Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Re Wayne Janes

Brian Gorman, a TSF reader with a Sun Media history, responds to the comments of Wayne Janes:

"Hi. Brian Gorman here.

"I'm a onetime Sun guy (happily in Edmonton and not so happily in Ottawa) who has been reading TSF since a friend pointed it out to me a year ago. Usually, I just read it and keep my opinions to myself, but the recent exchange between call-me-silly guy and Wayne Janes got to me.

"I'm working on a PhD in communication at Carleton, after completing an MJ there in '04. (I did my thesis on Quebecor.) Consequently I have spent the past 10 years reading everything I can get my hands on about the so-called newspaper crisis - which, by the way, predates the Internet by at least 30 years. Declining circulation has been a concern since the 1960s, and most newspaper companies started to treat it as a serious problem in the '80s.

"I also work for the Tribune Co., and lost a month's pay to the Chapter 11 proceedings, which gives me personal reasons for keeping an eye on the destructive children who are currently running media companies on both sides of the border.

"So it was with more than passing interest that I read Wayne Janes' response to the call-me-silly guy. I just wanted to say that I think Mr. Janes wrote one of the rare lucid appraisals of the situation that I've seen recently.

"It was SO refreshing to hear from someone whose sense of history extends more than five minutes into the past.

"As Mr. Janes says, no communications technology has been rendered obsolete by a new one. Radio was supposed to kill the newspaper. TV was supposed to kill radio and movies . . . and newspapers. Movies were supposed to kill theatre. Now, the Internet is supposedly killing newspapers - even though it has extended the reach of most of them and tripled or quadrupled their readership. The Kindle and Electronic Book may kill paper, but it will make books more affordable.

"One thing I'd like to add: newspapers aren't in such terrible trouble. The media conglomerates are, because of huge debt they've run up acquiring properties for which they had no coherent strategy.

"While its parent company, Tribune, was going into bankruptcy protection earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times was projecting a $100 million profit for 2008 - down from $200-plus million in 2007, but still a return that GM and Chrysler, or most airline executives would sell their souls for.

"In fact, even in what is being called the worst economic downturn since the Depression, the profit margin of the average publicly owned U.S. paper is around 11 percent. Again, something most executives would kill for.

"Their parent companies are another story.

"The Tribune Co. is carrying a debt load of $13 billion - nine times cash flow - and is looking to sell the Cubs, the Tribune Tower and Tribune Media Services.

"The Times Co. is rumoured to be shopping the Boston Globe and its share of the Red Sox, and is considering taking a mortgage on its mid-town offices.

"McClatchy's debt load is 6.3 times cash flow.

"The last time I looked, Canwest stock was worth about 60 cents, down from the $20 or so it was commanding before the company bought out the Southam chain, from Conrad Black, who is in jail.

"And the audience for newspapers is NOT small. Results of a Pew Research Centre study released this week showed that, in the United States, newspapers actually gained a bit with the under 30s in the past year, going from 23 to 28 percent of those surveyed who said print was their first source of news.

"In a population of 330 million, that would give you a potential audience of 92.4 million readers. Imagine what that might be if newspapers stopped cutting back on staff and closing bureaus, and started funding investigative work. If there were actually something interesting and occasionally surprising to read in the dailies, the audience would almost certainly grow.

"The problem with newspapers is that they are for the most part run by people with the myopic vision and dearth of imagination of the call-me-silly-guy and not by people with ideas and solutions, like Mr. Janes.

"I think his concept of a focused paper is interesting, and I plan to steal it (and credit the source) for the paper I'm writing now. Other solutions have been proposed, such as publishing a tabloid on weekdays and a big, fat, good-read broadsheet on the weekend. Or going to less frequent print product supplemented by online services.

"One thing that would be interesting would be to study campus newspapers and find out why they're still going, and why university students stop reading papers when they graduate.

"Another thing we might do is to remember that young people regarded the 'mainstream media' (yes, they were using that term) with much the same disdain in the 1960s and '70s, when the underground newspaper - born of an earlier technological innovation, the offset press - was the nose-thumbing, scrappy alternative de jour. And most of those young people - us - graduated to reading dailies (though not without a heightened awareness of their shortcomings).

"We also should stop looking down our noses at community newspapers, which are thriving by giving small communities a place where they can talk to themselves - and, at their best, are models of service to democracy.

"Ask the people of Russell Township, near Ottawa, who wouldn't have known their councillors were about to vote the mayor a 70 percent pay increase if the editor of the little local rag hadn't dragged herself out of bed at dawn to cover an early-morning council meeting, and followed up with a series of news stories and editorials explaining why this amounted to highway robbery.

"(The mayor backed down because of the stink the paper kicked up.) No Internet site could have done the job the Russell Villager did, and many metro dailies are too uderstaffed or timid to take on city hall.

"There are two things of which I'm convinced: in the same way radio invented Top 40 and All-Talk in response to TV, newspapers are going to have to do things that CAN'T be done on the Internet - and that doesn't mean more fat, red-faced, middle-aged men interviewing their keyboards and vomiting up their opinions, and it doesn't mean stuffing your papers with graphics, fact-boxes and the facts ma'am just the facts. The Internet is full of that.

"It means more and better storytelling. More rounded, nuanced and penetrating reporting. Writers with the ability - and time - to make us see the world in a different light. Editors with the taste and imagination to help those writers grow to greatness, and the guts and power to stand up for, and to, their readers. Owners and publishers with brains enough to keep their busy little fingers off buttons and levers they don't understand.

"It means that you stop blaming the audience for their boredom with you and focus on delivering a literary-cultural-political experience for the few with imagination and wit enough to enjoy it.

"And stop worrying about the people who don't read; they aren't going to start just because you want them to. AND stop assuming that "elite" means "rich"; blue-collar readers have always been among the most loyal newspaper readers, and you don't win points with them by being anti-labor and slavishly pro-management.

"(Tabloid guys are going to hate this, but they shouldn't because some of the best writers - guys like Breslin and Royko - wrote for tabloids, and from a blue-collar perspective.)

"Fact-gatherers, blowhards, ideologues and technocrats need not apply.

"And it means journalism schools are going to have to spend less time teaching Computer Assisted Reporting and spend more time on style and content, and finding and grooming the students with the potential to be the next Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin or Gay Talese. (Note that I list only writers who are also extraordinarily good reporters.)

"The second thing I'm sure about is the current crop of media managers - sons of rich men, real estate moguls, editors who serve accountants rather than their writers, and successful proofreaders who have never been in the field - haven't got the courage or the imagination to run a shoe shop, let alone revive an ailing industry. And that the collapse of the chains is an impending and joyous occasion.

"With chain collapse will come divestiture and, if we're lucky, a return to locally owned dailies.

"As industry observer Eric Alterman wrote in The Nation last summer:

"The dearth of decent ideas designed to save newspapers - or reinvent them for the digital age in ways that preserve their crucial democratic functions - is curious and depressing. It's curious because some of the smartest, most ambitious and most civic-minded people in America are deeply engaged with the problem.

It is depressing because the only ones with the self-confidence to undertake radical measures appear to be completely off their respective rockers . . .

The more one listens to the men and women at the top of the industry, the more it becomes obvious that the survival of the newspaper - the primary information-gathering and knowledge-disseminating instrument of American democracy - is going to have to come from somewhere else.

Sure, the blogosphere makes some invaluable contributions and a few foundations are rising to the challenge of funding investigative journalism. Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian recently suggested to me that universities might attach a small fee to their students' tuition - like an activities fee - to pay for the newspaper subscription of their choice.

This would improve the newspapers' bottom line, give their advertisers access to a coveted demographic and, if successful, would inculcate in the students the habit of newspaper reading as they approach maturity as voting citizens.

It's a great idea, and unlike most of what one hears at these conferences, it is on scale with the problem. Unfortunately, young people do not appear to want to pick up a newspaper, even for free. They often leave them lying around, even at journalism schools, where they are distributed gratis.

I don't have a better idea, except to repeat, again, the following: the loss of daily newspapers is a significant threat to the future of our democracy. It is far too important to be left in the hands of a bunch of clueless media moguls and their 'chief innovation officers.' "

Meanwhile, says Brian Gorman: "BTW, 'Quebecor rhetoric' was an entirely appropriate way to describe their comments."

Thank you for your e-mail Brian. All the best in 2009.


  1. Finally, the problem explained in a nutshell. Mega-companies owning too much carrying mega-debts. The best forms of ownership are non-profit or local, not nation-wide, or world-wide.


    Rob Lamberti
    Toronto Sun Unit Chair
    Local 87M
    Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.

  2. I'm the guy who wrote the comment that started all this. It's interesting to me to see the many views that are being attributed to me on the basis of my original comment. For the record, here's what I wrote:

    "I think it's silly to dismiss Berton's comments as 'Quebecor rhetoric.' Printed newspapers are dying. It may hurt to admit that for old-timers like us, but that doesn't make it any less true. I know fewer and fewer people under 45 who insist on starting their day with a print newspaper, the way we oldsters like to do.

    "I think it is deluded for those of us in the business to tell ourselves that this trend will reverse itself if we just build a better product. If the market doesn't want your product, it doesn't matter how good it is. That's capitalism, for good or for ill.

    "I don't have a solution. I just think we need to be realistic."

    I'd like to note that Wayne Janes actually agreed with my main and initial point, which is that it is silly to dismiss the comments Paul Berton made in his editorial as "Quebecor rhetoric". The reams and reams of commentary that my comment sparked seem to confirm that everyone agrees that something needs to be done to rejuvenate newspapers in this era. I didn't read Berton's comments as saying anything other than that.

    When I said "newspapers are dying", I didn't mean that as a value judgment. I meant it as a factual observation. I grew up reading the Montreal Star: gone. The Ottawa Journal: gone. The New York Times: constantly in trouble. The Village Voice: practically gone (today they just laid off Nat Hentoff, who had been with them for *50 years*).

    I don't *want* newspapers to die. But at the same time, I have to believe my eyes.

    I said at the end of my comment that I didn't have any solutions. Some of the subsequent commenters obviously do, and I hope they find a way to put their ideas into effect.

    One thing that I doubt will work is reflexive hostility to anyone who suggests even mildly that things need to change.

  3. Revenue and profit at the Quebecor-owned London Free Press remain robust, although both are down from previous years.

    It's impossible to ignore the ol' chicken or the egg question, since ongoing cutbacks leave the newspaper a mere shell of its former self, with no revenue being re-invested in the paper.

    You can milk a cow for only so long before realizing that the cow needs to eat as well.

    Quebecor is great at milking profits in the short-term, but in a few years they will have totally destroyed their newspaper assets.

    I can guarantee you that the late Walter J. Blackburn would be totally ashamed of what's happened to his once-proud and comprehensive newspaper.

    He'd also be embarrassed by what's happened to the staff morale, whereby people schlump into work every work day with the energy of a sleepwalking zombie, counting the days to retirement.

    I totally agree that this sad scenario is a very real threat to democracy.

    How can an uninformed electorate hold their civic/ government officials, elected and non-elected, accountable?

    Regarding Paul Berton's column on the state of today's newspaper industry, he's muzzled by his corporate paymasters so he's beating around the bush not speaking his mind about what he knows to be true.

  4. Welcome back to the fight. This time, I know we can win.
    Name that line and remember the memories of The Gully before the houses went up. Then give us a call. How's the family? I recall ya'll were a block away from some of our friends in Russell.
    This piece of your piece is what I've always thought must happen in the future. Your sport was football, right?

    The more one listens to the men and women at the top of the industry, the more it becomes obvious that the survival of the newspaper - the primary information-gathering and knowledge-disseminating instrument of American democracy - is going to have to come from somewhere else.