Author Tags: Labour, Sports
As a Media Writing Professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, Marc Edge wrote and published his doctoral dissertation, Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly (New Star Books, 2001). As an associate professor in the department of Mass Communication at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, he published a follow-up study, Asper Nation: Canada's Most Dangerous Media Company (New Star 2007) in which he critically assesses the media control exerted by Izzy Asper's CanWest Global Communications network. "The book is less an indictment of Izzy Asper and his heirs," writes Edge, "than of a system that allowed them to gain control over so much of Canada's news media and use it to promote an ideological agenda." It's a combined look at the newspapers owned by Southam Inc., Conrad Black and the Aspers.
Edge explores the history and finances of North American newspapers and media conglomerates in Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers (New Star 2014). He concludes that the newspaper business is still healthy and profitable.
Edge worked as a legal affairs reporter for the Province (1983-93) and the Calgary Herald. As a former contributing writer for Hockey magazine, he also wrote Red Line, Blue Line, Bottom Line: How Push Came to Shove Between the National Hockey League and Its Players (New Star, 2004). Born in New Westminster, Edge has a Master of Labour and Industrial Relations degree from Michigan State University and a Ph.D in Mass Communication from Ohio University.
Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly (New Star Books, 2001)
Red Line, Blue Line, Bottom Line: How Push Came to Shove Between the National Hockey League and Its Players (New Star, 2004)
Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company (New Star 2007) $21 978-1-55420-032-0
Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers (New Star 2014) $21 978-1-55420-102-0
[BCBW 2015] "Media"
Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly
Once upon a time, there was a city with three competing daily newspapers. That city was Vancouver. It was a lot smaller than it is now, and advertising revenue was, in total, a lot thinner than it is now. Today, with three times the population of those halcyon days in the early Fifties, Vancouver has only two dailies and they’re both owned by CanWest Global, which also controls BCTV. The diversity of social and political views represented by the old Sun, a feisty, small ‘l’ liberal paper, and its rival, the Tory Province, has been replaced by something called “convergence.” Convergence is a buzzword for cost-efficiencies and economies of scale in the news and entertainment business. Read: fewer stories and less variety of editorial content. Read: central planning of the news.
What happened? In his ambitious study of the newspaper business in post-war Vancouver, Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly (New Star $39), Marc Edge sets out to provide the answer. It’s a big, vibrant, interesting book full of vignettes of newsroom rivalry and corporate drama, but the tale it lays out is a depressing illustration of market forces left to accomplish what market forces will without the guiding hand of regulation. That unregulated markets tend to produce monopolies and price-fixing rather than cut-throat competition was a seminal insight of Karl Marx, certainly one of the handful of Marxist analyses that has stood the test of history. The most astonishing thing about the Pacific Press monopoly was that, through most of its history, it threatened to be a money losing proposition for one if not both parties to the arrangement.
Pacific Press as an entity originated in 1957 when Southam Newspaper chain general manager, St. Clair Balfour, made the owner of the Vancouver Sun, Don Cromie, an offer he couldn’t refuse. Fierce competition between Cromie’s Sun and Southam’s Province had gradually been eroding the Province’s market share. Following a pattern common in many city markets, the second-place paper was inexorably losing ground to the front runner in a battle for advertising dollars. Advertisers simply preferred the larger circulation vehicle. The Province was in trouble, but Cromie feared the chain’s deep pockets might give it the staying power to best The Sun in an all-out advertising war. Balfour flew from Southam’s headquarters in Toronto to make his offer: an amalgamated printing and production arrangement that would see profits and costs split equally between the two papers. He sweetened the offer with almost four million dollars cash (worth more than ten times that today) to offset The Sun’s greater profitability. Cromie accepted.
The arrangement wasn’t new. It had already become a trend in many American cities, where anti-trust laws eventually had to be amended to make special exemption for newspapers in order to accommodate what was, in fact, a fait accompli. The arguments used in the US were echoed in Canada when the Restrictive Trade Practices Commission investigated the deal. By amalgamating production facilities, Cromie and Southam asserted, the two companies were actually guaranteeing diversity of news in the Vancouver market. This was because the agreement carefully stipulated the papers remain strictly independent of each other in the publishing field. Without such an agreement, corporate spokesmen testified before the Commission, one of the papers would likely fold, leaving the city with a more onerous type of monopoly.
The critics fulminated—but Canada’s anti-combines laws had never
been strong. The Commission recommended legislation preventing the partnership from becoming a publishing as well as a production monopoly, but, predictably, that legislation was never enacted. Ironically, the provisions of the Pacific Press agreement, which saddled the smaller circulation Province with an equal share of production costs (thereby causing it to have a higher overhead per issue than its rival), and distributed the money-making The Sun’s profits equally to the money-losing Province, in the end caused grief to both papers. Management was also extremely unwieldy - with separate publishers negotiating in tandem with a single production management team against a single shop of printers and pressmen and two sets of journalists, all united in a Joint Council of unions. Equally predictably, distrust, rumour and turf wars abounded. And in the seventies, the heyday of labour militancy in BC, there were ruinous strikes, accusations of lock-out, exorbitant wage demands, even—fed by chronic problems at Pacific Press—the appearance and disappearance of rival dailies, some of them created by union members to augment their strike pay.
With the logic of tragic inevitability Edge records the corporate response to these difficulties. The upstart FP group had the money to buy the Sun from Don Cromie and his family in 1963, after which neither Vancouver paper was locally owned. FP in turn was bought by the larger Thomson chain in 1980. Thomson’s approach to the business was to cut costs, cut staff, cut editorial independence. It also reached a deal the same year to close the Ottawa Journal and sell the Sun to Southam, while Southam closed its money-loser in Winnipeg, The Tribune. Now Southam owned both of Vancouver’s dailies outright, and the situation the Restrictive Trade Practices Commission had warned about in 1957—a publication and production monopoly—had come to pass. The Trudeau government once again called in the would-be regulators and set up a Royal Commission on concentration of newspaper ownership called the Kent Commission.
Its fate at the hands of federal legislators is covered in the book. In the United States, which tends to boast of having stronger anti-trust laws than Canada, newspaper monopolies are the rule in many cities as a result of legislation sponsored by President Richard Nixon. Nixon, in turn, Edge notes with delicious irony, considering his subsequent behaviour and fate, “received the highest percentage of endorsement of any candidate [for the presidency] in modern times.” In Vancouver, the struggling Southam chain fell to Conrad Black’s Hollinger Corporation in 1992. Black in turn sold to CanWest in 2000.
With each change of corporate master more assets fell under the sway of one owner—TV stations and weekly newspapers as well as the dailies. And also with each change came more ruthless business practices, which, Edge explains, placed “marketing” values above editorial content and curtailed journalistic independence. This growth of corporate culture at the expense of the journalistic culture it was supplanting is one of Edge’s major themes. Unsurprisingly, what editorial content there was in both the Sun and the Province also became, over the same period, more business-oriented, less friendly to social welfare and interventionist measures. The present editor of the Sun is a professed libertarian—in other words, a laissez-faire capitalist. The competitive spirit still lives—if only in the minds of corporate monopolists and their employees!
Pacific Press tells what is journalistically referred to as a ‘troubling’ story. I have given only the barest idea of a complex and densely written book. There are some fine portraits of journalists and their managers along the way - the irrepressible Allan Fotheringham, who once aspired to edit the Sun, the extremist, Doug Collins, whose ego was bigger than the papers he worked for, the exquisitely civilized and diplomatic Stuart Keate, long time publisher of the Sun. Edge tells a story that needed to be told, if only, as he says in his introduction, to bring to public attention a situation in which our most precious asset in a democracy, freedom of speech, has been allowed to dwindle into the care of centralized decision-makers pursuing their own very narrow goals.
While not particularly friendly to unions or to the distortions of sensible business practice that recalcitrant unions like the pressmen can cause, Pacific Press provides compelling evidence for the view that the markets for mass media behave very much like financial markets as described by George Soros in his new book, On Globalization (Public Affairs $20). “Left to their own devices,” Soros writes, they “are liable to extremes and eventually break down.” What we have in Vancouver is a breakdown of the mass market for free speech.
Edge’s book is an extended and unapologetic editorial on the current philosophical scam that everything will be better as soon as the government leaves it alone. Like its equally cheesy rival, the notion that everything under the sun should be controlled by the people as embodied in their government, perhaps assisted by instant electronic referenda (or, for that matter by god as embodied in his mullahs), this scam is inevitably cover for some breathtakingly bad business. Marc Edge is a voice for those who think sanity and good business lie somewhere in the middle, where compromise and clear talking, not programmatic and hypocritical dogma, are to be found. The first and last question Edge asks his readers is, Why did our democracy fail to protect itself from the competing freedom of enterprises with massive capital resources to spend in the pursuit of their very separate and not necessarily compatible interests? Good question, indeed. A good part of the answer has to be that the organs of public debate are increasingly a monopoly of those (inherently undemocratic) business interests.
Pacific Press 0-921586-88-4; Reviewer Gerry Hopson writes for the Galiano Books newsletter and other publications. –[BCBW AUTUMN 2002] "Journalism"
Red Line, Blue Line, Bottom Line (2004)
"Overpaid many of them may be, but are National Hockey League players on solid ground or on thin ice in their showdown with team owners that has been brewing for years? The owners claim they are losing millions of dollars annually due to the escalating player salaries brought by free agency. They are threatening to lock the players out of NHL arenas for the entire 2004-2005 season if necessary to force them to accept a salary cap or other form of wage restraint as exists in every other major North American sports league. For their part, the players are dubious about the claims of financial ruin being made by owners because they’ve heard that song before. They believed it when it wasn’t true, and as a result for many years NHLers earned by far the lowest salaries of major league athletes. Now that they’re caught up to and passed the average salary paid to players in the National Football League, even if they still trail their contemporaries in basketball and baseball, NHL players are reluctant to give back their hard-fought gains. They want to keep the free market system as it is and they point out that nobody forces owners to pay inflated salaries for free agents. The last time push came to shove in this dispute a decade ago, the owners canceled half the season without getting the “cost certainty” they are still seeking. This time they’re promising to wipe out the entire year, which has many players signing on to play with teams in Europe this season. Could this be the death of the NHL? The peculiar economics of professional sports and the experience of owners and players in other leagues provide some insights into the 2004 hockey brawl." -- courtesy New Star Books.
Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company
from Shane McCune
Legendary U.S. reporter and newspaper critic A.J. Liebling once called the press “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.” In 21st-century Canada, it’s more like the quicksand under the house.
Legendary U.S. reporter and newspaper critic A.J. Liebling once called the press “the weak slat under the bed of democracy.” In 21st-century Canada, it’s more like the quicksand under the house.
If you disagree with that view, just try finding any mention of Marc Edge’s Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company (New Star $21) in any of the news outlets controlled by CanWest Global Communications.
Like Conrad Black before them, CanWest chiefs Leonard and David Asper are fond of saying they can’t control what Canadians think. But they do like to control what we think about — or what we don’t think about.
“It’s not just what you see in the paper,” as former Montreal Gazette publisher Michael Goldbloom has put it, “but what you don’t see.” By some estimates CanWest Global dispenses up to 70 per cent of the news consumed on the West Coast on any given day.
The Winnipeg-based Aspers own both of metro Vancouver’s dailies, most of its “community” papers and the province’s top-rated TV channel, along with dailies in Victoria and Nanaimo, several more small papers on Vancouver Island and Victoria’s “CH” television.
From Victoria to Montreal it owns 11 major dailies (including five of the top 10 in circulation) and boasts that its TV broadcasts reach 94 per cent of the nation.
Lack of coverage for Asper Nation within the Asper Nation is to be expected—and it likely does not emanate from a diktat from head office. As Edge makes clear, the worst part of the censorship within CanWest is that most of it is now self-inflicted.
“I began to censor myself,” said Stephen Kimber, a fellow journalism professor and long-time columnist for the Halifax Daily News. He told the Washington Post. “I would remember, ‘No, I’m not supposed to write about that.’”
Kimber quit after writing a column he knew would be spiked. It criticized the Asper’s brief, clumsy 2001 experiment with “national” editorials written in Winnipeg and reprinted in all chain papers except the Province (presumably because identical editorials in both Vancouver dailies would make the cookie-cutter nature of the enterprise too blatant). Once the Aspers’ head office had taken a stand, no paper was allowed to run an editorial opposing it.
This seemed to contradict CanWest’s position as set out in its brief to the government’s Heritage Committee on Dec. 10, 2001: “Each (of our newspapers) is relentlessly local in its coverage and fiercely independent in its editorial policy.”
A month later CanWest founder Israel “Izzy” Asper was singing a different tune:
“As publisher-in-chief, we are responsible for every single word which appears in the papers we own, and therefore on national and international key issues, we should have one, not 14 official editorial positions.”
At the time of the furor CanWest was still using the Southam family name for the chain; its stylized torch logo appeared on each editorial. Edge notes: “The Southam “brand,” which had been bought by CanWest from Conrad Black, stood for quality journalism. Just as importantly, it stood for local independence for publishers. Southam head office had historically taken pains to allow its newspapers to reflect the temper of their communities, even if that meant disagreeing with ownership.”
As one who worked for the chain under three owners, I’d say that’s an overly rosy depiction of that stodgy operation. [Full disclosure clause: I have known Edge for 30 years; we both worked for Southam papers in Calgary and Vancouver.] Then again, each owner that followed made the one before look better.
In retrospect the Southams’ paternalism seemed generous compared with Black’s condescension. Now the hacks gather at bars and say, “At least Black spent money on newsrooms instead of starving them like this bunch.” (In fact, Black did spend on the National Post, but other newsrooms were squeezed to help pay for it.)
The HQ editorials provoked outrage, especially at the Montreal Gazette, where reporters retaliated by withholding their bylines. That may sound like a harmless gesture, but it infuriated the Aspers, who retaliated by threatening suspensions. The staff escalated the battle through leaks to other media and a website called, provocatively enough, the “Gazette Intifada.”
Digging in his heels, David Asper famously borrowed a lyric from R.E.M. in a December 2001 speech: “I can say to our critics, and especially to the bleeding hearts of the journalist community, that it’s the end of the world as they know it, and I feel fine.”
In Asper Nation, Edge recounts a less-publicized part of that speech that spoke eloquently of the younger Aspers’ mindset: “If those people in Montreal are so committed, why don’t they just quit and have the courage of their convictions? Maybe they should go out and, for the first time in their lives, take a risk, put their money where their mouth is, and start their own newspaper.”
A sneering rich kid who inherited his newspapers challenging wage-earners to start their own . . . well, that’s one way to inspire your employees, I guess. But he could hardly challenge them to quit CanWest and work elsewhere, because there’s not much elsewhere left.
According to Marc Edge, that was the whole point of the Aspers’ buying spree: Eliminating competition. Controlling editorial pages is all well and good, but it’s the ad revenues that count. Leonard Asper, Edge writes, was passionate about “convergence” — using the newspapers and TV network to promote each other and the web to promote both.
Convergence was a buzzword in media circles for a few years, but it has yet to live up to the hype. Maybe that’s because the Aspers, who made their millions in broadcasting, didn’t know much about the newspaper business they spent $3.2 billion to acquire. Here’s Leonard in a 2001 speech: “In the future, journalists will wake up, write a story for the web, write a column, take their cameras, cover an event and do a report for TV and file a video clip for the web.”
Really? And what will they do after lunch?
Edge makes it clear the brothers inherited their belligerence from their father, a tax lawyer, politician, entrepreneur and jazz dabbler who died in 2003. As Edge tells it, Asper père sued pretty much every partner he ever had and was still pursuing a libel action against a critic at the time of his death.
Though once leader of the Manitoba Liberal party, he was a fiscal conservative whose views on most things — except his buddy Jean Chrétien — dovetailed neatly with those of Conrad Black.
A couple of early chapters in Asper Nation are devoted to Black. Much of this is necessary to set the Asper empire in context, but Edge dwells on him perhaps a little too much. Do we really need to know about his lordship’s connection with the shadowy Bilderberg Group?
Some of the most dispiriting passages in the book are those showing how funding from CanWest and other big media has compromised journalism schools.
In 2000, when CanWest bought Southam, Donna Logan, the founding director of UBC’s Sing Tao School of Journalism, said of convergence: “The danger would be that you have one very powerful editor who is making all of the decisions and you have fewer people making the decisions, fewer people making the choices of the stories that get covered.”
By the next year, the Sing Tao newspaper had withdrawn its funding of the school and Logan had a much cheerier attitude about convergence. Testifying at CRTC hearings into CanWest’s licence renewal she said: “Converged journalism offers an opportunity to … [free] up reporters to do stories that are not being done and are vital to democratic discourse.”
Two months later CanWest donated $500,000 to the school. (And here Edge can’t resist a cheap shot at Logan’s successor, who criticized his last book, Pacific Press.)
More depressing still is the litany of feckless government efforts to rein in media concentration, from the Davey Commission of 1970 to the CRTC’s September 2007 hearings on convergence.
How effective were the latter? In December the regulator approved CanWest’s takeover — with U.S. money — of Alliance Atlantis Communications, which holds Canadian rights to 13 cable channels including BBC Canada, History Television and Showcase.
Yet Edge concludes that the best hope for undoing the “Asper disaster” would be CRTC regulations limiting media owners to a 50-per-cent audience/readership share in any market.
I’m not so sanguine about the regulator’s grasp of the problem. In 2001 it allowed CanWest and BCE Enterprises (owner of CTV and the Globe and Mail) to merge their print and broadcast news operations, using one reporter to cover stories for both . . . provided each medium kept a separate editor. Which is a little like saying a town can get by with only one wholesale bakery so long as there are two retail bread shops. No matter how each of them slices it, it’s still the same bread.
CanWest quietly abandoned the centralized editorials in 2003, but they have been accelerating centralized news handling. More news articles and entertainment reviews are boilerplate generated in one newsroom and printed chain-wide. Entire pages of western papers are being laid out at the Hamilton Spectator.
Meanwhile layoffs and buyouts proceed apace; some newspapers have half the editorial staff they had 15 or 20 years ago. Not surprisingly, readership is headed that way, too. As Edge readily concedes, events keep overtaking his research, and not for the better.
Still, Asper Nation is the best guide available to the machinations and missteps that brought Canadian media to its banana-republic condition. It contains little in the way of original research — no new studies and few if any fresh interviews — but is a thorough and concise compendium of relevant information and quotation, as the voluminous notes attest. (Note to New Star: that welter of information deserves a better index.)
Edge’s prose has a tabloid momentum to it. He’s at his best cutting to the chase but a little wobbly when he wanders into metaphor (“ . . . the proverbial straw that would catapult the CanWest controversy onto the national stage.”)
Like many of us baby-boomers who have left the newspaper business in disgust, Edge has little to say about online news beyond noting that CanWest wants to monopolize that, too.
It’s true that so far there’s little to recommend the “citizen journalists” touted by net geeks as the replacement for dead-tree technology and hierarchical news organizations. If you find an actual news story among the ill-informed bloviating online, chances are it originally came from one of those dinosaurs of “old media.” Newsgathering takes skill and money, and so far no one has found a way to make news websites pay.
But there are worthwhile online news sources such as the Tyee (thetyee.ca) and e-book technology is improving all the time. If you can download a digital book for a fee every month, why not a digital newspaper for a fee every day? With no need for expensive presses, independent news groups might rise again. 978-1-55420-032-0
-- review by Shane McCune