Bad week for corporate profit-seeking

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THIS was not a bad week for journalism — as some would have you believe.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/05/2020 (881 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

THIS was not a bad week for journalism — as some would have you believe.

The decision by Postmedia to close its Manitoba weeklies, from Selkirk to Stonewall, was predictable if you were watching — or reading.

I’ve been following the demise of the Postmedia weeklies from Selkirk, where I’ve had the good fortune to live in a two-newspaper town, for years. Every Thursday I get Postmedia’s Selkirk Journal and the independently owned Selkirk Record delivered to my door. I’ve had a chance to watch their evolution for years as I spread them out on my kitchen table and flip through them page by page over a cup of tea.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The closure of local weekly papers is a result of mismanagement by a conglomerate that saw small-town papers as cash cows and lost sight of their responsibility to their communities.

With every passing issue it was becoming more apparent that Postmedia, a Canadian conglomerate that owns more than 140 media brands across Canada and some of our nation’s biggest newspapers, had the mistaken idea that rural newspapers are cash cows.

Postmedia would fill my Selkirk Journal with national ads — contracts it had secured because it could effortlessly promise its national advertisers that it could place ads in dozens and dozens of newspapers, all at once, for a deep discount.

What Postmedia seemed to have forgotten is that functioning and healthy newspapers are a delicate balance between advertising and locally generated editorial content. In small communities, local news rules.

Instead, Postmedia continued to fire reporters, editors and photographers and slowly, ever so slowly, the content in its Manitoba weekly papers was indistinguishable from the content in its Ontario weekly papers — as it filled the pages with poor-quality syndicated columns that had nothing to do with life in Selkirk or Stonewall.

So when it closed its Manitoba papers this week, it actually let go of about 30 people — very few of whom were journalists.

However, there are entire generations of journalists today working in major newsrooms in Canada who owe their careers to a start in weekly newspapers that, as recently as 10 years ago, were hiring journalists and were profitable. So what happened?

Convergence happened.

In the 1990s, owners of TV stations thought it would be a grand idea to also own newspapers.

Newspaper owners thought it would be smart to own TV stations.

And in a short time Hollinger, Southam, Sun Media, Quebecor, TorStar, CanWest, BellMedia and others were buying and selling, slicing and dicing their media properties until media outlets in Canada today are owned by a select few media giants — Postmedia being one of them.

All of this was aided by toothless federal anti-competition and foreign ownership laws. In 1990, when this transformation started, about 17 per cent of Canadian newspapers were independently owned. By 2017, only six per cent were independently owned, including the Winnipeg Free Press. (In practical terms, what that means is this column could not run in the Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Sun, Toronto Sun, Winnipeg Sun or dozens of other papers in Canada, because they are Postmedia-controlled.)

The 1990s media convergence was not only going to take advantage of technology convergence, but economic efficiency. The promise was that bigger was better, at least for the owners who were going to make more money. But ask Postmedia — which dances around bankruptcy every year — how convergence worked out.

What some may not realize is that the news business is more of a social enterprise than a for-profit business. Owning and operating a newspaper to make large profits is like opening a daycare, a nursing home or a women’s shelter to cash in. It ain’t happening.

The smart newspaper owners are part social entrepreneurs. They recognize that good journalism — whether it’s about a small-town sports team or big-city corporate fraud — is about keeping us connected and accountable. When they’re done right, good newspapers keep us on the right track.

Postmedia would have you believe that closing its Manitoba papers this week is Google’s fault or COVID-19’s fault, but really it’s a failure to understand that local content and good journalism continue to be the foundation of newspapers, big and small. When you own a media outlet, you’re not making widgets — you’re making a difference.

So journalism didn’t suffer a blow this week; rather, a misplaced faith that bigger is better caught up with a media conglomerate.

It’s actually a good day for journalism, and for some bright, amazing journalism graduates from Red River College’s creative communications program to move into the void and find a way to deliver meaningful, powerful community stories in Manitoba, to make a fair living wage doing it, and to keep us all accountable.

Shirley Muir is a former print and broadcast journalist and current president of The PRHouse.

History

Updated on Saturday, May 2, 2020 11:37 AM CDT: Correction: Removes reference to Steinbach.

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