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January 30, 2018

This is one of a series of features, news articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit: localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By GREGORY FURGALA
Staff reporter

Port Alberni, a city on Vancouver Island with a population of 20,000, was home to one of British Columbia’s 32 newspapers that have closed since 2008. (Photo by hern42, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Port Alberni is a typical British Columbia coastal town. Situated at the end of a deepwater inlet that meanders through the middle of Vancouver Island, it was colonized by MacMillan Bloedel and other logging companies before its temperate climate, surrounding mountains, and salmon drew in tourists who are colonizing it again. And like so many other small cities in B.C., it recently lost a newspaper.

Susan Quinn, the editor of the Alberni Valley News, wasn’t surprised when Glacier Media announced it was selling the Alberni Valley Times, her main competition, to Black Press. Aside from the rumours leading up to the deal, change of ownership at the Times was routine. Before Glacier bought it in 2011, the Times had been owned by Postmedia, CanWest, Hollinger, Southam, Sterling and an independent, non-chain owner. Quinn observed three of the sales from her perch at the News.

“It was just like when we heard CanWest was putting them up for sale, when Postmedia was putting them up for sale,” says Quinn. “It was almost anticlimactic.”

The sale was only part of a marquee 15-newspaper deal. In December 2014, Glacier Media agreed to sell 11 of its community newspapers on Vancouver Island—every newspaper except Victoria’s Times Colonist—to Black Press, its regional competitor. In a separate deal, Black Press sold its four Lower Mainland dailies to Glacier. After the 15-newspaper exchange, a wave of closures and layoffs played out, leaving Port Alberni and other two-newspaper towns with just one remaining publication, halving the diversity of local news, and halving the number of journalists reporting it, too. The 2017 Public Policy Forum report, the Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, makes it clear that Canadian newspapers are at a crisis point — nowhere is that more clear than B.C.

Quinn knows this but nevertheless, she remains optimistic about the future of local journalism.

She isn’t alone. A recent survey of 420 journalists and editors at small market newspapers in the United States found that most were upbeat about the future of local news and their jobs reporting it. Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon and Christopher Ali of the University of Virginia, who conducted the survey and interviews with 60 other industry professionals, presented their work at a 2017 Ryerson University conference on the future of local journalism. Respondents’ optimism, they concluded, was rooted in their connection to their communities, and knowledge that they’re often the only storytellers in town.

That finding—if it can be extrapolated to Canada —makes Heather Thomson an outlier. Thomson, the former editor the Alberni Valley Times, left a year before Black Press closed it. She says leaving wasn’t her choice, but rather the result of disagreements she had with the managing editor about the direction Glacier was taking the paper. She warns: “I’m pretty belligerent about them.”

“They were dictating how we would report news,” says Thomson. “We were being told who we could use as sources when it came to politicians. We were being told what stories we could work and who we could talk to. I didn’t agree with that, and I pushed against it for too long, and they got rid of me.”

In an email, a representative for Glacier Media said it does not dictate what its newspapers cover, or sources its journalists should talk to: “Editors are tasked with responsible and appropriate coverage of their respective communities and publishers are the final authority on what is published.”

Thomson, however, says Glacier’s overbearing management of the Times eroded its connection with the community and that quality news lost ground to the business of printing it. For Thomson, the local intimacy of reporting on the community she lived in, of being the local watchdog — the quality that hundreds of local American journalists credited for their continued albeit weathered enthusiasm — had slipped away. Thomson left the industry because of it, she says.

“In Port Alberni,” she says,” it used to matter what happened in the newspaper. It mattered to people. It mattered to the company that owned it, that they had a respected place in the community as the storyteller, and I think that’s what’s changing.

“It’s not about the story anymore. It’s becoming just about making money.”

The Local News Map, a crowd-sourced effort to document changes at local newspapers and broadcasters from the Local News Research Project, recorded the loss of 32 newspapers in British Columbia since 2008. Only Ontario has experienced more losses.

Marc Edge, a professor of journalism at both the University of Malta and Canada West University, says the B.C. closures were effectively orchestrated.

“It seems pretty obvious,” says Edge, “that they’ve been working together and carving up the industry between them.”

Local News Map data of news diversity in Canadian cities represent how much single outlets dominate coverage.

Local News Map data of news diversity in Canadian cities represent how much single outlets dominate coverage.

The reason isn’t particularly complex. Black and Glacier owned competing newspapers in several cities across B.C., like Port Alberni, and by buying up and shutting down the local competition, dwindling ad revenue could be directed to one newspaper, instead of shared by two. The Shattered Mirror report says ad revenue has dropped to $881 million in 2015 from $1.1 billion in 2006. While Edge notes that the traditional argument for newspaper concentration has been that it results in better-resourced survivors that put out better quality, better-designed publications, he doesn’t equate it with journalistic excellence.

“Graphic design and layout,” Edge says, “aren’t always indicators of good journalism, particularly the diversity of viewpoints.”

Maybe one newspaper had to close. While Quinn and Thomson have different outlooks on the future of community newspapers, both expressed doubt that Port Alberni could have supported two of them, especially as both operations were investing more time in producing content for their websites. And it’s worth noting that while the Times had been in print for decades, the News was only established in 2006. For far longer than not, Port Alberni has been a one-newspaper town.

Still though, the calculated dealings between Glacier and Black Press, and accelerated rate of closures in B.C. beg the question: If ad revenue continues to decline—and the Shattered Mirror report projects that it will—will another wave of deals be made out west? Is the worst over? And if it’s not, what’s there to be optimistic about?

Even before she left, Thomson says she bemoaned the increased demands placed on her and her newsroom. The prospect of being laid off loomed, she adds, from the day she started at the Times. Only weeks into the job, CanWest, which owned the paper at time, cut hundreds of positions across its all properties “to put more focus and resources on generating content and less on packaging,” a spokesperson told CBC at the time.

“I remember calling up the managing editor at the time and asking, ‘Do I still have a job to come to?’ Thomson says. “That’s the feeling I had the entire time I worked at the newspaper. I was always wondering when they were going to close the doors.”

These days Thomson works in public relations. She predicts the situation in the news business will get worse before it gets better but she hasn’t written off the news completely.

“I think at some point,” Thomson says, “someone will figure out a way it’ll make sense. I just don’t know what that will be.”

Since the Times closed, Quinn has added another reporter to the newsroom, and the News has gone from a weekly to a twice-weekly publication. Her newsroom uses a new content management system, which she says has helped streamline operations. Both are tangible investments. Technology, she says, is driving change, and her reporters are expected to produce stories differently than before. Two steps back, one step forward.

This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:  localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By GREGORY FURGALA
Staff reporter

Small market newspapers are being stripped of local content by “predatory” chain ownership groups, a new study suggests.

John Miller, a professor emeritus at the Ryerson School of Journalism, compared local content in the Northumberland Today, the daily newspaper published in Cobourg, Ont., with local news published by its predecessors. The Cobourg Daily Star and the Port Hope Evening Guide amalgamated with the weekly Colborne Chronicle in 2009 to form Northumberland Today.

Since the merger, the amount of local content featured has sharply declined, Miller concluded. His quantitative analysis shows that widely-circulated syndicated material with little relevance to Port Hope or the surrounding area has replaced locally-relevant coverage, and the audience noticed: Northumberland Today, which now only reaches 2,600 people daily, is losing 500 readers every year.

Northumberland Today is now owned by Postmedia, whose primary aim, Miller says, is to extract revenue from its newspapers rather than support good journalism.

“We have to invent a word for that kind of ownership,” Miller said during his presentation at a recent conference on the future of local news. “Gnawing-off-their-own-limbs chain ownership might be more appropriate.”

With the exception of a $17.8 million profit in the first quarter of 2017, which was largely the result of one-off debt restructuring last October, Postmedia has long been losing money, primarily due to a high debt load and declines in print circulation and print ad revenue. During that time, its journalists and editors have been offered voluntary buyouts, faced layoffs, and been merged with other newsrooms.

Miller, Marc Edge, a professor at both Canada West University and the University of Malta, and Adam Szynol, an assistant professor at the University of Wrocław in Poland, discussed the concentration of media ownership on a panel moderated by Ryerson School of Journalism associate chair Ann Rauhala. The session was presented as part of Is no local news bad news? The future of local journalism, a conference held June 3-4 at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Syndicated material now makes up 75 per cent of Northumberland Today, Miller said, while Port Hope-focused content has fallen to six per cent from 41 per cent in 2008. Area news, which includes news about surrounding communities, has also declined, he said, albeit not as much.

“It leads me to believe it’s not a local paper anymore,” says Miller.

Instead of focusing on hiring good reporters and supporting local newspapers, Miller said Postmedia is extracting money from them, leaving editors at local newspapers with too few resources to commit to community-focused work. Even the opinion pages—essentially free, local content—have gone from three or four pieces per day 20 years ago, to none today because people aren’t invited to write in, he says.

“[The editor] seemed to be willing to print letters to the editor,” says Miller, “But the newspaper has lost its engagement with the public.”

Publishers, says Miller, are crucial to building and maintaining relationships with the community.

Nonetheless, he noted, several publishers, including at Northumberland Today. have been cut by Postmedia and replaced with regional managers.

Despite the dire headlines, Edge argued that Postmedia’s financial troubles have been greatly exaggerated.

The company’s $352-million loss last year, for example, includes a $267 million writedown—a devaluation of its assets—which Edge says is only a loss on paper. On an operating basis—the day-to-day costs and revenue of the business, without all the debt—Postmedia reported an $82 million profit. In a study of publicly-traded newspaper owners going back to 2006, Edge found that on an operating basis, none had declared an annual loss.

“The myth of newspaper poverty is alive and well,” says Edge. “Perhaps more so than ever.”

He said newspaper owners have been happy to leverage the hard-times myth for regulatory leniency. In British Columbia, he said, the Competition Bureau, the federal agency tasked with investigating anti-competitive behaviour, has been “derelict in its duty.” Since 2010, Glacier Media and the Black Press, which collectively publish nearly 150 community newspapers in B.C., have bought, sold and traded newspapers, and then proceeded to close 20 of them after they changed hands. One 2014 exchange included a total of 15 newspapers, Edge noted, of which more than half have closed. Their dealings, he said, have created regional monopolies in B.C.

“This is classic anti-competitive behaviour,” Edge said. “Buy your competition, close it. This is clearly tit for tat, quid-pro-quo stuff, and yet the Competition Bureau does nothing.”

The multiple newspaper closures, he said, mask the financial reality that Glacier Media and Black Press are both doing well.

Until the 2008 recession, Glacier, which is publicly traded, enjoyed 20 per cent-plus profit margins, says Edge. That fell to between 15 and 20 per cent in subsequent years. The average profit margin for a Fortune 500 company, he reminded the audience, is 4.7 per cent. Glacier’s most recent financial statement reported a 15 per cent profit margin.

“The newspapers they’ve been closing have died not so much as a result of natural causes,” says Edge, “But as a result of premeditated murder.”

Although Black Press is a private company, Torstar, which is public, owns a 20 per cent stake. From that, Edge estimates that Black Press is profitable.