Home » Canada’s newspapers are being plundered by monopoly capitalism
Business Canada Economy Featured Global News News

Canada’s newspapers are being plundered by monopoly capitalism

In the morning dark, before coffee is made and cats are stirring, you’ll find me awkwardly leaning out my front door, one arm reaching for the mailbox and the comforting touch of newsprint.

In truth, I’ve already spent at least an hour awake in bed, phone-scrolling through a cacophony of news stories from around the globe, along with their trails of deranged comments. Algorithms have tagged a few of my interests, meaning I’ll know what happened in Southeast Asia overnight along with a thin smattering of Ukraine news, but precious little about my hometown.

Those hometown stories are now spread out on my kitchen table: births, deaths, celebrations, laneway closures, tax arrears notices, city hall shenanigans, the latest provincial gossip, and the triumphs and tragedies of ordinary citizens, finished off with a brain-sharpening crossword.

Tweets and broadcast spot news are fleshed out in print with more voices, more history.  A human editor has arranged stories front to back not in order of my personal tastes, but in order of public significance, arrived at through a combination of experience, reader feedback and heated newsroom discussions. 

Sometimes I read the online edition or follow the paper on social media. The physical form matters not. What matters is its purpose — providing accurate information to help an informed citizenry make decisions, hold power to account, know each other and ensure the wellbeing of their city. 

Frustratingly, this purpose is being steadily dismantled by the paper’s own masters. 

Last week’s announcement of Postmedia staff cuts and property fire-sales is but the latest outrage in a scenario foretold by decades of federal commission testimonials: if you allow our newspapers to fall into the hands of a few debt-ridden would-be tycoons fronting for foreign hedge funds, the failures will be catastrophic.

Canada’s Competition Bureau has miserably failed to avoid this path, greenlighting monopolistic newspaper purchases against all public interest and common sense. Meanwhile, federal officials tasked with guarding Canadian ownership stood by as the fate of more than 100 Canadian newsrooms was handed off to foreign shareholders. 

The true owner of my local newspaper is Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund in New Jersey.

The second-largest shareholder, Allianz Global Investment, has offices from Shanghai to Frankfurt. Its main U.S. fund was shut down over securities fraud and ordered to pay back billions to bilked investors.

The third-largest investor, Leon G. Cooperman, survived insider trading allegations by taking the Fifth Amendment in court and handing a $5-million settlement to the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission.

I wonder how much of my local paper’s revenues helps pay for such peccadillos.

People still crave news. In-depth storytelling from diverse perspectives has grown large audiences.- Patricia W. Elliott

Locally owned papers tend to do comparatively well in the media market. However, as demonstrated by the sorrowful history of media concentration, press barons will shutter newspapers rather than offer them to local buyers. At best, they’ll sell the whole chain to another sprawling, indebted corporation.

Sadly, we’ve reached a point where even if one link were broken off the chain, its physical assets will have been stripped and swallowed into the maw of CEO bonuses and company debt. All that’s left to buy is a once-proud banner and a payroll liability.

The public suffers.

As a journalism instructor, I’ve often shown students The Paper, a 1994 film in which journalists frantically track down a rumour that two young black men arrested for murder were set up. It ends in a late-night fist fight to stop the presses and get the story right.

Last Tuesday, Postmedia announced Saskatchewan’s two major urban dailies will henceforth be printed in Estevan. Not a big stretch for Regina, which lost its press to Saskatoon in 2016, but for the now-homeless Saskatoon StarPhoenix, it will be 470 km away. As production deadlines become ever-tighter and physically distant, and reporters are separated from each other in home-based pods, it inevitably becomes harder to get the story right.

While I peruse my morning paper, I know my students are waking and reading many of the same stories, albeit through social media, where it’s free. Their eyeballs are drawn to ads that generate revenue not for the papers that produced the stories, but for behemoths like Facebook and Google. 

This demonstrates another regulatory gap, one that has left Ottawa trying to herd online revenue back to Canadian newsrooms while the money stampedes south, leaving Bill C-18 in the dust.     

Some fine reporting has been generated through Heritage Canada’s Local Journalism Initiative (LJI), but the systemic problem of media concentration remains unabated. For Postmedia, getting public dollars to replace journalists who were laid off to increase company profits is a sweet deal.

A smart move broadened LJI funds to local nonprofit community television. But again, this is happening in an environment dominated by huge corporations — Bell, Telus, Rogers and Shaw. Since the mid-1990s, Big Cable has shuttered more than 200 community access stations, leaving an estimated 90 per cent of the Canadian public without access to genuinely local community TV.

The beast grows larger. The Competition Bureau seems powerless to stop a Rogers-Shaw merger. 

Meanwhile, people still crave news. In-depth storytelling from diverse perspectives has grown large audiences. Newspapers that still control their own budgets are responding with large-scale investigations, essays and podcasts.  

Journalism teachers can equip students with technical skills and knowledge to navigate these shifts. What we can’t do is equip them for the ravages of monopoly capitalism. Federal regulators must step up, and step hard, to break the chains.