The Hill Times

Government should come up with plan for media cuts, shutdowns, say MPs
Parliament Hill feels weight of recession in cuts. These aren’t normal times.

Harris MacLeod

As the CanWest media empire teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, NDP MP Charlie Angus says if the company is broken up and sold off in pieces the government must take steps to ensure it doesn’t lead to further media centralization in the future.

“We can’t allow anymore media convergence, [the regional entities] can’t just get gobbled up by the few remaining giants,” Mr. Angus said.

The company, which is in the midst of renegotiating its loans with creditors, has been putting assets up for sale to try and fight its rising tide of debt, reported to be close to $4-billion.

While CanWest’s corporate structure is over-leveraged and crumbling, many of the company’s individual properties, such as The Ottawa Citizen, are profitable and are therefore expected to survive if CanWest falls into bankruptcy protection.

Ontario Liberal Senator Jim Munson, a former CTV Hill reporter, said that the Senate’s Transport and Communications Committee might have to revisit the issue of media convergence. The committee put out a groundbreaking report in 2004 that called for more diverse voices in a Canadian media landscape that has become increasingly amalgamated in recent years.

“Our committee had concerns and was worried about large takeovers, and control, and the message being a single message as opposed to a diverse message in the industry, but nobody likes to see this happen,” said Sen. Munson.

Sen. Munson said it’s unclear how the possible breakup of CanWest, which owns the Global Television Network and some of the country’s most prominent newspapers, including the National Post, and the Montreal Gazette, as well as dozens of regional TV stations and newspapers, would affect media convergence in Canada.

While CanWest’s situation is the most dire, both CTV and CBC have said they are feeling the weight of the global recession. Last week, CTV announced it was closing two of its Ontario television stations, and on Thursday employees learned through an email sent by CTV President Ivan Fecan that the network was also closing its station in Brandon, Man., and not renewing the license for some 45 rebroadcasting transmitters.

“[The rebroadcasting transmitters] are in areas of the country where over the air broadcasting is just no longer economical,” the email said.

The Globe and Mail reported last week that the Conservatives were concerned about the closures of local TV stations, particularly those owned by CanWest and CTV, because it diminishes their ability to bypass the national media and speak directly to voters through local media, which has been an effective tactic for the party in the past.

The report also noted that the closure of local television and radio stations makes it harder for backbench MPs, who typically aren’t given much attention by the national media, to communicate their message to constituents.

Sen. Munson said he would be more optimistic about the changes happening in Canada’s media landscape if the economic situation wasn’t so dismal.

“In normal times, there’s always openings for small business people to get involved in opening up a newspaper, or reopening a newspaper, but I don’t think we live in normal times and profit margins are very tight. The difficulty here is to get people to back you and right now the banks don’t seem to be in the mood to lend local business people the money needed to restart or start up a small newspaper, so I’m not as optimistic as I would be if we weren’t living in a recessionary time,” he said.

Mr. Angus said the government should come up with some kind of “action plan” to address what’s happening to Canadian media, particularly for local television stations.

“I think there can be something done for the issue of television…because the loss of smaller regional television news is going to have a massive impact on the media landscape,” said Mr. Angus.

Both Mr. Angus and Sen. Munson expressed concern about the fate of the CBC, which last week announced it was facing severe funding shortages that could force the public broadcaster to bring in more American programming, more ads, and consolidate some of its local stations.

“We need to have the public broadcaster as part of the public play in terms of journalism. I recognize that there isn’t the money that we’ve seen before but I think that what suffers here, and what we’ve seen before, is local coverage,” said Sen. Munson.

A spokesperson for Heritage Minister James Moore said last week that the government, which provides more than $1-billion annually to the CBC, would not step in to make up the roughly $60-million decline in the broadcaster’s advertising revenue.

“We are not giving any more money to the CBC. End of story,” said Deirdra McCracken, spokeswoman for Heritage Minister James Moore (Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam, B.C.).

Mr. Angus said the Conservative government is shutting the door to giving the CBC the support it needs to maintain the quality of service it provides to Canadians because the Tories have a longstanding ideological opposition to the arms-length Crown corporation.

“[The government is] letting the corporation take a massive blow, and they know it’s going to take a massive blow and they’re doing it because they’ve been opposed to the CBC ever since the Reform Party started,” Mr. Angus said.

Of the many CanWest entities the future of its newswire, CanWest News Service, which provides content for the company’s 37 newspapers across the country, is the most uncertain.

Newspapers increasingly rely on centralized newsgathering entities, such as Canadian Press and Reuters, for some of their content, however if CanWest is broken up and sold off in pieces CanWest News Service may not be able to hang on to enough clients to stay afloat.

CanWest News Service Ottawa bureau reporter Andrew Mayeda told The Hill Times that though there is a lot of uncertainty, he believes that even if CanWest is broken up the news service could survive because the newspapers being sold would still need a newswire’s services.

“One of the things that leads a lot of people to believe that the news service is going to remain intact is the fact that news organizations, not just CanWest, across the country, across the world, are moving towards more centralized newsgathering and news delivery models. It would make sense that if you have a stable of newspaper assets that you have some kind of centralized system for gathering the news and pushing back out the finished product to those assets. I think there are a lot of factors that would lead to CNS staying intact and possibly even growing once the downturn is over,” Mr. Mayeda said.

A former CanWest newspaper reporter who spoke to The Hill Times on background said the news service, which was founded in Winnipeg in 2003 and opened an Ottawa bureau in 2007, marked the beginning of a general decline in the quality of investigative and local reporting as the CanWest newspaper chain became increasingly reliant on the newswire’s centralized newsgathering services.

The source said that CanWest switched from using the Canadian Press newswire service, which cost the company $1-million a year, to its own newswire as a cost-saving measure. The source predicted that CP would benefit from the newspaper chain’s dissolution because many of those papers would return to using its services.

Mr. Angus said that while he fears further amalgamation of media could be one possible result of how the economic crisis is hitting Canadian media companies, he also blamed centralized newsgathering and editorial writing for regional media’s decreasing revenues. He said that when newspapers become less diverse, and less localized in their coverage, part of the impetus for buying a local paper disappears.

“People stop reading when they read the same editorialists in every single paper with the same editorial slant. Number one it becomes boring, and number two they lose one of the key elements of why people read newspapers, which is they’re interested in local issues. Almost all the newspapers in this country, once they become incredibly centralized, they strip their local and regional coverage down to the barebones…It just becomes the same, the same, the same wherever you go.”

CanWest Global Communications Corp. announced it would cut 560 jobs at its print and television stations in November, five per cent of its workforce. Other news outlets have been hit during this economic downturn, with Quebecor Inc., announcing recently that it would cut 600 jobs, or 10 per cent of its workforce, from the Sun Media chain. CTV also cut 105 jobs from its operations and the latest cutbacks come from The Globe and Mail, which announced “between 80 to 90” positions would be cut from the paper, reducing its workforce by about 10 per cent through voluntary buyouts and possible layoffs.

Over the last two decades, some of the outlets that have shut their doors on Parliament Hill include: Alberta public radio CKUA, Alberta Report, BCTV, CFMT, CFTO, CHEZ 106 FM, CKAC, Frank Magazine, Halifax Daily News, London Free Press, Montreal Gazette, Notimex, Reader’s Digest, Regina Leader Post, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Saturday Night Magazine, Sterling News Service of British Columbia, Télémédia Radio Quebec, The Edmonton Journal, UPI, Vancouver Sun, Western Catholic Reporter, Windsor Star, Winnipeg Sun, and Women’s Television Network.

Senator Munson a former journalist was interviewed by Harris MacLeod of the Hill Times regarding a plan for media cuts.

The Hill Times