“The Postmedia chain has turned against the PM. Period.”

The Death of Caesar

An anonymous missive has appeared on The Gazetteer, purporting to be from “a newsworker at Postmedia” and offering an explanation for that chain’s sudden turn against the Harper Conservatives. The Gazetter‘s proprietor, RossK, had wondered if aggressive work on the robocall file and other signs of journalistic life at Conrad Black’s former playthingie meant some sort of sea change was underway. He received the following response. For our part, we expect the change has more to do with Postmedia’s deteriorating finances, and a vague memory that scandals sell papers. But as regular readers of backofthebook know, we loves us a good conspiracy theory . . .

“Ok, RossK, I’ll bite. As a news worker at Postmedia, I think this is an interesting and important question you’ve raised about this odd shift in the commercial media.

It was McGregor and Maher at the Citizen and the National Post who picked up the rifle first, as you note, with the robocall scandal. And now there’s O’Neill. And there are more to come. The Postmedia chain has turned against the PM. Period.

There is no way to understate the importance of that shift. It hasn’t worked its way through the whole empire; you don’t immediately change the attitude or approach of the hundreds of idiots you’ve appointed to management jobs over the years. Or all the columnists, or reporters.

But it’s started.

And it’s huge. It should NOT be underestimated.

The question for us in their newsrooms is: What in the hell can the PM have done to piss off Postmedia (run nominally by the Tory-loving former managers of Canwest, but in reality owned and funded by GoldenTree, a New York hedge fund)?

Well, here’s one theory:

1. GoldenTree invested in the chain in 2010 because newspapers are high cash generators. (Usually, anyway.) Because Canada has foreign-ownership media laws, the new company and its share holdings had to be very carefully structured.

2. But maybe that wasn’t such a big deal, because Harper was making a lot of big, loud promises about opening up ownership to foreign interests. That would mean GoldenTree could unload the chain, or parts of it, in future with relative ease. Hedge funds like to get in and out quickly, and there aren’t a lot of Canadian buyers for a property that big. Quebecor was really the only competitor that GoldenTree faced in 2010 as Canwest lay dying, and Quebecor lost out because it couldn’t put together a big enough offer.

3. Foreign ownership isn’t anywhere on the apparent radar for Harper anymore. At all. Period. Unless he’s in completely secret talks that no one has heard a word about.

4. Postmedia isn’t making money, certainly not at the rate GoldenTree needs it to. As a hedge fund, it would have wanted to move in, tap the cash flow and sell it on. There are lots of more promising cash machines for GoldenTree to move on to.

5. Postmedia executives, including CEO Paul Godfrey, toured newsrooms in BC just weeks ago to announce that while the two papers in Vancouver were still clinging by their fingernails to the black side of the ledger, red ink looms with absolute certainty in the very near future. An online-only Monday-Friday edition of the Province is widely rumoured to be in the works, with staff busy working on a new design for the weekend edition. (Yes, some of this is company trash talk aimed at turning newsroom workers against pressroom workers in talks for a contract that expired about 18 months ago. But that’s not the whole story. True, newsroom workers have taken huge hits; press workers haven’t, yet. And true, pressroom costs are high, and they were high in Victoria, where the chain used them as an excuse for selling the paper there to Glacier. But it is also true that the papers aren’t making the money they should, costs aside. That’s because the company doesn’t understand its product or its readership and can’t think of any other way to fix the problem than to continually cut costs, which in fact only makes the product worse.)

6. Quebecor, which owns the Tory-worshipping SunTV, is now the PM’s best friend and only defender.

7. So should GoldenTree force a sale of Postmedia, with foreign ownership rules still in place, well, the best and maybe only positioned buyer might beĀ  . . . ta da! . . . Quebecor.

8. Which would result in a takeover of the majority of Canada’s news outlets by a completely right-wing company.

9. Say it all together now: Hmmmmmmmm. Can this have been the plan all along?

As I say, just a theory among some of us.

But it would be fair to say that the shift in Postmedia’s Tory coverage is significant enough to have most of our newsroom radar on full alert.

And I would add one other thing, since none of us know where this ride will take us. For everyone feeling so rightly cynical about the media, you will note that there is the odd MSM reporter left who can, when turned loose, still produce. You will note that there were others at the Globe and CBC etc who joined in after the Post kicked off the robocall-fest. I would argue that the heavy lifting was still done by the blogosphere, including you and many of those in your own circle. But I think there is still a rescue-able body of journalists left should the MSM, or any portion of it, come under new ownership that actually understands it own product, readership and social contract — something that Postmedia fails entirely to do.”

Postmedia: Layoffs? What layoffs?

paul-godfrey_pink-slip

By Brian Brennan

paul-godfrey_pink-slipTelevision reporter Tom Clark parts company with CTV News, and the network issues a public statement to that effect. Kevin Newman steps down as Global anchor, and his network does the same. But what happens when dozens, perhaps hundreds of print reporters in this country leave their jobs, either voluntarily or otherwise? Silence.

Postmedia Network, successor to CanWest, has started cutting jobs at its newspapers. No surprise there. It paid $1.1 billion for the papers, and has to cover its costs somehow. This has been standard policy in the newspaper business for more than 30 years. Whenever publishers run into money problems, they devalue the product by getting rid of staff and then filling up the white space between the ads with more and more wire copy. Mind you, they rarely get rid of senior managers when they do this purging. These are the ones handing out the pink slips, after all. The managers get to stay so they can continue to manage . . . what, exactly? With fewer and fewer staffers to supervise, they busy themselves with other jobs. I knew a senior editorial manager at one paper whose job it was to check all the signed cab slips that came back to the newsroom after the reporters used taxis to carry out their assignments. The job of checking the slips could have been done by a part-time office assistant, yet it was given to this senior manager who remained at the paper from cradle to grave. How well did he handle his awesome responsibility? Let me put it this way: Every time I used a cab, I signed my name “Donald Duck.”

You didn’t read about the Postmedia job cuts in any of the Postmedia newspapers. That’s standard newspaper policy, too. Whenever the National Post lays off staff, it leaves it up to The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star to cover the story. The Post will write about job cuts in other industries, but it won’t cover any stories that happen under its own roof. The original source for the Postmedia story was an internal memo sent by a company vice-president to staff at the Victoria Times-Colonist. “We must continue to find ways to serve our readers and advertisers in more cost-effective ways,” wrote the VP, Kevin Bent. The memo was leaked to the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, and that’s how you got to read about it in the Globe.

Postmedia has confirmed there are layoffs, but won’t give the numbers. Nor will it give any names. The Globe, citing sources, says about 20 jobs were cut at the Edmonton Journal and 30 at the Calgary Herald. An unspecified number will be leaving such other papers as the Vancouver Sun and Province, the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen. Are any of our favourite columnists affected? If they were working for one of the television networks, we’d know the answer.

CanWest Idol

Simon-Cowell-razzie

By Frank Moher

Simon-Cowell-razzieLet’s play CanWest Idol! — in which we decide who should get to buy the bankrupt media company’s assets.

The finalists for the TV operation appear to be just two: Shaw Communications and Catalyst Capital. The former is the Alberta-based cable company; the latter is the front-organization for Leonard Asper and New York investment firm Goldman Sachs.

Simon Cowell says: Really? These are the choices? A hardware company run by a cowboy and the same people who drove CanWest into the ground in the first place? No wonder I’m quitting this show.

We say: That’s a little harsh, Simon. Besides, we know cowboys, and Jim Shaw is no cowboy. As for the Aspers, it’s true that letting them reassume control would be like putting Joseph Hazelwood back at the helm of the Exxon Valdez, but, y’know, their convergence strategy showed foresight and may just work yet, once the economy is out of the pooper.

On the other hand, they’re in large measure responsible for the pathetic state of Canadian specialty channels, so we say stick with the decision to give it to Shaw. Given all his mouthing off about the horribleness of Canadian programming, we’d like to see Jimbo try to do better. And who knows? Maybe he will.

In the print category, the known finalists are BC newspaper publisher David “No Relation to Conrad” Black, Vancouver-based Glacier Media, Inc., a consortium led by current National Post executive Paul Godfrey, and — guess who? — the Aspers.

Simon says: The Aspers again? Let me see: if the bank foreclosed on my home and put it on the market, and I tried to buy it back, promising that this time I’d really, really pay the mortgage, what do you think the bank might say to me? As for the rest: Who are these nobodies?

We say: Well, actually Simon, one of them has been running CanWest’s flagship newspaper for awhile now. But there’s the problem. The CanWest newspapers need a total reboot, and, plainly, neither Godfrey nor the Aspers are the people to do it. After Conrad Black sold the Post to Izzy Asper and Asper (eventually) fired Ken Whyte, the Post became a shadow of its former, robust self and remains so today. It needs reinventing. As for the others in the chain, particularly the big city papers like The Calgary Herald and The Ottawa Citizen, they are still beset by the poisonous atmosphere created by Black’s union-busting and the Aspers’ predilection for censorship — most famously reflected in their firing of Russell Mills, publisher of the Citizen, after the paper called for the resignation of Jean Chretien, and continuing today with their suppression of news and commentary contrary to Israel’s interests. Again, a housecleaning is in order.

David-Black_w_capThat leaves the other Black (David) and Glacier Media. We confess to having known nothing of the latter until we visited their website, but we can confidently say that any company that can’t produce a better website has no business running a national news organization. David Black, on the other hand, has quietly built up a very solid chain of newspapers, some big, mostly small, in both western Canada and the States, most of which also have sophisticated online editions. Black Press has run into its own charges of meddling, but Black himself is known as a hands-off publisher with no particular political agenda. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

Not that the Bank of Nova Scotia and other creditors are going to spend a lot of time considering who’ll create the best product, and help renew Canadian media. They just wantz their money. If they did, though, Shaw and Black would walk away the winners. Cue the balloons.