As the debate increases over the merits of Conrad Black’s hold on daily newspapers in Canada, an unfortunate byproduct is nostalgia for past years and independent owners. At a discussion on print journalism in Toronto last week, John Fraser, the sometime journalist, author and full-time gadfly who was moderating, lamented the ongoing “general decline of the print industry.” Similarly, John Honderich, the publisher of The Toronto Star, repeatedly bemoans the disappearance of other family-run newspapers.
There are many arguments in favor of regulating control of the media to avoid monopolies, but pointing to a not-so-golden past should not be among them. In the past three decades or so, journalists have become better educated and better trained: it is now almost impossible to get a job at a major media outlet without having attended university, and journalists covering beats-such as medicine or law-often have some specialized training in those fields. Reporters are better paid, and less vulnerable to the free tickets, cash and other payoffs with which they once augmented salaries. As well, many major media outlets have an ombudsperson who investigates reader complaints and alleged inaccuracies, and reports publicly on the findings. At the same time, the notion that small is beautiful in media ownership is open to question. A small, family-owned newspaper is more susceptible to the whims and pressures of local advertisers-and to those of its owners. In the first half of the century, newspaper owners routinely used their pages to further their personal interests. That was during the pre-television days, when editorials still mattered. Even owners committed to the public good-such as the Dennis family, longtime owners of the Halifax Chronicle-Herald-did not necessarily produce great products. For a long time, Haligonians joked that the paper had only two firm editorial stances: it strongly opposed drunk driving during holiday season, then opposed it again the rest of the year. An oft-cited example of independent excellence was the Kingston Whig-Standard in the 1980s, when then-editor Neil Reynolds (now editor of The Ottawa Citizen) was given a free hand by the owners, the Davies family. He once sent a reporter to Afghanistan after the invasion by the Soviet Union, although many readers complained that such efforts hid a marked decline in local coverage of more relevant, immediate local issues. Now, Reynolds has the same free hand at the Black-owned Citizen. The result- as Globe and Mail managing editor Margaret Wente accurately observed last week-is a newspaper that is “imaginative, quirky and sometimes bizarre.”
That means that those who worry about Black’s ownership, through Southam and Hollinger Inc., of 61 of the nation’s 109 daily newspapers should dig deeper to bolster their case. It means discarding the argument that Black has transformed Southam into a more conservative voice by hiring new, like-minded people. The reality is that there have been few changes among publishers and editors since he took control in 1996. Despite that, The Gazette has acquired a much more aggressive position on English-language rights than previously under the same publisher, Michael Goldbloom, and with an editor, Alan Allnutt, who was promoted from within. The Citizen has been remade under a new editor, Reynolds, but has the same publisher, Russell Mills. (Two exceptions are the Calgary Herald and The Edmonton Journal, which both went outside, poaching columnists from the rival Sun newspapers and Alberta Report to give the papers a newly conservative tone more in keeping with that of Albertans-and, of course, of Black.) Southam’s chief operating officer, Don Babick, is a holdover-although he chafed under the previous structure while a part of it-as is the vice-president of editorial, Gordon Fisher.
The real marvel is the-ahem-enthusiasm with which employees of the previous regime speedily and conveniently embraced the ideas and editorial vision of their new owner. Still, the remade newspapers are not only more profitable than before, but more in tune with their readership-particularly in the case of the Alberta papers and The Gazette, where surveys show readers overwhelmingly onside with their toughened stances on language and federalism. Perhaps that is what matters most. And is it true, as Black insists, that he does not interfere with editorial decisions? He does not have to: everyone in Southam realizes-and discusses-the career implications of falling out of favor. New circumstances bring new attitudes. It is, as Tracy Ludington would have said, a different time for journalists.