Are Prairie newspapers good for democracy?

Most of Canada’s newspapers, including the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Winnipeg Sun, have a political agenda attached.

The Winnipeg Free-Press, along with the Brandon Sun, are anomalies in Canada, as they are two daily newspapers not owned by a large corporate media conglomerate. They are owned by FP Canadian Newspapers. It also owns The Steinbach Carillon and the Free Press Community Review, which covers various Winnipeg neighborhoods as well as some of the surrounding rural municipalities. It should really be called FP Manitoba Newspapers as it doesn’t have any media properties outside the province.

Meanwhile, 90 per cent of Canada’s newspapers are owned by Postmedia, including the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the Winnipeg Sun, as well weeklies, the Graphic Leader in Portage La Prairie and The Journal that covers Melfort and Nipawin. In fact, Postmedia owns about 130 titles across Canada.

GETTY IMAGES.

Postmedia was born out of the ashes of Canwest Global Communications Corp., which was owned by Winnipeg’s Izzy Asper.

Many employees of the Winnipeg Free Press feared being purchased by the now defunct CanWest when the Thomson media chain put it up for sale in 2001, but instead it was bought by FP, making it one of the last remaining independent newspapers in Canada (The Prince Albert Herald is another, FYI) and avoided many of the woes faced by other newspapers under a struggling Canwest, and now Postmedia.

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Postmedia wouldn’t be possible without hedge fund owners

In 2010, National Post CEO Paul Godfrey was able to buy Canwest’s newspapers with financial backing from a U.S. private equity firm, the Manhattan-based hedge fund GoldenTree Asset Management, which owned 35 per cent—as well as IJNR Investment Trust, Nyppex and other investors. The price tag of owning most of Canada’s daily newspapers was $1.1 billion.

Godfrey was meant to be the Canadian face of Postmedia for the American companies, which owns the newspapers’ debt. Within the first five years of the company’s existence, its hedge fund owners extracted close to $340 million in interest payments, worth eight per cent, from Canada’s leading newspapers, including the Leader-Post and the StarPhoenix.

Newsroom cuts

Cutting staff was said to be necessary for Postmedia to make these interest payments, while Godfrey made millions at the helm of the company, and famously took a $900,000 bonus while slashing jobs.

Fast forward to 2016, Chatham Asset Management, a New Jersey hedge acquired two-thirds of Postmedia. Since then, more newsroom jobs were cut and salaries and benefits were reduced, including at the Regina Leader-Post where eight newsroom positions were cut while the StarPhoenix lost nine

When newsroom staff are cut, it means there are fewer resources for substantive stories to be written that provide context for important local issues, which is what the front-page story in the Regina Leader-Post’s Weekender used to do, and what I try to do with The Flatlander. Finding time to do investigative reporting to hold power to account, while short staffed, is also difficult.

Streamlining the business

Since Chatham took a majority stake in Postmedia, it centralized editorial operations. 

National and political coverage is often prepared at a central site, and content from The National Post is inserted into newspapers across Postmedia. Freelance budgets have shrunk, and sports coverage has been reduced.

While Postmedia suffered falling revenues, saying cuts were inevitable, the company took on more debt so they could pay its top executives hefty bonuses. Between 2017 and 2020, Postmedia paid out over $6.2 million in bonuses to its five top executives. 

The average journalist in Canada makes about $42,000 annually. 

The $6.2 million could employ 147 journalists for a year, less if you gave these journalists a pay raise for them to afford the current cost of living, but it would be a lot of journalists all the same.

During the early days of the pandemic, Postmedia made further cuts, laying off 80 employees and closing 15 community papers, many of which were in Manitoba, including the Altona Red River Valley Echo, Carman Valley Leader, Gimli Interlake Spectator, Morden Times, Selkirk Journal, Stonewall Argus & Teulon Times, Winkler Times and The Prairie Farmer.

Despite all these cuts, Postmedia continues to funnel cash towards paying its debt, which is now mostly owned by Chatham. 

To keep making its debt payments, Postmedia has sold or is selling many of its physical assets, like the Leader-Post building and the printing press within, which used to employ 16 people. The Leader-Post is now printed in Saskatoon. 


A MESSAGE FROM SHAKESPEARE ON THE SASKATCHEWAN

A scene from Iago speaks. In the foreground is Joshua Beaudry, who plays the jailer. Behind him is Skye Brandon who plays Iago.

It’s your last chance to see the world premiere of Iago Speaks at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

The play is by award-winning Saskatchewan playwright Daniel MacDonald.

At first glance, Iago Speaks appears to follow the events immediately after the curtain comes down on Shakespeare’s Othello, but the story quickly turns, introducing us to Iago’s jailor, a bit player, as he tries to find some purpose in his repetitive task of keeping watch over Iago.

This laugh-out-loud comedic romp into the imagined next chapter of a notorious Shakespearean villain is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The show, which closes this Sunday, features local Saskatoon actors Skye Brandon and Joshua Beaudry both Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan veterans.


Want your message here? Contact [email protected]


Not “reliably conservative”

Money and job losses aside, it was reported that Postmedia CEO Andrew MacLeod declared the company “insufficiently conservative.” This led to Kevin Libin taking charge of all political reporting and analysis in Postmedia newspapers to ensure the newspapers became more “reliably conservative.”

This begs the question: should a company that owns most of the newspapers in Canada have a political agenda? It denies Canadians other important political perspectives. And does the endorsement of a conservative candidate really mean anything coming from a conservative publication?

This is uncomfortable for the journalists who work at Postmedia newspapers.

Most journalists, like me, strive to check our personal biases at the door as we believe our work is important to democracy. Some journalists, not me, don’t even vote in elections because that’s how committed they are to not taking a side.

When many of the newspapers of record across Canada, a number of which are over 100 years old, are having a political agenda pushed on them, it’s problematic. Ideally, there should be counter opinions to improve the quality of public discourse.

The legacy

The Regina Leader, before it became the Leader-Post, printed its first edition on March 1, 1883. One of its early reporters Mary McFadyen Maclean was able to sneak into the jail to interview Louis Riel. And now this legacy paper, for better or for worse, is owned by American hedge funds profiting off its debt.

Media conglomeration has long been a problem in Canada, long before Postmedia got in the game, with little public outcry.

Corporations are going to do what corporations are going to do. It is up to the Competition Canada Bureau to intervene on behalf of citizens, but it allowed the mergers to go ahead, which is how we got here. 

Media conglomeration can be affected by the weather

Local copy editors and graphic designers, who laid out local newspapers in their home cities, were laid off as these services are now being done in one central location in Barrie, Ontario. 

The community was hit by a tornado in 2021, which had the potential to put a monkey wrench in getting the daily newspapers out.

Someone might not have got their Winnipeg Sun or the Regina Leader-Post delivered to their house because of a natural disaster in Ontario.

How the Winnipeg Free Press compares

The Winnipeg Free Press has had its layoffs over the years. The newspaper business is not what it used to be after all, thanks to the internet. For example, as late as 2007, the Free Press publisher Andy Ritchie bragged about his “world class classifieds” department that brought in millions of dollars in revenue. And then Kijiji took off, and later Facebook Marketplace, which has mostly killed off newspaper classified sections everywhere. 

But if you compare the Winnipeg Free Press with the Regina Leader-Post or the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, or its direct local competitor the Winnipeg Sun, it is much meatier in local content. Its financial future seems much more stable, and it doesn’t have the same bias as Postmedia. Most of its opinion pages are focused on local issues.

The Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial mission is to “strengthen society by ensuring there is a trusted, independent news source of information the public can rely upon to understand the world they live in, to connect with their community and to make decisions about what matters most to their lives.”


A little different newsletter this week…

You might notice that there is no “Photo of the Week” or “Five Stories you may have missed” sections, and just less pictures in general. This is because I am troubleshooting a deliverability issue that people who use SaskTel emails are having. (I am a journalist, not an IT person. Fist shake. I’ve been working on this issue for weeks).

I am trying to see if reducing the file size of my emails may help. Apparently, my penchant for hyperlinks takes up a lot of kilobytes.

This means the missing sections that would normally be included in this email will now have to come out in a second email later in the week.

If you haven’t received a Flatlander email in awhile, or haven’t been receiving them consistently, and get this message, let me know.


Until next week…

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Thanks for reading, and kind regards,

Kelly-Anne Riess

Important work at a critical time.

Over the last 20 years, on the Prairies and beyond,  local newsrooms have shrunk, which means not much investigative journalism gets done in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Flatlander is changing this.

 

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