Appeared in Business in Vancouver – July 16, 2013
This is biased. I was born into print and didn’t move. I was carried into a newspaper office aged three months. I once hoped my corpse would be carried out of one. But I’m too old for that now.
Let’s move on to the blood-letting in hope that the wounds heal before this stick of type ends: Pacific Newspaper Group (PNG), which publishes the Province and the Vancouver Sun, recently cut 95 jobs, 15 in the newsrooms, mostly through buyouts. Nemesis of scoundrels David Baines is an incalculable loss, his last opus on the Rick Hansen Foundation’s tangled finances a masterpiece. For clear, concise, accessible foreign affairs matters, Jonathan Manthorpe was peerless. Janet Steffenhagen, Gordon Hamilton and Scott Simpson were outstanding beat reporters, the heart of any newsroom.
Journalists – fast with words and opinions, you’ll have noticed – are far more vocal about their trade than, say, disgruntled bankers.
Old lags are legendary for muttering that the papers have plunged since (coincidentally) their day, but in my cool view the Vancouver papers are better than ever in most areas.
Bias alert: Exceptions include the sickly Sun book pages (which, oddly, never reviewed Marc Edge’s scorching books on the dailies’ monopoly and the Asper family’s Canwest interlude) and its editorial pages – big bias here, my perch for 35 years – which abdicated from dutiful leadership in the May election and grind out long, soporific homilies, rescued only by the impish wit of cartoonist Graham Harrop.
But the columnists are cumulatively better than in the glorified past, Pete McMartin topping Jack Scott, Malcolm Parry outworking Jack Wasserman, Vaughn Palmer and Mike Smyth must-reads in B.C. politics. Many others: Stephen Hume for the importance of being earnest about great issues, Shelley Fralic, Don Cayo on business and taxation, Daphne Bramham, Ian Mulgrew when not on his mad pro-marijuana crusade, Douglas Todd weighing community demographics, not forgetting special affections like Steve Whysall on gardening. Or the sports department: the Sun’s Ian McIntyre and Greg Douglas, the Province’s Lowell Ullrich and Tony Gallagher for good example. (How can any fan survive without box scores and league standings, uniquely in newspapers?)
Long laggard, the Province, according to industry researcher NADbank, has leapfrogged to highest daily readership (and growing) in B.C., 936,000 per week, including print, web, tablet and mobile readers, compared with stablemate Sun’s 885,000. But such figures arguably conceal as much as they reveal.
The dailies are besieged. They remain incomparably the royalty of media. But the Internet with its toy-like fascination, especially for the young in their alienated iPod world, and its free ads and free information – much of it worth every penny – eat into the newspapers’ bowels.
Worse, the dailies are sleeping with the enemy. Not just because their staff would be nearly wordless without Googling and Wikipedia; the dailies are mimicking the Internet with staff blogs, all-day website reporting, access to their data bases and so forth.
Realizing they were giving away expensively gathered news, they’re erecting paywalls, as a third of the 1,380 U.S. dailies have already done: pay at the gate and come in and use our product, and kindly note our pretty attached ads.
These generate faint financial wraiths of the income from print ads. The once-rich classifieds are an endangered species, even with returning refugees from the crooks and paedophiles over-populating free Internet ads.
Losses mount; staff shrinks, everywhere. The Globe and Mail, owned by powerful BCE, gladly reports the competing Toronto Star’s slashing of 55 jobs, half from the newsroom, while coyly admitting “dozens” of cuts from its own ranks. Out-sourcing – reducing labour costs – is attractive, as the Sun and Province do, moving some editing and production functions to Hamilton.
PNG president and publisher Gordon Fisher is a hard-nosed optimist, the unwritten job description.
“The good news is our total audience is growing, not diminishing, but competitors choose not to acknowledge that,” he declares.
A former Sun managing editor, he returned in January from senior jobs in Toronto including publisher of the flagship National Post, recalling that G&M publisher Phillip Crawley once mockingly advised buying a copy of the next Post because it would be the last.
As in Mark Twain’s case, the Post’s death was prematurely reported; it lives on (in its third year of increasing profitability), and Fisher appears intent on repeating this feat for the Vancouver dailies.
© Trevor Lautens, 2013