The death of community newspapers

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The Bulletin officesIn 1857 – a year before Collingwood was incorporated as a townJohn Hogg launched the Enterprise. The first local newspaper started its presses. In 1870, David Robson launched its first competitor: the Bulletin. In 1881, the Bulletin was sold to William Williams and J.G. Hand. William’s 17-year-old son, David (later a town mayor), joined the paper in 1886.

After the Great Depression, citing financial reasons, the two papers merged: The Enterprise-Bulletin was born. It printed its own paper, as well as being a printer for community events, flyers, brochures and even personal publications. In the 1960s, owner Jack McMurchy sold the paper to the Thomson newspaper chain. The newspaper continued to grow, soon requiring new space. In spring, 1989, the paper moved from the Bulletin’s original location on Simcoe Street to a new building at 77 St. Marie St., half a block east. It thrived there for the next six years, until the chaos began.

Bear with me if the history below seems a bit scattered: following the trail of media sales and bankruptcies is not easy and I may have forgotten or confused some of my dates in the interim.

Back then, the EB published on Wednesdays and Fridays. Each edition ran about 40 pages, split in two or three sections, with the annual local industry and business review edition running 60 or more pages. In 1991, a regional Sunday (Huronia Sunday) edition was launched in cooperation with papers from Barrie, Orillia and Midland. There was talk in the newsroom of going to thrice weekly and even daily publication.

In 1994, the paper was sold to Southam Newspapers, which was quickly absorbed into Conrad Black’s Hollinger Group, which had owned a 23% share in the chain since 1992. Hollinger bought controlling interest in Southam, which included the EB, in 1996. The rot quickly set in: profit margins became the measure of a paper’s success, not its journalistic integrity. Community coverage no longer mattered: only the money that flowed into corporate coffers did.

Shortly after the purchase the “downsizing” began: between a quarter and a third of staff were let go within a few months. The quality of the paper predictably began to slip. The paper which once covered councils, events and issues in six local municipalities (Thornbury, Collingwood Township, Wasaga Beach, Nottawasaga Township, Stayner and Collingwood) and often covering events as far away as Elmvale, Angus and Meaford, was soon reduced to covering Collingwood only.

Financial mismanagement, corruption and greed was followed by a flurry of lawsuits that forced Hollinger to sell its newspapers to Osprey Media in 2001. Osprey was acquired by Quebecor in 2007. Conrad Black resigned from Hollinger in 2005, and was convicted in the USA on four counts of fraud in 2007. He served 42 months of a 6½-year prison sentence. He was ordered to pay Hollinger $6.1 million, reduced to $4.1 million in 2013.

Hollinger went into bankruptcy in 2007. Canwest Global, which acquired the rest of the Southam line from Hollinger, followed it into bankruptcy in 2009.

Sun Media (a subsidiary of Quebecor) bought the Osprey papers in 2010, further trimming staff and operations. In 2014, Sun Media sold its newspapers to Paul Godfrey’s Postmedia corporation. The rapacious Postmedia has been bleeding money since it was formed, and continued to reduce the expenses by cutting staff and coverage. Despite continuing losses, it continued to pay out fat bonuses to Godfrey and other executives.

The EB’s building on St. Marie Street was sold, along with a residential house next door originally purchased for future expansion of the paper. The presses and equipment were sold (and pretty much everything not nailed down). The remaining staff (four or five) moved to a rental house a few doors east on Simcoe Street. The EB celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2007, but the writing was on the wall: the paper was on a downhill slide as advertising and flyers left and coverage was reduced to what a single reporter could provide.

When the Midland Free Press was abruptly closed by Postmedia in 2013, I knew it was only a matter of time before they closed the EB. The two were very alike in age, staff, coverage, advertising and community. And fates, it turned out.

And so it happened: on Monday, Nov. 27, 2017, the EB was shut down without any warning or notice. A sad notice was pasted on the front door stating it was closed, and that was the end of 160 years of continual printing and reporting.

TorStar and Postmedia had quietly swapped papers and without warning shut down any competition in 34 markets across Ontario. As the Financial Post noted:

Postmedia Network Inc. and Torstar Corp. announced Monday they traded 41 publications and plan to close 36 papers in places where they compete. The shuttering of 34 papers in Southern Ontario, one in Winnipeg and one in Vancouver will eliminate 291 jobs and save each company between $5 million to $7 million annually.
The companies say they remain committed to local news and are only closing papers in regions served by multiple publications. For example, Torstar bought the Barrie Examiner and already owns the Barrie Advance — it will close the Examiner and continue to operate the Advance.

That’s a laughable rationalization: the Metroland papers have never been known for investigative reporting, or even particularly good reporting at the best of times. In most of them, at least half their content is generic, syndicated filler (aka fluff), and much of the rest is soft, non-news content. They are known as flyer wrappers, not centres for journalism. The Advance is a weekly started in 1987- the Examiner was a daily started in 1864. The Advance cannot be compared objectively with the Examiner. They were never in the same league.

And those near-300 jobs don’t include the hundreds of part-time carriers and box fillers who depended on the meagre pickings from delivery services to supplement their already thin incomes. The closures affect many, many more.

Barrie Today called it a ‘sad day’:

Sixteen employees at the Barrie Examiner lost their jobs and 11 more people at the Orillia Packet and Times are out of work in a mega-newspaper swap between Torstar Corp. and Postmedia Network Inc.
Employees were told at 9 a.m. Monday that the long-time daily publications in Barrie and Orillia, along with counterpart Northumberland Today were shutting down effective immediately.
Eight community newspapers are also closing including the Bradford Times, Collingwood Enterprise Bulletin and the Innisfil Examiner.
The closure of the publications in Simcoe County and others across the chain affect a total of 46 full-time and part-time employees.

The Globe and Mail reported:

On Monday, two media monoliths – Torstar and Postmedia – traded 41 local newspaper properties before eviscerating most of them, gutting small presses from across Canada, but mostly Ontario. Hundreds of jobs were lost, including men and women who’d devoted themselves to reporting the nature of business and politics, sport and art, in their communities, the kind of important micro-writing that “you stick with tape to your fridge until it falls off,” which is something that Bruce Valpy, publisher of the Yellowknifer in the Northwest Territories, liked to say about the metric of success. This is also the kind of writing that holds polluters and developers accountable in small towns. In large swatches, it is no more.

When I first started working there, in 1991, the EB had already been in business for 134 years. It had 25-30 full-time staff and seven people were working in the newsroom. I worked there first as editor of the Sunday edition, then, when that closed, as reporter and photographer. I became the managing editor in 1995, working there until 1998. Seeing it reduced to its shell these post-halcyon days, with lukewarm coverage and less interest in the community from its reporter, deeply saddened me.

I have been a critic of local journalism these past few years because I have experienced it when it was good. I know the skills and talents of the local reporters, and despair at seeing them slide into complacency with town administration or unquestioning support of friends on council. But I never wanted to see any of them close: I simply wanted them to do their jobs properly and effectively. I wanted them to be the journalists and reporters I knew they could be.

With the loss of a community paper – any of the 34 community papers – we lose choices for advertising, and for coverage (the remaining Connection only has limited space and staff to report on everything here). We lose jobs – people we know, neighbours and friends – we lose a voice – not just the editorial voice, but the space for residents to voice their concerns. We lose a springboard for incoming journalists, too – community papers have always been a place to start a media career, to learn the skills, hone your talents, then move on and up. We lose competition – when I was in the EB, reporters felt keenly the need to be better than the other paper, to have news first, to have exclusives, to be on the scene first. No longer. Local journalism has taken a body blow that hits hard at the very soul of our community.

So don’t tell me you’re going to “…to put a greater focus on regions where we believe we can be more effective in serving both customers and clients.” Don’t try to con me by saying this was done to “…focus on strategic areas and core products, and allows us to continue with a suite of community-based products.” This is all about executive bonuses and shareholder dividends. It was never about journalism or community or customers. It was never about the 300 dedicated, loyal employees, some of whom have out decades of their life into their work.

Paul Godfrey’s crocodile tears over the closures have to be measured against his $1.7 million-a-year salary, his $900,000 retention bonus in 2016 (while he was refusing to grant employees a tiny cost-of-living wage increase) and his contract that guarantees him a job until at least 2020. You really think he gives a damn about the people whose lives he has disrupted?

Were there other options? Other ways to cut costs yet still retain some coverage, some local content? Perhaps, but who knows what was explored, what choices were offered? As noted in the Globe & Mail:

These days, newspaper chains such as Postmedia and Torstar don’t know how to do much short of hacking and slashing at themselves, tearing off limbs to keep the rest of the body alive… The death of local journalism reflects the paucity of ideas at top-level Canadian newspapers… The thing is, many local newspapers didn’t have to die. Why weren’t their operations refocused, reinvented, reimagined?

It’s hard to argue for the survival of the EB, since it had been on a rapid decline for several years, and its recent reporting was at best lacklustre, at worst incompetent. It had pretty much lost its relevance to our changing and growing community, and, as I saw it, had failed to live up to any standards we hold newspapers to.

Its closing will have less of an impact that it might have had ten or 20 years ago when it still stood for something. I am deeply saddened to see the EB close, but I am thankful I got to work there for so many years when it served the community at its best, when it was still the local paper of record, and when it still mattered. That’s the EB we should remember today.

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One Reply to “The death of community newspapers”

  1. The Connection – the EB’s remaining competitor – published an editorial that at first I thought was a sincere comment about losing the paper:

    https://www.simcoe.com/opinion-story/7968186-a-salute-to-the-enterprise-bulletin/

    But then it says this:

    We believe Metroland’s model — a passion for community, total market distribution and exemplary service to our advertisers — is helping us navigate these rough waters.

    Self-serving, self-aggrandizing bullshit. They couldn’t leave the preening and the gloating out of what could have been a warm, respectful opinion piece. Just underscores again why I feel they have lost credibility in the community.