Good News, Bad News: Power in Canadian Media and Politics

Article excerpt

It is never anything but inspiring to drift down from over the mountains into the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, to see the ocean come into view with Vancouver set against the water and the peaks, the ebullient greenery of the landscape a balm at any time of year.

We took a theoretical look once at moving a big part of our news production desk to Vancouver, where our copy editors and paginators could work decent daytime hours to meet eastern late-night deadlines, and enjoy all the other benefits of life in British Columbia too. After all, everything we do is transmitted by satellite these days, including the work of our Toronto newsroom to our Mississauga printing plant, so why not think more radically about producing our newspaper in more salubrious conditions? Toronto can receive signals from a satellite as easily as it can send them, so why are we stuck with the old paradigm of centralized control, based on an industrial model of production?

This question goes to the heart of my musings tonight about the ebbs and flows of power in our society. At some levels, the old, centralized controls are tumbling in the face of technology and social change. At other levels, the old centralized controls are tenaciously holding on.

Assuming that a broader distribution of power is better than a narrow one - and that's not always the case - I will argue that the media in Canada are diversifying and decentralizing, and that the political system is not. In sum, the good news on power comes from the world of media; the bad news, from the world of politics.

When I started my newspaper career 22 years ago in Edmonton, there was only one newspaper in town - The Edmonton Journal, owned by Southam Inc., which was controlled by members of the Southam family. Edmonton had been a one-paper town since 1951, when the old Edmonton Bulletin went bankrupt. Everyone assumed that's the way it would stay.

In 1954, Edmonton got one television channel - a CBC affiliate. In the mid-1960s, it got a second channel - CTV. By the mid-1970s, Edmonton had three Canadian channels and several American ones - maybe seven channels in all. FM radio also came to Edmonton in the early 1970s, with two or three stations. Then the media world exploded.

Alberta Report magazine appeared in the early 1970s, with an entirely different take on reality. In 1978, the Edmonton Sun was born, and readers had access to yet another view of the world. In 1980, The Globe and Mail began printing in Alberta and was suddenly available in street boxes, and for home delivery. By the mid-1980s, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today were available on the streets and, in 1988, the Financial Post went daily and was marketed to business readers. Local free give-away papers sprouted up, along with suburban weeklies and second-language dailies in Chinese, Spanish and Italian.

Suddenly in Edmonton, a newspaper reader went from having one choice - The Edmonton Journal - to The Edmonton Sun, The Globe and Mail, The Financial Post and several daily papers from abroad, as well as the burgeoning Alberta Report weekly. Not only did the number of newspapers grow dramatically, but their character and purposes diversified greatly as well.

In places such as Toronto, three broad city newspapers with substantially overlapping missions gave way in the 1970s to three very distinctive newspapers, each focusing on chosen areas of expertise. Newspaper analysts came to saying that, if the three rules for successful retailing were location, location and location, the three rules for successful media management were segmentation, segmentation and segmentation. The same thing happened in Vancouver under one owner, and in Montreal and most other Canadian cities under competing owners: more newspapers arrived on the scene, and they offered more variety and depth in their chosen fields than any of them had done before. We may even another national newspaper on the scene, published by Conrad Black, next spring. …