Buying up the Free Press

In the Canadian media, a shared owner doesn’t necessarily mean shared opinions

In 2000, Canwest Global Communications Corp. paid $3.2 billion to acquire the bulk of Hollinger International’s extensive chain of newspapers and 50 percent of the National Post. The sale of a major news corporation from a press baron (Conrad Black) to a media giant (Izzy Asper and his family) captured both domestic and international media attention. In particular, CanWest felt this acquisition would lead a big shift toward media convergence. As Leonard Asper wrote, it would hopefully become a “model for similar convergence activities throughout the Western world.”

The Aspers’ vision for media convergence never quite came to fruition. In theory, the operational strategy of sharing content between a company’s television and newspaper properties makes perfect sense. But in practice, there has generally been a point—an invisible line, if you will—where the print world and electronic world remain independent. You could blame this basic human impulse on a litany of reasons, including clashing personalities, a compulsion to protect content (especially breaking news stories) and a disconnect between newspapers, TV and radio. Irrespective of the reason, it was quite clear that a Vulcan-like mind-meld with respect to content-sharing would be difficult to achieve. And the unfortunate collapse of Canwest Global, which went into bankruptcy protection in 2009, tossed that particular experiment into the dustbin of Canadian media history.

So where do things currently stand with the strategy of media convergence? Four Canadian academics—Walter C. Soderlund, Colette Brin, Lydia Miljan and Kai Hildebrandt—set out to answer this question in the book under review, which studies content-sharing practices among English- and French-Canadian news companies. The book was constructed in a typical academic style, with a never-ending series of run-on sentences that Ernest Hemingway would admire. Even so, what the authors discovered was rather surprising and intriguing: contrary to popular belief, content-sharing in the Canadian media isn’t as widespread as previously thought.

The authors correctly point out that media convergence “has been portrayed by its critics as a horrendous outcome for both a free press and the democracy it serves,” while it has been “seen by its proponents … as the saviour of mass media in an age of ‘narrowcasting,’ the impact of ‘new media,’ and, perhaps most important of all, diminishing profits.” When Canwest, and later Torstar and Quebecor, purchased part or all of certain media organizations in different mediums, it was seen as either a sign of genius or the beginning of the Apocalypse. This sentiment went far beyond the traditional left-right political spectrum, as there were many reliable free market thinkers who fell on both sides of this issue. Hence, Soderlund et al. noted that the key issue (for them) revolved around “how much diversity of information is optimal for the reasonable functioning of democracy.”

That’s a fair point. On a brief personal note, I distinctly remember a very dark period in the Canwest media convergence plan that involved democracy. I had just started working for The Windsor Star as an editorial writer/columnist in 2002, and Canwest sent down its first national editorial shortly thereafter. To say that it blew the lid off of Canadian journalism would be an understatement. Most journalists and pundits were united in their fierce opposition to national editorials. They saw it as a threat to democratic thought as well as to an editorial board’s independence, and condemned the decision. When the Aspers wisely dropped this idea, many cheered.

By 2005, Canwest, CTVglobemedia and Quebecor, the “three major corporate owners of both television and newspaper properties,” all “appeared to be following corporate strategies to promote synergies between their print and television holdings.” This trend led critics and supporters of convergence to believe it would eventually become the dominant model of how to run a Canadian-based media empire.

But that’s not what happened. As the authors point out, “convergence” was in those days what Elizabeth Birge calls a “squishy term,” without a single agreed-upon definition. Print, TV and radio were seen as three essential components, but few could exactly figure out how shared content would equally benefit those entities. Meanwhile, new media channels such as websites, blogs and podcasts were starting to pick up steam and occasionally trump the “old media” (i.e., TV and newspapers) on reporting information and scoops for breaking news stories. People were therefore starting to access free new content on a growing basis—and the assumed profitability of media convergence quickly became a major cause for concern.

That being said, a small handful of Canadian media organizations are trying to keep the “classic” convergence strategy alive and kicking—but with some important new twists. For example, Quebecor Media Inc. (QMI) has been integrating old media and new media techniques in its newspaper holdings like The Toronto Sun and its year-old TV station, the Sun News Network. Since this book was completed around the time QMI was beginning its new convergence phase, the authors obviously didn’t have sufficient time to consider this model. Yet as a former Sun columnist and regular contributor to a number of Sun TV programs, I’ve actually seen it up close. I would argue that to date, QMI’s vision has been more successful than Canwest Global’s vision in terms of sharing and promoting print and electronic resources without stepping on any toes or bruising any egos. QMI has also integrated Twitter, Facebook and other social media networks as part of a populist strategy to give readers and viewers a way to frequently participate in both mediums. To be fair, it’s far too early to label QMI’s media convergence strategy as a success or failure. But it’s certainly a unique way of approaching Canadian media in the 21st century, and could turn out to be the right one.

Likewise, Rogers Communications still owns print publications (Maclean’s, Canadian Business, Sportsnet Magazine), TV stations (Rogers Cable, Sportsnet, Citytv) and even radio stations (The Fan 590, 680 News, CHFI). This allows different Rogers media personalities to appear on a wide variety of mediums to share stories, news items and daily content. The hope is that greater exposure will lead to higher ratings for all three mediums.

But what effect does media convergence have on diversity of editorial content? The authors did not find conclusive evidence of a direct correlation in earlier research on the U.S. experience. For example, they mention an interesting 2002 study by David Pritchard comparing cross-owned TV and newspaper content. Pritchard found very different slants in coverage by both entities, and that TV “’often contradicted the newspaper’s endorsement of a candidate.’” Meanwhile, a five-year study of local news conducted by Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell revealed that “ownership did make a difference, but evidence regarding the impact of cross-ownership was mixed”—and stations that fell under cross-ownership “had higher quality newscasts than network-owned and operated stations.” Long story short, diversity of opinion seemed to exist in the age of media convergence.

So, the four authors undertook a comprehensive study of four sample weeks in 2007 to determine the amount of diversity in Canadian news content. CTV News was paired with The Globe and Mail (CTVglobemedia), Global National was paired with the National Post (Canwest Global), and TVA réseau was paired with the Le Journal de Montréal (Quebecor). An English control group paired CBC’s The National with two independently owned papers, the Winnipeg Free Press and Halifax Chronicle-Herald. As well, a French control group paired SRC’s Le Téléjournal with two newspapers, La Presse and Le Devoir. Various tests were conducted: of Story Leads, Story Dimension, Story Language, Story Sources, Editorial Direction and an Index of Similarity Scores. This would help reveal important characteristics such as editorial spin and similarity in language and news stories.

After conducting this study, the authors determined it “produced little evidence that in 2007 overt content-sharing was taking place in the newsrooms of cross-owned Canadian media companies.” Moreover, “[a]ll of these findings showed weak relationships, at best, between ownership and content similarity.” While the authors acknowledge that this was only a study of old media and would ideally be followed up with a study of “cloning content for use on the internet,” the results are quite striking. With only a few minor exceptions, English- and French-speaking media organizations seemed to favour editorial and newscast independence over strict media convergence.

Some LRC readers may choose to criticize this study as being narrowly focused on four particular weeks in 2007. A multi-year study—or one conducted in 2006 or 2008—could have depicted something entirely different. All of this may be true. But in my view, this important and well-researched study provides a window into a period of time when media convergence was still regarded as a powerful tool—and seems to prove that various concerns may have been overstated. For the most part, TV stations and newspapers owned by the same company don’t necessarily think alike, act alike or even report the news alike. (Even QMI’s current media convergence plan still allows for difference of opinion in terms of taking a story and analyzing it with a particular spin from the staff, host/anchor or guest.) Hence, the identity of each entity, as well as the guiding democratic principles, appears to have remained intact.

The second part of Cross-Media Ownership and Democratic Practice in Canada takes place between 2009 and 2010. By this point, the internet and new media resources were getting stronger and the future of Canadian newspapers was a hot topic for debate. The editors interviewed in this section (who remained anonymous, for obvious reasons) took remarkably different positions on print media and new media. One editor felt newspapers were “’a viable and profitable business,’” but recognized they will have “’a smaller core audience’” and a “’reduction in profit margins from those realized in the past.’” In contrast, another editor felt the internet was “’the best thing that has happened in the last five years,’” and actually did not view it as a direct competitor. Of interest, online products and content for TV and newspapers were seen as a “major area where the two types of media could achieve the greatest degree of cooperation.”

What is the future of Canadian media? Soderlund et al. note that within the industry, there is a firm belief newspapers will survive, albeit in a downsized, thinner and more focused format. They also point out “the Internet, which many have seen as leading to the demise of the newspaper, is seen by some (but certainly not all) as its ultimate salvation.” Indeed, this could very well be the case. Many newspaper reporters and columnists blog on a near-daily basis, which has increased web traffic and online readership. Twitter has become an indispensable daily tool for some journalists: a way to distribute stories, share news content, and discuss and debate issues directly with public figures (although the recent number of Twitter fights between politicians and media figures makes one wonder how long this particular trend will continue). As well, an increasing number of online users download podcasts and watch video clips produced by TV, radio and yes, newspapers.

For what it’s worth, I believe there is still a future for newspapers.

When I started writing in 1996, the industry was on the cusp of a seismic change. Newspaper veterans who had plunked away on their typewriters for decades were nearing retirement, while a new breed of tech-savvy upstarts (some of whom had never spent a day in J-school, including me) were beginning to push their way in. Although I’ve worked both inside and outside of newsrooms, I was fortunate enough to have spent time with both groups. There’s no question that the “old school” mentality of print publications still exists—the sense that readers want the smell, touch and feel of holding a paper in their hands, which an iPad and Kindle simply can’t replace. But it’s clear this view is starting to disappear due to various factors, including the escalating cost of running a daily newspaper, dwindling ad revenues and the growing number of people who would rather get their news electronically. If newspapers want to survive, they’ll have to do something completely out of character: change with the times, or perish in short order.

Of interest, one newspaper has already successfully made this transition. The Christian Science Monitor, a Pulitzer Prize–winning publication founded in 1908, turned into a daily online newspaper in April 2009. After reporting annual losses of $18.9 million (U.S.) versus $12.5 million (U.S.) in annual revenue, this was a sensible economic decision. It appears to have paid off, since overall readership is up, overall costs are down and a weekly print publication is available for subscribers. Many of the columnists, reporters and editors run blogs, and have created an interactive relationship with regular and occasional readers. As well, the Monitor still runs exactly like it used to. I can attest to this fact from personal experience, having written book reviews for the paper in both formats, for the same editor and for the same writing fee.

Could the Monitor’s transition into a daily online newspaper and weekly print publication be duplicated? While I believe this particular model could work for other newspapers, I acknowledge that success stories like this one are still rare. For example, a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, for every $1 in digital gains, there is a $7 loss in print revenue. Meanwhile, the overall costs of running larger print publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times as online publications (along with a weekly print edition) would be higher than anything the Monitor ever had to face. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that most print publications haven’t made the switch—and most aren’t at that point just yet. If and when they do, it will allow people to calculate real numbers and analyze hard data instead of making unscientific predictions to satisfy either the industry’s vocal group of optimists or naysayers.

Even so, one thing is for sure. With apologies to the late Aldous Huxley, Canada’s old media and new media have entered a brave new world of news content and acquiring information. Who will survive, and what will the victor look like? This remains to be seen.