over 700,000) and a larger metropolitan area of only 2.4 million, the media concentration has been astounding.

To say that it has not served the public is to miss the point. It was never designed to serve the public.

That threshold was crossed as soon as newspapers in Canada were allowed to own multiple properties in the same market. Even in the communities of the Lower Mainland there are only two companies which own all of the community newspapers.

The newspaper business is an extremely cost-heavy business. Its major costs are personnel, printing and delivery. There is only so much you can cut in those three areas before you are no longer a newspaper.

Professor Robert Hackett of Simon Fraser University told The Tyee this week, “This merger will mean more cutbacks and resource rationalization, less diversity. Unfortunately, volunteer-based citizen journalism probably won’t fill the growing shortfall in original general interest newsgathering.”

I disagree; not with his logic, but with the timing of his argument. If you look at any daily newspaper or community newspaper in the Lower Mainland, Vancouver or any other larger metropolitan area in Canada today you will find that the newspapers have already stopped doing any original general interest newsgathering of any significance.

The Vancouver Sun/Province usually run anywhere from six to ten local stories on any given day with the rest consisting of submitted, canned or repeated copy from other newspapers in their chain.

Newspapers abdicated their role of gathering any significant volume of real local news decades ago. We just didn’t notice because we were slowly but surely no longer reading beyond the headlines anyway.

Those who fear that citizen journalism will be unable to pick up the slack of local newsgathering in the absence of newspapers should take a look at Abbotsford Today.

Abbotsford Today publishes, on average, 60 to 80 local stories a week. Through a combination of self-generated news and commentary, submitted content, citizen journalism and photojournalism, press releases, columns, commentary and news stories, Abbotsford Today boasts unique visitors of between 30,000 and 40,000 every month. That’s more local news than the average local newspaper publishes in two editions with an entire staff of reporters and editors.

The New York hedge funds are buying up the remains of the newspaper industry in Canada in order to have influence with the 60-and-over-crowd as long as they are still alive, not in order to make money or serve the Canadian public. The stale arguments about the important role that newspapers once played haven’t had any value in the real world of the media business in more than two decades.

The industry became a top-heavy, bloated management system which simply siphoned money out of Canada’s local communities and cities and fed it to owners and shareholders in far away cities, provinces and even other countries. Free distribution and a reliance on flyers from other out-of-town-owned companies meant, in many markets, they no longer even had a business relationship with their readership.

It’s not the internet that killed the newspaper business. Greedy owners and shareholders took care of that all on their own. Those who understood the internet and how to use it have simply had a much easier job of it since they have, in essence, only been competing with a corpse.

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