by Lorraine Rekmans
When I was a young reporter working at a small town newspaper in 1989, the challenges to cover local news effectively and efficiently were evident early on.
As a young journalism student, I was hired on for a summer position because I had my own car, and my own camera, and I could write as well as develop my own black and white film, and print my own black and white photos. I had no misgivings about why the paper hired me. I knew it wasn’t because I was such a terrific writer, but because I had various skills, including digital type-setting, when desktop publishing was relatively new. These were considered assets to a paper that was focused on cost efficiencies.
I emerged from the educational system, which had all the bells and whistles of the newest technologies, into the working world of a real newspaper that was dealing with the day to day reality of cost saving. The small-town paper afforded me the opportunity to cover municipal politics, labour and union issues, environmental issues, school board issues, and even take pictures of the hopeful adoptable pets at the pet shelter. It provided me with a broad lens in which to view my own hometown community.
This was a time when Conrad Black’s Holinger Inc. was buying up all of Canada’s media. At one time, Hollinger Inc. owned more than half of Canada’s daily newspapers, including the former Southam chain and the National Post.
It quickly became clear to me that cost saving was the focus of this little twice weekly publication. I never met Conrad Black, but at that time he was a highly influential figure in my day-to-day work. Reports about Mr. Black cast him as a ruthless boss, whose focus was on the bottom line. When Hollinger bought the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, one of the first moves was to sack staff to reduce costs and increase profits.
I am here to attest that our little newspaper in a town of 20,000 in northern Ontario, miles away from Bay Street and Wall Street, felt the ruthless impacts of cost cutting to an extent that I will never forget. We typed our news stories on manual typewriters in 1989. I can still remember, decades later now, that my typewriter was missing the “K” and “D” keys. We used sheets of thin newsprint to write on. You can imagine the shock I had when my editor told me that it was now policy to type on both sides of this thin paper in order to save money. Typing on the other side of the page made the first side illegible.
My editor seemed more focused on how much paper I was using, rather than on what I was writing about. When we could no longer buy ribbons for my typewriter, my editor caved in and agreed we could buy a new manual typewriter. He was shocked when the owner of the local stationary supply store said that manual typewriters weren’t even sold any more. After using a computer at school, I was so pleased to finally get an electric typewriter.
Cost saving mania was so rampant, our little newspaper even had to report to corporate headquarters on how much toilet paper our office used. And, of course, there was the ever- looming spectre of layoffs guiding us daily. Unlike the reporters then at the Timmins Daily Press, we were non-unionized and there was no way we could strike for better pay or shorter working hours. I was essentially on call 7 days a week for minimal pay.
The point of the story is that I was brought into a world where journalism was already a victim of capitalism, asset acquisition, consolidation, and liquidation. By way of contrast, I was educated by journalists who told me stories of a more exciting time in media history. A time when reporters would rush out to get the first scoop. When reporters had to write the most exciting leads to capture readers, when they would race each other to the nearest phone booth to call in breaking news. When newspapers would compete against each other to get the best stories.
Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I believe reading the old newspapers from 1940, 1930, and 1920, I get a true sense of what was happening, because the reporters did such an excellent job of covering issues. The columns were long and descriptive and created a wonderful historical record. That is the value of excellent journalism. It is precisely the point of why we tell stories. We are leaving a record for the next generation, as we are trying to understand the world we currently live in.
Here we are today in a Metroland and Postmedia world. Where we get to read the same stories in multiple publications, whether they are relevant to our region or not.
According to a Google search, Postmedia is currently 66% owned by an American media conglomerate (Chatham Asset Management), known for its close ties to the Republican Party (United States).
Incidentally, Postmedia now owns the little small town paper I used to work at, as well as dozens of others including the Cornwall Standard Freeholder, Montreal Gazette, Timmins, Brockville Recorder and Times, Kingston This Week, Owen Sound Sun Times, Espanola’s Mid-North Monitor, etc.. Postmedia Canada’s revenue from print advertising amounted to $190,697 million in 2020. That is a lot of cost efficiency.
I am personally troubled by such a massive consolidation in media, especially that the consolidated ownership is foreign, with ties to the U.S. Republican Party. I am troubled when major daily newspaper in Canada specifically endorses the Conservative Party, like they did in 2011 and 2015. Some papers even ran ads from the Conservative Party as their entire front page.
As a person living in Canada, I grew up in a time when Canadian ownership and Canadian content were mandated by law. When I was young, I grew up in a political household, and we talked about the Combines Investigations Act, and no, it isn’t a farming term. It was an Act created in 1923 that prohibited the creation of monopolies. It was an act designed to encourage competition and stop mergers or monopolies that may “operate to the detriment of the public.”
It’s strange that the Postmedia acquisition of so many Canadian newspapers wasn’t subject to an investigation under the Canada Investment Act, and that this purchase did not trigger an investigation under the Competition Act. How could government have let this happen to our media?
My personal view is that the creation of an American-centric, Republican backed media monopoly will operate to the detriment of news readers across Canada. The stories that we generate and tell each other on this side of the border should belong to us. Remember, whomever pays the piper, calls the tune.
PS. Thank you North Grenville Times for being independent.