Shrinking newsrooms, a lack of diversity in coverage, the fear of corporate interference, stories overlooked that might be contrary to the owner’s business interests, the same reporter’s work duplicated in the rival newspaper, reliance on handout journalism . . .
All this, according to media experts, plagues the two newspapers held up as the example of how major dailies in the same city can both survive and serve their readers despite being controlled by the same owner.
Welcome to Vancouver, a newspaper market where the tabloid Province and the broadsheet Sun exist in the same building — monopolizing advertising while sharing photo departments and some bylines — under Postmedia overlords despite going head to head for news and readers.
Postmedia made the stunning announcement this week that it had purchased the Sun Media chain, the English-language publications of Quebecor, for $316 million. While that stable includes 27 small-market dailies, 140 weeklies, the London Free Press and other properties including Canoe.ca, it is the acquisition of the five Sun dailies that heightened concerns about concentrated media ownership.
The sale must be approved by the federal competition bureau, which examines only its impact on advertising, not on editorial integrity. Postmedia’s annexing of the Sun tabloids creates four more markets in which two of the company’s papers will be competing against each other. In three — Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa — Postmedia would own both dailies.
“It means there’s no competition. It means the continuous risk of corporate interference and a monopolization of both opinion and news judgment. It’s simply not healthy,” says Ross Howard, a recently retired journalism instructor from Vancouver’s Langara College.
“My God, we have the most narrowly-controlled print media, probably among western democracies. And we’re getting dangerously close to risking the loss of the independent watch-dogging role by journalists.”
Adding to the apprehension is that Postmedia has already been slashing its resources and laying off workers — as have many other newspaper operations — while under the weight of a debt that is almost half a billion dollars.
Those dire circumstances raise concerns that shuttering a few of its papers might be on Postmedia’s agenda.
But in announcing the deal, Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey referred to the Vancouver situation as a “time-proven model” of how one company owning two dailies in the same city can function. Godfrey also said the company has no intention closing any of its new or existing major newspapers.
“They can certainly say that two papers can survive but that’s only when it is in the corporate interest,” says Howard, noting both Vancouver journals enjoyed the fruits of their monopoly for quite some time.
“But now Postmedia is desperate for funds at all times and has basically become a kind of colossus that notoriously chews up resources for journalism as part of its profit-seeking approach. They’ll point to papers like the ones here in Vancouver (as an example) but the reality is that in other cities they will eventually move to killing off anything that isn’t generating enough revenue for them.”
The Province and the Sun maintain their own newsrooms and, largely due to the professionalism of their staffs, a level of competition. But if a story is missed by one paper, it might be picked up by the other from the chain’s internal news sharing network. That has resulted in the reporter’s byline appearing in both papers.
The Province and the Sun have been under the same ownership since the 1950s, and at times thrived. But if their co-existence is a harbinger of what is to come in markets with two Postmedia dailies, there is concern amongst media watchers.
Robert Hackett, a journalism professor at Simon Fraser University, says that there is “a loss of the diversity you’d have if there were two independently owned newspapers.” Both papers, he says, have a centre right perspective that is reflected in both what they choose to report and in their editorials.
The single-mindedness of thought has led to what he calls “significant blindspots in coverage” provided by the two publications around issues such as poverty, labour and the environment, particularly regarding the pipeline debate. A partnership between Postmedia and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to promote the oil industry has led to advertorial content in the Sun, he says, “sometimes actually produced by Sun staff promoting the pipelines and the various megaprojects going on.”
While, in most markets, media tends to also act as a watchdog on other media, the Vancouver ownership situation discourages that kind of scrutiny as well as stories that might run counter to the owner’s business interest. That has led to what Hackett calls “a vibrant alternative media sector” in Vancouver with outlets such as The Tyee, a website, and the weekly Georgia Straight weighing in on topics, such as the environment, that the major dailies sometimes ignore.
There is a sense among many media watchers that the concentration of media ownership diminishes journalism because as the level of competition is lessened so is the incentive to chase or invest in chasing stories.
That discourages reporter initiative,’ says Howard
Howard says there is “relatively little evidence of direct ownership interference in news judgment” in the Vancouver papers, but he notes that there is much insecurity in today’s newsrooms and all the reporters would understand the political leanings and preferences of the owner
Longtime reporter, journalism instructor and author Marc Edge expresses deep concerns about the concentration of media ownership. “In political theory,” he says, “diversity of media ownership is considered a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.” But he doesn’t believe it will necessarily lead to newspapers going under.
In researching his soon-to-be-released book, Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers, Edge studied the financial statements of publicly traded publications. He said that while the drop in revenue for some is “quite startling,” newspapers have been able to cut their costs, lay off staff and keep their heads above water.
“Newspapers are still making money, some are quite profitable,” he says, though many are reporting huge dollar losses on paper, largely through a write down of asset value.
He explains that the introduction of a tabloid — the Province became a tab in 1983 — repeals the natural monopoly theory of newspapers which states that through market forces one paper will survive at the expense of the other.
“When you have two newspapers, they’re usually fighting it out for first place . . . but if you have two newspapers owned by the same company and you differentiate the product, one broadsheet, one tabloid, they tend to appeal to a different market.”
The problem, however, is that dual ownership gives the owner of those papers a monopoly over ad revenue and the city’s news agenda.
While some argue that the explosion of online media and citizen journalism makes concentrated newspaper ownership less of a concern, Edge, who writes for The Tyee, doesn’t agree.
“I don’t think the online media have nearly the influence that newspapers have. It’s long been noticed that that newspapers tend to set the agenda for politics in their communities,” he says.
Not all media experts share the sense of doom. Ivor Shapiro, chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, believes Godfrey is right that Postmedia’s competition is no longer with other newspapers but with online media giants such as Google, Facebook, the New York Times and the CBC.
This purchase, says Shapiro, better positions Postmedia to be a “real player” online.
“Obviously, I would see it as a terrible thing if the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail were to be owned by the same owner. That would be awful,” he said. “But what we’re talking about here is two organizations that were on a death watch. I’d rather have one news organization that is not on death’s door, than two news organizations that are. Together they are stronger competitors than they were apart.”