Our newspaper industry is stodgy, run by short-term thinkers, and is seriously lacking in diversity. What can be done about it?
In October 2014, Postmedia Network Inc., the owner of the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, and an assortment of other Canadian news outlets, announced its intention to purchase Sun Media’s newspaper collection.
After finalizing this purchase in April, the Postmedia umbrella now contains the most—over 200—newspapers and digital news sources of any company in the Canadian print media industry.
Of course, the op-eds followed from what publications were left, with many decrying the increasing centralization of media ownership and bemoaning its consequences for the future of journalism in Canada.
Others scoffed at the idea of a news monopoly, arguing that the growth of digital news had created a market for information as competitive as any that had been seen before. Still, more critics predicted the death of newspapers as a whole, with the Fulcrum itself putting forward a piece of its own on the medium’s bleak future over a year ago.
In the subsequent year, it seems like many of these fears were well founded, since Postmedia has continued to sustain heavy losses after the acquisition, with a net loss of $263-million this year alone.
Kelly Toughill—a professor of journalism at King’s College in Halifax who specializes in journalism business models, and a former writer for the Toronto Star—points out the company’s declining revenues are consistent with market trends.
“Postmedia might be a bit more obvious, but they’re not unique in any way. They’re suffering from structural problems in the industry,” she said.
These structural issues include sharp drops in ad revenues as online platforms provide more affordable and effective options for advertisers.
Postmedia’s response to these structural problems provides a case study in what’s going wrong with the industry—and how hard it will be to fix it.
A “moose corpse in the middle of the highway”
After spending a decade working as a journalist, Jesse Brown has managed to make a business out of frank, behind-the-scenes coverage of the Canadian news media.
His podcast, Canadaland, has shed some light on important figures in the Canadian media, most famously through its role in helping break last year’s Jian Ghomeshi story.
When it comes to the issue of Postmedia’s deliberate continuation of its unsustainable business strategy, he doesn’t hold back with his diagnosis.
“I think that if you’re paying attention to what’s happening in their business strategy you’ll see that there isn’t one,” he said. “They’re having a laugh—they are very intentionally driving that bus off of a cliff.”
Beyond the financials, it’s pretty clear to see where Brown is coming from. Despite the heavy burden of civic responsibility that one might attribute to Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Postmedia has hardly been boosting its public image as of late.
Just in the last few months, they’ve censored literary legacy Margaret Atwood, bringing vindictive pleasure to anyone who’s suffered through a high school class’s painfully shallow interpretations of The Handmaid’s Tale, but collectively appalling the rest of the country’s Canadian sensibilities.
They followed that up in October by blocking the anti-Harper election editorial of prominent political journalist Andrew Coyne, forcing his resignation as the National Post’s comment editor in their quest to have all 16 of their major papers make unsuccessful endorsements of ex-PM Harper.
Just days before the Oct. 19 federal election they ran front-page wraparound pro-Conservative advertisements in most of their papers, an act that incited condemnation from the remaining outlets independent of Postmedia.
And at the tail end of November, they posted a statement to their website reporting that, while their company copes with declining print revenue and major staff cutbacks, the Board of Directors has awarded itself over a million dollars in bonuses this year.
The depreciation of the Postmedia brand’s credibility, as much as it reflects in the company’s financial performance, doesn’t bode well for its staff, which includes some of Canada’s most talented and committed career journalists.
Without a clear plan to move forward, it seems only a matter of time before some of these papers are forced to fold or amalgamate, leading to substantial layoffs.
To Brown, the issue extends beyond his own interests or “the interests of anybody else who wants to get into this business.”
“More importantly, the Canadian citizenry wants to be informed, wants to have good news coverage, and the problem for all of those citizens is that we have… essentially this massive moose corpse in the middle of the highway.”
Despite these concerns, Postmedia’s papers continue to cling to large shares of the journalism community’s advertising dollars, viewership, and overall capital—all resources that could be directed to more competitive brands.
To be fair, it does take time for viewers and advertisers to adjust to changes and start looking for something new. But in the meantime, the highway of innovation remains blocked.
“If people experimenting with their business models are trying to make some headway, we need everything we can get,” said Brown. “And even though the market for selling ads against news content ain’t great, it still exists, and it’s being monopolized by this zombie.”
One size fits all
Postmedia’s stranglehold on Canadian journalism is not just halting progress on the business model front, but in other ways as well.
This past fall, the federal government’s promise to appoint equal numbers of men and women to their cabinet stirred up discussion on the topic of representation in politics and decision-making. However, the Canadian newspaper industry doesn’t seem to be that eager to follow in kind.
Vivian Smith is a professor at the University of Victoria and former columnist for the Globe and Mail, who published a book, titled Outsiders Still: Why Women Love – And Leave – Their Newspaper Careers, earlier this year.
Her book illustrates some of the many reasons why women remain so woefully underrepresented in the industry.
“I think at some point you can start connecting the dots. If you don’t see yourself in the ranks of government, you don’t see yourself in the ranks of commentators… and it’s harder to imagine that you’re competent to do it.” she said.
According to a 2014 report by J-Source, which surveyed 339 Canadian national and regional columnists, almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of the people paid to express opinions on our country’s civil and political society are male.
This diversity problem isn’t limited to gender either.
As Davide Mastracci discussed in a Nov. 24 article for the Ryerson Review of Journalism, the juxtaposition between the 3.4 per cent of Canadian journalists who are people of colour and the 19.1 per cent of the population made up of visible minorities points out a pretty extreme divide.
The same dynamic can be seen when it comes to age, as the same J-Source report highlights the fact that the median age of these columnists is 58.5.
Smith aptly highlights the link between this lack of representation and the stagnancy of Postmedia’s ownership model.
“Reporters who become columnists and are paid to have an opinion often look a lot like the people who hire them,” she said. “And if it’s only one quarter of the senior editors are women, and fewer the higher up you go, and fewer still at the ownership level, then those guys are just reproducing themselves in the pages of the paper.”
As Smith relates, what ends up happening in a business model that discourages risk-taking is homogeneity—those women, people of colour, or younger voices who are actually hired by these newspapers don’t end up changing the tone of conversation all that much.
Which is how you end up with a country where so many prominent female columnists—Christie Blatchford, Barbara Kay, Barbara Amiel, Margaret Wente— who are white, middle-aged, and Conservative; not exactly representative of Canada’s female population.
Give the kids a chance
Cameron Welch is a freelancer and recent university graduate living in British Columbia with a background in student journalism, having spent five years at the Phoenix News, the student newspaper of the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.
In his opinion, basic representation is “definitely” an important part of news coverage.
However, as someone who hopes to work in the newer segments of the media, such as digital web design, Welch doesn’t just want to witness change on a surface level.
“I think it’s equally important to have a landscape that welcomes diversity of perspectives, diversity of styles, and levels of professionalism so that people from different backgrounds can be confrontational, or can be fun, or can be candid, and are actually injecting a unique perspective in the media landscape.”
Ryan Macfarlane is another recent journalism graduate, and the current president of Canadian University Press, a student press cooperative that provides resources to and networks between a number of Canada’s student papers (of which the Fulcrum is a member of).
He believes that another major problem is the sheer lack of opportunities that usually allow recent grads to develop their skills in the field.
“Comparing it to the American market, there you see a lot more fellowships from all of the public broadcasters,” he said. “And they’re really trying to get students while they’re young so they can train them and prepare them for careers in journalism.”
“In Canada, we just don’t really have that many media outlets and they’re all corporate, except for the CBC and you know, their capacity has just been completely cut. So I don’t think there’s a lot of investment in taking risks on young people, it’s really about shoring up what corporations have.”
Macfarlane sees the corporatization of media as damaging to local news and local democracy, particularly in Canada where said news is mainly privately owned.
“I think the real solution is you need a strong public broadcaster—if you look in the UK the BBC is one of the oldest and most well-respected media organizations and it’s because they have stable funding and they don’t stand by the whim of any one person.”
Toughill believes that giving young journalists knowledge of industry trends is essential to prepare them to adapt to a changing job market.
“When I started teaching we were one of the only ones that offered this in Canada, one of the only ones anywhere in the world,” she said. “Now most journalism schools have some version of a ‘business models in journalism course’.”
Looking at the bleak state of the industry, one can only hope this business savvy will help newcomers break out of the tired newspaper mould.
What’s being done about it?
It’s certain that Postmedia, along with the rest of the industry, is aware that their demographic engagement has much to be desired.
What’s not as clear is whether or not they view it as a problem. Attempts to remedy the issue (like their misguided and ineffective “Get To Know Us” Summer Tour) appear shallow at best.
In the meantime, as Canada’s “newspapers of record” fail to engage with voices that aren’t white, male or middle-aged, a number of other outlets like the Huffington Post, Vice News, and Buzzfeed are moving in to clinch that market.
And as much as different perspectives have added important balance to Canada’s media landscape, their status as franchisees of American companies raises even more questions about the implications of foreign, not just corporate, ownership.
For example, these companies are prevented from participating directly in Canadian politics via traditional methods such as issuing election endorsements.
As Brown puts it, “there are some really wonderful people, they are picking up the slack and those new outfits are doing good things, but I would rather those be Canadian companies.”
After all, Canada was a country founded on being un-American. Much of our media content, from television broadcasting to music airplay is regulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, whose job it is to guarantee that at least a certain amount of native Canadian-produced content is represented.
But when it comes to our printed news, the shift to online content has changed all that.
“That was always the worst nightmare of the people who were concerned about foreign ownership, that you would have a Canadian media that is owned by American companies,” said Brown. “And that is a little worrying, I think we need to have our own independent community.”
But with most of the funding and resources still being taken up by the old stock papers of Postmedia, a future where the independent, innovative journalism community is flourishing in Canada looks to be a long ways away.