Now that we know just how much financial trouble Postmedia is in (see here, and here, and here), the question becomes: How well are they going to balance journalistic and money problems as they attempt, pell-mell, to transition to a digital-first strategy? On the basis of the Vancouver Province/Enbridge-parody furor, the answer is: Not.
On Monday, we reported that an animation satirizing Enbridge’s current $5 million ad campaign in support of its Northern Gateway Pipeline had been pulled from the website of The Province. Its creator, The Province‘s editorial cartoonist Dan Murphy, told the CBC that, in a meeting with the paper’s editor-in-chief, he was advised the animation had to come down because Postmedia’s Chief Revenue and Digital Officer, Simon Jennings, and Enbridge had “hit the ceiling over it,” and Enbridge was threatening to pull $1 million in advertising from Postmedia.
In an e-mail to backofthebook.ca, Jennings denied giving an order to remove the Enbridge parody. Wayne Moriarty, the editor-in-chief in question, told me that he did not tell Murphy that Jennings had given any such ultimatum, and that Murphy must have told the CBC otherwise because “you interpret conversations to meet your needs, to meet your ends.”
Dan Murphy, however, confirms his account of the meeting. “I don’t change one hair of it,” he told me on Thursday afternoon. He sounded amused when I relayed what Moriarty had said. “If I’m making this stuff up, why are they saying I won’t even be reprimanded? That would be grounds for termination.”
Now, it seems to me very, very unlikely that Murphy went on CBC Radio and TV and just made that stuff up. He has been an editorial cartoonist for 25 years, and he knows what happens to liars, especially liars who lie in very public ways. (They end up getting sliced-and-diced by the likes of him.) That leaves two possibilities — Moriarty did tell him those things, or Murphy somehow misunderstood what he was being told. Or a bit of both. And unfortunately, the one guy who could shed some light on this, Gordon Clark, the paper’s editorial page editor, who was also present at the meeting, isn’t talking. “Wayne Moriarty speaks for the paper on this issue,” he said in an e-mail.
But it doesn’t really matter. Who said what in a meeting isn’t a news story. Whether a major media chain pulled an editorial cartoon because it doesn’t want to displease a big advertiser is (and note to Simon Jennings, who told me in his e-mail that “This sounds like a local issue”: not so much anymore).
Let’s take Wayne Moriarty at his word and go with what he said on Monday — that he and he alone made the decision to pull, and he did so because somebody (as it turns out, the ad buyer for Enbridge) said the parody infringed copyright. This is nonsense. As Moriarty surely knows, fair dealing laws would provide a rock solid defence in the extremely unlikely event that Enbridge decided to pursue the matter. He just didn’t want to go there. Because apparently the dividing line between editorial and advertising doesn’t matter that much at The Province, or maybe he figures they can’t afford to maintain it anymore.
He says he understood the ad buyer’s concern, and told The Canadian Press that The Province has itself gone after satirists who used its copyrighted material. “It seemed a little hypocritical to fight that fight and then on the other hand turn our nose at someone who had expressed a concern about our using their copyright.” I don’t know what case he’s referring to, but if The Province has tried to use the law to shut down people making fun of it, then its history of pusillanimous behaviour obviously predates this incident. The solution, as any repeat offender could tell them, is not to continue the behaviour, but to engage in deep self-reflection, maybe get a bit of counselling, and then get your shit together.
Though obviously the problem reaches into the executive suite. Kevin Bent, The Province‘s publisher (and president of the Pacific Newspaper Group, which also owns the Vancouver Sun), actually phoned up and apologized to Enbridge. “I just didn’t want these guys to take any legal action against us,” he told the CBC. “We just don’t have tens of thousands of dollars or more to spend around an infringement issue.”
Get this man a Pulitzer. Oh wait, Canada doesn’t have Pulitzers? Just as well.
Which returns us to the original question: Can Postmedia and other newspaper chains manage their shrinking fortunes without throwing journalistic integrity to the wind? The very smart if somewhat saturnine journalist Shannon Rupp would tell you that battle was lost long ago. For myself, I’d say the answer is still: Maybe. Just because your cash flow is disappearing doesn’t mean your principles have to also. But it will take better leadership, and a lot more savvy, than has been shown at The Province in the last few days to do so, especially as regards online content. (If you’re planning to disappear behind a paywall, the last thing you should be doing is zapping content that people might actually pay to see.) If Mr. Moriarty wants to recover some of his losses, he’ll repost the video, admit he made a mistake, and tell Enbridge to bring it on. (They won’t.) Otherwise, readers will have every reason to suppose his paper has become a big gooey mess of bitumen extract. And nobody’s going to want to buy that, whether online or off.