By: Beatrice Britneff in Ottawa, ON
Canada’s oldest media union is renewing calls on the federal government to intervene and help the country’s struggling news media outlets, after Postmedia Network Inc. and Torstar Corp. announced today they will collectively shutter more than 30 community and daily newspapers and eliminate 291 jobs.
In response to the closures – which came about through a publication swap between the two companies – CWA Canada is urging the Liberal government to inject more money into local news coverage; to “beef up” the federal Competition Act “to prevent concentration of ownership” in the news industry; and to allow non-profit news organizations to qualify as charities so they can be supported by philanthropic funding.
In a statement, the union – which represents approximately 6,000 media workers cross Canada – called the Postmedia-Torstar deal a “deathblow to local newspaper coverage.”
“It’s a dark day for local journalism and for local democracy,” Martin O’Hanlon, president of CWA Canada, wrote in a statement. “This means fewer journalists reporting on the stories that matter to communities – and leaves almost no one to hold local politicians and powerful interests to account in many places.”
Last year, Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly conducted consultations on how to revamp Canada’s cultural policies and strategies. During that time, many groups suggested a variety of lifelines the government could throw to ailing media outlets – particularly newspapers, which are struggling with steep declines in print circulation and advertising revenues.
In a major speech in September outlining Canada’s revamped cultural strategies, Joly said the government does not intend to to provide that level of assistance to the news industry. Joly said the government will not “bail out industry models that are no longer viable” but will instead support “innovation, experimentation and transition to digital.”
The minister said Monday afternoon she is “sorry” to hear about the Postmedia and Torstar closures and that the government “values the importance of journalism.” When asked whether the Postmedia-Torstar deal has caused her to rethink her largely hands-off approach to the news industry’s fate, Joly reiterated that the government is “looking to support local media while they transition to the internet.”
But Pierre Nantel, the NDP’s culture and heritage critic, argued the government is not doing that.
“It’s absolutely terrible… (Minister Joly) has been asked by so many stakeholders, so many interveners… she didn’t pay attention at all, and this is what you get,” Nantel said. “You get job losses and you get a voice diversity situation that’s going to be lacking.”
Conservative MP Peter Van Loan, who serves as the Tories’ Canadian heritage critic, called the Postmedia-Torstar deal “disappointing” but contrary to Nantel, argued that the government has no place in giving newspapers a leg up. He said he also does not support philanthropic financing of journalism because he believes “journalism has to be truly independent.”
The closures announced today – many of which are effective immediately – will largely affect communities in eastern and southern Ontario.
Through the deal, Postmedia acquired 22 local newspapers and two Metro dailies from two Torstar subsidiaries. Postmedia said in a press release it plans to close all of those publications, except the Exeter Times-Advocate and the Exeter Weekender, by mid-January. The local papers that Postmedia will fold include Metro Ottawa, Metro Winnipeg, Belleville News, Kingston Heritage, St. Mary’s Journal-Argus as well as a number of Ottawa-area publications.
Meanwhile, Torstar acquired a total of 17 publications from Postmedia: seven daily Ontario newspapers, eight community newspapers and free dailies 24Hours Toronto and 24Hours Vancouver. The two dailies and the eight community papers are being shut down immediately, as well as three of the daily newspapers – the Barrie Examiner, Orillia Packet & Times andNorthumberland Today.
Torstar will continue to operate and publish the St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review, Welland Tribune and Peterborough Examiner.
Four free dailies and 32 daily and community papers are being shuttered in total. The Postmedia closures will result in 244 layoffs, while Torstar’s will eliminate 47 full-time and part-time employees.
Postmedia and Torstar both claim the papers they are folding are located in communities that are served by other publications.
“We were not creating any news deserts,” Bob Hepburn, the Toronto Star’s director of community relations and communications, said of Torstar’s 13 closures. “(The communities affected) will continue to be served by Metroland publications.”
In a company statement, Torstar’s President and CEO John Boynton said the deal will allow the company to “operate more efficiently through increased geographic synergies in a number of our primary regions.”
Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey acknowledged in his company’s press release that closures involve letting go of “many dedicated newspaper people.”
“However, the continuing costs of producing dozens of small community newspapers in these regions in the face of significantly declining advertising revenues means that most of these operations no longer have viable business models,” Godfrey wrote.
Postmedia and Torstar said their deal is “effectively a non-cash transaction” as the publications exchanged have “approximately similar fair values.” Their statements also noted the exchange is “not subject to the merger notification provisions of the Competition Act” and no regulatory clearance from the Competition Bureau was required.
In an email to iPolitics Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the Competition Bureau said the Bureau is aware of the Postmedia-Torstar transaction and will be “undertaking a review” of the deal.
“While I cannot speak to the specifics of a Bureau review for reasons of confidentiality, under the Competition Act transactions of all sizes and in all sectors of the economy are subject to review by the Commissioner of Competition to determine whether they will likely result in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any market in Canada,” Jayme Albert, senior communications advisor, wrote in an email – adding that the commissioner has up to one year after a transaction has taken place to challenge it in the Competition Tribunal.
Here is a list of the publications Postmedia acquired from Torstar and has decided to close:
Here is a list of the publications Torstar acquired from Postmedia and has decided to close:
Republished under arrangement with iPolitics.
In this edition: Citizenship conference in Ottawa + violence against women in the spotlight + visible minorities on corporate boards + why we concentrate so much on local news? + much more
New Canadian Media’s Maria Assaf speaks to April Lindgren, Ryerson University professor and local news researcher. Prof. Lindgren discusses her latest research on Toronto’s ethnic media and their role in the city’s immigrant communities.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit about your background in journalism?
A: I came to Ryerson in 2007, but before that I worked for 25 years as a political and economics reporter on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and at Queen’s Park here in Toronto. I was working for what is now Postmedia News service.
Q: How did you become interested in ethnic media?
A: I run the Local News Research Project, which focuses on local news and their role in cities. Ethnic media are one of the local news providers. In a city like Toronto, which is so diverse, and given the reliance of many people and different ethno-cultural communities on news sources -- particularly in their own language or news sources that are tailored to their interests -- it was a natural place for me to look as well.
I’ve done research on mainstream news media coverage of cities as well, but ethnic media was one of the things I found particularly fascinating.
Q: What fascinates you about the ethnic media?
A: I just think that there’s such an important element of helping people who have newly arrived in Canada, for instance, to understand the values of the place they have come to, to understand the rules, how it works, what’s important, who is important, how the politics function. I think that the ethnic media is an important touchstone.
Q: Over the course of your seven-year research, what have you found out and how do you think the ethnic media is performing in Toronto?
A: I have looked at things like what sense of the place does a newspaper like the Chinese language newspaper Ming Pao portray to newcomers, to its readers about the greater Toronto area? That is one of the studies I have done. At their best, ethnic media fill in the blanks for newcomers who don’t really understand the place. They become this painter who fills in that blank canvas.
Q: Do you see Toronto’s mainstream media becoming more diverse as more immigrants arrive in Toronto or do you see ethnic media becoming more mainstream?
I think the so-called mainstream media is certainly making greater efforts to increase diversity in its coverage. If you look at something like the CBC’s “Metro Morning,” which is the number one rated morning show in terms of Toronto ratings, it goes to great effort to cover a diverse range of communities in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). I think it does it very successfully. I think the Toronto Star is also working hard at increasing its coverage of diverse communities, in part because it’s just good journalism. I mean it is interesting journalism: there are great stories and it’s about the reality of the city which is one of the most diverse in the world.
Now, I don’t think ethnic media is becoming more mainstream. I don’t think it’s in their interest to be mainstream. What I think is in their interest, is to tell stories that may be in the mainstream through the prism of their community.
Q: One of the criticisms of ethnic media is its strong focus on news from "back home" and that they doesn’t provide enough local coverage. Has this changed since you began your research?
A: I am trying to change that. I’ve been campaigning for a while by talking to different groups about the need for local news in their coverage. I mean, obviously news from home has a place and I think it should be there, but I make a case for covering more local news, because I think it has an advantage in a few ways. First of all, I think it serves your readers, because right now, you know, we live in the internet age and people who want to find out news from the Philippines or China or the Middle East, can easily live-stream the news from those countries in real time. So it’s pretty hard if you are running a weekly newspaper to stay ahead of that. You are always going to be publishing old news.
Q: In this world of competitiveness between media outlets do you feel that ethnic media has a future?
A: It’s definitely challenging, and there have been some surveys where producers of ethnic media have talked about facing the challenge of the internet, just like the mainstream newspapers are. I think so far the ravages of that haven’t been quite as intense for them as it has been for the mainstream media, but I think most people in the industry think that that’s coming. So, I would say again, make yourself indispensable and the way to do that is to provide quality local news coverage that nobody else is doing.
Q: Ethnic media has also been criticized for lacking professionalism, has this changed in the last seven years?
A: I think, as with anything, there are variations. There’s a range of professionalism amongst the news outlets. Some practices are really problematic. On the other hand, there are some very professional, serious news organizations. The other thing to remember is journalists who work for ethno-cultural media often have to spend some time thinking about how they see their role. Because they are often in a sense cast in two roles. The first is the role of the professional journalist with its responsibilities of being objective and having ethical standards. But they are also in many instances cast as community advocates.
Q: How do you see this advocacy aspect influencing ethnic media’s news coverage?
A: I think it influences people’s coverage. I don’t have a problem with it as long as there is transparency. News outlets must let their readers and viewers know what they are doing.
Q: Do you think a government or a regulating body would be useful for strengthening professionalism and making sure news agencies are being honest when doing advocacy?
A: I don’t think there is a role for government in that. I don’t like to have government engaged in anything to do with media, because governments have their own agendas. I do think, though, that some ethnic news outlets could think about perhaps becoming members of the Ontario Press Council. I think individual news organizations can have ethical standards and that’s pretty typical. There are some ethical standards that have been established by the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ), standards of conduct. But a government regulation, I think, people are still pretty uncomfortable with that.
Q: What are the opportunities for people who work in ethnic media to be trained in Canadian reporting standards if they don’t speak English well enough to pursue journalistic studies?
A: Resources are always an issue. But there are quite a number of basic resources that people can use. For instance, if people spend some time looking at J-source … J-Source has a whole section on ethics and it deals with professional issues and journalism issues that arise on a daily basis. So, just as a starting point, it is good for understanding some of the issues of media and then applying them to your own news organization and it is available at no cost. Some of the ethnic media organizations are starting to do professional training seminars and I think that’s a great thing.
(This interview has been condensed and edited.)
The full interview with Ms. Lindgren here:
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-- Canada's economic development minister Navdeep Bains at a Public Policy Forum economic summit