Does media ownership matter?
The Postmedia-Sun merger isn’t a new peak in Canadian media ownership concentration. Still, our traditional media are in relatively few hands. Is that bad news?
The merger of the Postmedia and Sun media chains, which together own close to half of Canada’s daily newspapers and many community weeklies, surprisingly doesn’t mark a new peak in Canadian media ownership concentration. Pre-merger Postmedia was a fragment of Winnipeg-based Canwest, which also owned many of the papers Postmedia has acquired from Sun, as well as Global Television.
Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton no longer have two subscription-based newspapers under separate ownership—though do have Torstar-owned Metro title in each. Of the four Toronto dailies, the National Post and the Toronto Sun now both belong to Postmedia. This acquisition vaults Postmedia past Torstar to number one in newspaper market share, but the four largest companies do have slightly less of the newspaper market than in 2004, said Dwayne Winseck, a Carleton University journalism professor and founder of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project.
Still, Canada’s traditional media are in relatively few hands. Is that bad news?
Ownership can affect coverage. In March, Kevin Crull, president of Bell Media, disliked a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decision affecting his company. He ordered CTV, which Bell Media owns, to keep CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais off television news that day, leading to cancellation of an interview. By the nightly newscast the CTV news team gathered their courage and showed Blais anyway.
The Globe and Mail (of which Bell Media owns 15 per cent) reported the incident. Crull apologized, then stepped down two weeks later.
In the early 2000s, Canwest required papers to run editorials written at head office, spiked columns critical of its policy and fired Russell Mills, publisher of the Ottawa Citizen, for not clearing with head office an editorial and article on scandals surrounding then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
More recently, Global Television commissioned veteran investigative journalist Bruce Livesey to prepare a documentary on the Koch brothers, American industrialists who support right-wing advocacy groups. The documentary dealt in part with their interests in Alberta’s oil sands; Alberta-based Shaw Communications owns Global.
The documentary was pulled days before it was to air on Global’s 16×9 program, after a synopsis had been posted on Global’s website. When that synopsis disappeared, a reader alerted Jesse Brown, editor of Canadian media news site Canadaland. He called Livesey and Ron Waksman, the national director of editorial and online news who made the decision. Canadaland reported that Waksman cited concerns about balance and said a revised documentary might air later. Then Global ended its relationship with Livesey. Livesey isn’t sure why, though Global may have believed he leaked the story to Canadaland, which he and Brown both deny. Global said in an e-mail that “this was purely an editorial call and there was no corporate or outside interference in the decision.”
Was there interference? Livesey says he doesn’t know. Brown said interference is rarely as overt and deliberate as many outside the media think. He does believe—as do others interviewed for this story—some stories don’t get covered because of concerns about what higher-ups will think. Influence, Winseck said, doesn’t always require intervention.
Concentration isn’t desirable, but, as Paul Knox, associate professor at the Ryerson University School of Journalism said: “How do you have a remedy that doesn’t constitute an assault on freedom of expression?” Regulating content would hardly be better. The Davey and Kent commissions, which reviewed the concentration question in 1970 and 1981, recommended ownership restrictions, provoking protest from media owners and some journalists, concerned newspapers would simply fold for lack of buyers.
The restrictions didn’t happen. Still, Jacques Poitras, author of Irving vs. Irving, a book on the family that controls most of New Brunswick’s media along with extensive business interests, said that following the investigations, the Irvings took a hands-off approach to their media holdings, apparently fearing forced sales. Today, James Irving, a great-grandson of patriarch K.C. Irving, is publisher of the Telegraph-Journal.
But does newspaper and broadcast ownership matter as much when online alternatives like Rabble.ca, The Tyee and Canadaland are proliferating? Along with many local news sites and blogs, they offer alternatives to established local media.
“I don’t think we have to worry so much about a narrow range of information,” said Poitras.
Hamilton journalist Joey Coleman started The Public Record, an online project covering city hall, because “somebody needs to figure out how to rebuild media, especially at the local level.” The Public Record relies on crowdfunding—asking people who value its work to donate to keep it going. Right now, Coleman said he barely scrapes by. Alternative online media aren’t big enough to fill the gap today, Coleman says. “It’s going to be five to 10 years.”
When Linda Solomon Wood came to Vancouver after living in New York and Paris, she thought the city’s two newspapers—both owned by the same company—didn’t compete as aggressively as those other cities’ papers did. She started the online Vancouver Observer in 2007, and recently started the National Observer.
Also crowdfunded, the National Observer focuses on energy, environment and politics. “It takes enormous resources just to do that and do it well,” Solomon Wood said. While the Observer can’t match the pay a journalist with 20 to 30 years’ experience would get at Postmedia, she said, “If you look across the spectrum of what people are making, we’re in a decent pay range.”
Canadaland is also crowdfunded. Lacking deep pockets, however, these outlets are vulnerable to lawsuits. “It’s an existential threat for us to get a big story wrong,” Brown says, though on the other hand he argues some larger companies may “settle even when they’re right because it’s easier.”
Imports from the U.S. online media scene play a role, too. The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice have Canadian editions or content, Brown noted, and substantial resources. Though the possibility of U.S.-based outlets dominating Canadian online media concerns him, as “they are hiring good journalists and they have already done good work and could continue to.”
Christopher Dornan, associate professor of journalism at Carleton University, said media are becoming less monolithic and more specialized. “The media environment looks a lot more like the magazine industry.” That can be good, he said, because mass-market media have always sought a broad audience, meaning little attention to niche interests and reluctance to offend the majority.
Diversity depends at least partly on new media. It also depends on the efforts of people such as Brown, Coleman and Solomon Wood who launch alternative media, and reporters such as James Bradshaw, The Globe and Mail reporter who broke the story of editorial interference by Kevin Crull of Bell Media, a minority shareholder in his own newspaper. It is harder when journalism jobs are scarce, but editorial integrity can’t be left to media owners, no matter who they are.
Illustration photo by Michelle-Andrea Girouard.
Note: This story has been updated to correct an earlier error in referencing Global News’ 16×9 investigative news program, and an error regarding the number of newspapers under separate ownership in Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton.
Grant Buckler is a retired freelance journalist and a volunteer with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and lives in Kingston, Ont.