I still have a flimsy, yellowed, eight-page newspaper that I wrote out in pencil – with crooked columns, headlines and hand-drawn pictures – when I was eight years old. Later, in high school, a friend and I worked on homemade versions of Hit Parader magazine, replete with fawning profiles of our favourite rock stars and fantasy bands, along with bitchy gossip and painstakingly hand-crafted full-page portraits (this was well before personal computers made stealing content so easy).
Arriving at university, I made a beeline for the student newspaper office (actually, the paper advertised a couple free beers for new recruits during orientation week, and I didn’t need any more encouragement). I may not have completed all my classes at the University of Victoria because of the years I spent working at the Martlet, but I certainly received an education. Not surprisingly, my first full-time job was at Victoria’s alternative weekly newspaper, Monday Magazine.
In one form or another, newsprint has always been a big part of my life. But newsprint, the stuff that stains your hands and can be used to line a birdcage or start a fire, is in big trouble. For years, newspapers across North America have reported falling circulation in the face of online media – even their own websites are contributing to a loss of readers of the paper edition. But the economic crisis that hit last fall is pushing many titans of the publishing world close to the edge with a sharp drop in advertising revenues. And the effects are being felt close to home.
Quebecor – the debt-ridden Péladeau family media empire that includes printers around the world, the Sun Media chain, a clutch of magazines and the TVA television network – has just locked out 253 employees at its flagship paper, the Journal de Montréal. The people who produce Quebec’s most-read newspaper have refused to accept cuts to benefits, a longer workweek for no extra pay and a loss of journalistic independence over the paper’s content. (Full disclosure: I work for the communications service of the CSN union federation, with which the Journal de Montreal’s union is affiliated. But I am not directly involved in this labour dispute.)
Journalists and other employees at the Montreal Gazette may not be far behind, as the unionized workers there recently rejected a contract offer that would have eliminated several positions and offloaded the editing of the paper to a centralized office in Hamilton, Ontario. Like their brethren on rue Frontenac, Montreal’s English-language daily is owned by a huge, financially troubled media conglomerate: Canwest, based in Winnipeg and owned by the Asper family.
Canwest owns the former Southam newspaper chain that it bought at a hugely inflated price from former media baron Conrad Black, now a convicted fraud artist residing at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida. But the chain got its start in television, both in Australia and in Canada with the Global Television Network. It is many billions of dollars in debt and is desperately trying to prop up its flagship title, the National Post, which loses tens of millions every year. Indeed, the Post is not likely to survive the year (it won’t be missed be me, frankly, as its journalistic formula has always been backward, having, as it does, the mission to comfort the comfortable and to afflict the already afflicted).
So here’s the rub: both the Journal de Montréal and the Montreal Gazette are immensely profitable. Their readers are loyal and their pages are bursting with ads even in these shaky economic times. The problem is that their owners want to squeeze even more money out of them to subsidize their money-losing corporate empires. In so doing, they are likely to squeeze out the local flavour that made these papers so successful in the first place.
It’s no wonder people drift to other, more authentic, sources of news and culture. The convergence model of huge Internet, television and newspaper chains that both Quebecor and Canwest bet so many billions of dollars on is failing, choking on bureaucratic centralization and the homogenization of its content. The hope for both Montreal papers they own is that their employees will stand up, not only for their jobs and working conditions, but for their readers.
We need large newspapers: for their ability to exhaustively cover important issues, their variety of viewpoints, for the historical record and, most of all, for the health of our democracy. At their best, however, big newspapers act like small ones – relentlessly focused on local issues with a healthy disrespect for authority.
For that, however, they need to keep to the spirit that leads an eight-year-old kid to spend hours and hours on a paper that had only one reader. They cannot smother the do-it-yourself attitude that has respect for the craft of journalism and the community it serves.