Blog by John Miller

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Road to oblivion

When the history of Canadian newspapers (or, more likely, their obituary) is written, this may go down as the week we heard the first death rattles.

It started with the largest mass closure of newspapers in Canada’s history. Staff at 11 Ontario community newspapers and two free dailies in Toronto and Vancouver arrived for work Monday morning to find the doors locked. Their jobs were gone just like that. It was part of a swap of 41 newspapers by Canada’s two largest publishers. Thirty-six of them were or soon will be closed forever.

Three hundred jobs went down the drain to achieve what John Boynton, CEO of Torstar, described as “increased, geographic synergies.” That’s a corporate weasel language that means Torstar and Postmedia traded and closed those papers to give them monopolies for advertising in their chosen areas of Ontario.

Monopolies are good for business (Postmedia shares tripled on the stock market overnight) but readers were the losers. Thousands of citizens in towns from Collingwood in the north to Fort Erie in the south, and Belleville west to St. Mary’s, have lost a paper, and many will be served in future by a monopoly handout weekly whose thin news content serves as a wrapper for flyer advertising.

Want to know why neither of Canada’s two major publishers can make a daily newspaper work in Barrie, one of the fastest growing communities in Canada with a population of 140,000? It’s because, through neglect and cost-cutting, the Examiner could only attract a paid readership of 2,000. Now it’s been put out of its misery. So has Northumberland Today, a daily serving Port Hope and Cobourg whose circulation fell to less than a thousand.

The tragedy is that many of the shuttered papers had served their communities for more than a century, creating unique time capsules of how life has been lived there for future generations.

Had the Torstar-Postmedia deal been announced 30 or 40 years ago, it would have prompted a royal commission. Much of the impetus for the creation of the Kent commission in 1980 was the virtually simultaneous closure of two major daily newspapers, the Ottawa Journal (owned by the Thomson Corporation) and the Winnipeg Tribune (owned by Southam Inc.). These closures gave each chain a monopoly in the two markets, Southam with the Ottawa Citizen and Thomson with the Winnipeg Free Press. The resulting allegations of collusion prompted nation-wide hearings and a series of recommendations that the federal government never acted upon.

Nothing will happen now because there is little national political interest in the closing of newspapers in such small places.

Alarm bells rang again on Friday, when the newspaper crisis got even more serious.

The Globe and Mail officially ceased to be a national paper. It stopped delivering a paper to the Maritime provinces, a move that its publisher said will save it $1 million a year. (In response, 220 readers in Halifax signed up to pay $9.50 a copy for the Globe's Saturday edition to be loaded on a plane and flown halfway across the country, indicating there is a market for the product).

The Globe prints about 202,000 editions across Canada on Saturdays and about 132,000 on weekdays.

The very same day, the Globe unveiled an expensive new redesign, shrinking its format to 12 inches wide and 21 inches deep, narrower and shorter than a traditional broadsheet. To handle the new format, its contracted printer Transcontinental installed four high-tech German printers across the country. The paper made its debut on glossy and matte paper, whiter and slipperier than traditional newsprint.  “People haven’t seen anything like it in North America,” crowed Globe CEO Phillip Crawley.

The rationale for the revamp is largely economic. The smaller Globe stands to save $1 million a year in printing costs.

But it was the newspaper’s redesigned content that drew critics. Friday’s paper eliminated the Arts/Life and Friday film sections, reducing the paper to an A-section combining News and Life and Arts, and a B-section combining Report on Business, Globe Investor and Sports. A new national real estate section ran Friday and the Drive section will move from Thursday to Friday.

The Globe claimed its A section contained as much arts and life coverage as there was in the paper before, but that clearly was not true. Crawley says the amount of space for news stories will remain the same but if you believe that you probably still believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.

Michael Hollett, founding publisher of NOW magazine, posted: “New look @globeandmail actually makes me sad because it's so ill-fated. Why do publishers think giving people less will stave off readership decline? Whole look says ‘we've cut back.’”

The website Torontoist summed up reaction this way:Within a few hours, consensus on the Globe‘s new face in print was already clear, country-wide: it’s the best/worst, and the paper’s brave/foolish move will save/doom print media forever.”

Next day, when the Globe published its premium Saturday edition, the new presses broke down and thousands of subscribers across Ontario didn't get the paper at all. Others, who did, found the paper's Books section emasculated, with fewer reviews and no best-seller list.

It was colossal bad timing. Saturday-only subscribers in Toronto had just been informed that their subscription will cost $5.55 per week, an increase of 24 percent. 

As a project that had been months in the making, the paper's redesign launch was a clusterfuck.

Other details about the Globe content changes are even more concerning. It apparently acted on information gathered in focus groups conducted with readers in Toronto and Vancouver, that they wanted the paper to have a “friendlier” look. Friendlier usually means a smaller format, more white space, shorter stories, grabbier graphics and more colour. But the actual look was quite different. Great rivers of gray, small type spilled down pages.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Crawley said online data collected by Sophi, the Globe's proprietary data analytics tool, have influenced the redesign, just as it is influencing daily editorial and advertising decisions.
"Sophi analyzes not only what kind of traffic it's attracting but it also analyzes how many subscribers it converts," he said.
"We know on a particular day which stories are drawing subscriber engagement, where people are saying, 'OK, I want to read that, I will pay for it, I will go behind the pay wall and buy a subscription.'"

For instance, Crawley said Sophi has found that readers prefer to consume content from Globe staff over freelance or wire content, a hard-to-believe finding that perhaps explains the departure of a couple of prominent freelance columnists.

Oh, that’s great then. We have a smaller Globe and Mail. It's practically unreadable. And we have news chosen not by experienced editors but ... by robots. You wonder how long will it be until artificial intelligence writes the news too. 

Twenty years ago I published Yesterday’s News, a book intended as a warning to Canadians that traditional daily newspapers were drawing away from their communities and jeopardizing readers’ trust. I offered solutions but, to my knowledge, no publisher ever read it.

Yet what I wrote back then is even truer today: “The old mission upon which freedom of the press is based – to inform the public so that democracy can work – has given way to a marketing agenda that emphasizes shorter stories, crime, violence, celebrity, conflict and other unusual happenings as the surest way to win readers’ time. Newspapers turned away from their traditional strengths – sophistication, depth, complexity, analysis, background explanation – to copy the strength of other faster media – simplicity, hype and ease of use. This was a fatal miscalculation.”

The second major miscalculation I identified in 1998 was what the Globe seems to have done again this week: “Newspapers are achieving their financial goals by short-term solutions. They are downsizing staff, contracting out delivery and printing services, reducing the newshole and trying to attract readership by marketing … and the cosmetics of redesign.”

I likened that to a sick patient seeking out the worst doctor in town just because he’s got all the latest gossip and he won’t keep her long.

Events of this past week show that newspapers seem to be too far down their road to oblivion to change now.