Media Watch

Conrad Black and the benefit of the doubt

George Bain June 24 1996
Media Watch

Conrad Black and the benefit of the doubt

George Bain June 24 1996

Conrad Black and the benefit of the doubt

I presume he does not control more newspapers than anyone else for the purpose of running them into the ground

Media Watch

George Bain

I don't know Conrad Black, have never met him, have never spoken to him by phone. I have read some, not a lot, of what he has written, and have agreed with some and disagreed with some, which is about par for the course. I know he has said some unflattering things about Canadian journalists, but, then, so have a lot of people, including this one. Something I am prepared to assume is that he has not

made himself the owner of more newspapers in Canada than anyone else for the purpose of running them into the ground. Therefore, I don’t think he’s nuts.

What all that amounts to is a roundabout way of saying he would need to be at least a bit tetched—as would the reader—if much of the nervously twittering media commentary on his re-

cent newspaper acquisitions, and what may flow from them, were taken seriously. Consider, for just one point, the suggestion that, with Black now having 41 per cent of the stock in Southam Inc. and having, as well, declared his intention of raising that to 50 per cent and beyond to solidify his control, his first step will be to cheapen the content of Southam newspapers, which include 20 dailies, among them some of the largest outside Toronto, by laying off a lot of employees.

Newspapers have long been a cyclical business—readership and advertising sales up in good times, down in bad. However, in the past 20 years or so, the tendency after a recession has been for circulations and ad revenues to not quite regain the level they had attained during the last turn of the wheel.

Obviously the quality of what a newspaper offers its readers is not rigidly gov-

erned by the number of persons employed to produce it. However, in circumstances of continuing gradual slippage in readership—circulations barely, if at all, keeping pace with population growth, and ad revenues declining—laying off staff with the sole objective of improving the balance sheet today makes an unlikely way to protect a massive investment for the long term. People tend to notice.

If proportionately fewer people are reading newspapers in 1996 than were doing so in, say, 1956, and if fewer advertisers are advertising because they want to reach more people, not fewer, it would seem the thing for Conrad Black to do—and he says he intends to do it—is to make the product better.

But we have been through all this before, anguishing over concentration of ownership in the newspaper business, and the disastrous effect there must be on public knowledge if the dissemination of fact and opinion is in ever-fewer and fewer sets of hands. (Curiously, we don’t worry the same way about broadcasting. The CBC operates in both television and radio, in both languages, in both broadcast and cable, and in local and national shows, and reaches far more Canadians than all the newspapers combined.)

We are now in our third such great national anguish. The first two were formal, led by a Senate Special Committee on Mass Media (mainly newspapers) in 1969-1970, and by a royal commission on media in 1980-1981. Now, we have an informal journalistic anguish over tycoonery in print journalism and its inherent risk— the lack of diversity in interpretation of events and of opinion for readers to consider.

The two formal inquiries, 26 and 15 years ago, took those risks very seriously and proposed steps needing to be taken to ensure they wouldn’t be realized. The first words of the foreword in the 1981 royal commission report were: “This commission was born of shock and trauma. Simultaneously, in Ottawa and Winnipeg, two old and respected newspapers died.” Dramatic stuff, that.

Nevertheless, the reports of both those formal inquiries were received, read, considered—and that was that. Nothing came of the reports except that they went on to library shelves.

There was a distinct lessening of viewpoints in the newspaper reporting and commentary on our national government in the Mulroney years, and a consistent uniformity of view must certainly have played a large part in the 1993 federal election and the near-death of—to borrow a description— “an old and respected” political party. But that uniformity was not imposed by some wicked concentration of ownership; it sprang from reporters in the Parliamentary press gallery in the grip of group-think.

(That may have been somewhere in the mind of William Thorsell, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, when he began a recent Saturday column with, “Conrad Black isn’t that important when it comes to the

fate of newspapers.” The column ran under the heading, “Reporters and editors, more than others, determine a paper’s quality,” a fair reflection of what was to be found below.

As the Globe would also know, it is not necessarily true that a newspaper will be dragged downhill once in the embrace of a large newspaper chain with a reputation more for thrift than for its dedication to getting and publishing the news. The Globe was one of Canada’s best newspapers when it was taken over by Thomson Newspapers in 1980; it is now widely accepted as the best.

The Southam dailies, on the other hand, have seemed to wallow, seeking a new direction. Certainly there will be change now. It would be no surprise to see the group become more integrated, as a network, using in common more of the chain’s collective newsgathering capabilities, as one corporate news service supplies the various news and public affairs entities within the CBC with broadcast coverage of national and international affairs events, and major regional and even local stories. It would not necessarily follow that the 20 dailies would be used as a standing multi-trumpet chorus to the glory of Conrad Black’s thought.

I don’t think he’s____But, I’ve already said that.