Did the shameful performance of Canada's major newspaper chains sound their deathknell? Have they so broken faith with the Canadian people that the days are numbered for would-be media giants such as PostMedia? According to The Guardian, Canada's corporate media cartel may be on its way out.
The most common prediction ahead of last month’s Canadian election was that the country’s many polling firms would again fail to predict the results. In the event, most of them accurately foresaw Justin Trudeau’s Liberals sweeping into power. Instead, it was the country’s daily newspapers that got it wrong, promoting the incumbent Conservatives while readers and voters turned en masse against the party. Social media pounced on the striking disconnect with increasing ferocity as editors in virtually every Canadian city and town published tortured endorsements of Stephen Harper’s government.
Yet the defeat was a particularly brutal blow for Canada’s dominant chain, Postmedia, which publishes more than half of the traditional daily newspapers in English-speaking Canada and all but a handful of those that matter. Postmedia achieved its market dominance in step with the rise of Harper’s Conservatives. Its support for Harper was widely seen as an expression of the company’s will rather than editorial judgment. One columnist at the Postmedia title the Edmonton Journal wrote on Twitter that owners rather than editors had decided which party to back.
The company’s chain-wide blitz supporting Harper culminated a few days before the election when virtually all Postmedia publications replaced their front pages with a pro-Conservative advertisement masquerading as an official notice from Elections Canada, the independent agency managing the vote.
Postmedia has been able to expand despite its dire financial condition thanks to a succession of high-interest loans from US financiers led by Golden Tree Asset Management, a hedge fund that specialises in the debt of distressed companies. Paying Golden Tree rates ranging from 8.25% to 12.5% on what is now $650m in debt, Postmedia has sent more than $60m annually in interest payments to New York even as revenues collapse and losses mount.
“I don’t think they care much about the economic viability of these newspapers over the long run,” says Dwayne Winseck, professor of journalism at Ottawa’s Carleton University. “They’re just riding this thing down and milking what they can out of it until the papers disappear, except for maybe a handful. It’s a pretty lousy situation.
However, a decoupling of Postmedia from the political establishment could benefit the wider media ecosystem in Canada. “[The federal government] should stop trying to play handmaiden to owners who have made a hash of the business they’re in,” Winseck says. “These folks have been going on acquisition sprees now since the late 1990s, and they’ve been doing this at precisely the time we need all hands on deck to deal with the rapidly changing media.”
Overnight I kept coming back to Arthur Miller's observation, the caption of the cartoon atop: "A Good Newspaper is a Nation Talking to Itself." In just nine words I think he might have diagnosed the terminal affliction that has spread through modern newspapers.
Today's newspapers aren't conversations. They're corporate messaging. PostMedia's shameless "partnership" with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers is an extreme example but illustrative of what goes on regularly albeit in more subtle fashion.
In the Sun chain or the PostMedia pack we aren't talking to ourselves for, after all, we are the nation. The corporate media cartel is not "of us." It is "of them" and it is using, no abusing, its dominance to lecture us, scold us, manipulate us.
The Guardian article reveals just how terribly pernicious has become the partnership between the corporate media and high political office holders, how the corporate media, in a transformation befitting Jeckyll and Hyde, went from the watchdog of government to the government's lap dog, both sides shifting their allegiance from the public to each other for their mutual, symbiotic advantage.
Foreign ownership? No problem, approved. A monopolistic merger of the two largest newspaper chains? No problem. "Don't worry, we'll take care of the federal Competition Bureau, we own it. It does as we say."
We're told that newspapers are dying. If so it's by their own hand. They saw fit to abandon their responsibility as the Fourth Estate to pursue a path of influence peddling. They commodified information, polluting it with messaging directed to benefit or harm particular interests and promote or undermine targeted viewpoints. They commodified it so that thereby they would have a value-added product of merchantable and proprietary value. And with it they sought to corrupt the national conversation.
I am becoming less convinced that the 'day of the newspaper' is over. The day of these newspapers is certainly over and that can only be a good thing.
As Miller so sagely notes, a newspaper is the vehicle of a national conversation and the need for that is, if anything, greater than ever. It's been withheld from us for so long that we've come to see the notion of a Canada without the Sun papers or PostMedia broadsheets as tragic. It's not. It is an essential part of renewal. It is how we go ahead.