Was it so very different working for Southam Inc. 10 or 20 years ago when they owned 17 news- papers across the country, and its chief execu- tive officers were the late Gordon Fisher and the late St. Clair Balfour, than it is today when working for CanWest Global under the Asper family?
The first difference, and a crucial one, is that newspa- pers made money into the 1970s and 1980s. Those of us who worked for Southam at that time, no matter how lowly our job, could buy stock in the company and pay off the cost over several years. The stock purchase plan fed loyalty to the company and most years fattened our bank accounts as well because the stock price doubled with prof- itable regularity.
But it became clear by the 1990s that newspapers were not churning out the profits they once did and were unlike- ly to be as profitable again. TV, radio, magazines and, to some extent, the Internet, drained advertising dollars away. At the same time, younger readers gave up on newspapers, so the readership profile got older. Finally, the deep and demoralizing recession of the early 1990s and the entrenched unions chewed away at earnings.
The second difference is the free and open atmosphere the ownership created at their papers and at Southam News. The news service served the 17 papers, as well as several non-Southam papers, and at one time boasted correspon- dents in most of the major cities in Canada, including six or so people in Ottawa, as well as in London, Washington, Paris, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
Part of the reason for the sense of independence enjoyed by the papers and the news service was that the Toronto head office of Southam Inc. was by tradition very small. Through the 1970s and 1980s, it numbered about 100 people. The newspapers did their own accounting and hir- ing, and carried out most other business functions. The pub- lishers were given the authority to manage their own news- papers. The business philosophy was to decentralize as much as possible. In today’s parlance, it would be called empowerment.
The Southam company was not naiÌˆve. The decentral- ized approach didn’t hurt the bottom line and, as impor- tant, kept an anxious government at a respectable distance. The anxiety was a reflection of the times because in those years two commissions were struck to look into concentra- tion of newspaper ownership, one headed by Tom Kent and another by Liberal Senator Keith Davey. Neither resulted in much government action, and they certainly didn’t recommend breaking up the Southam Group, for reasons that Peter Desbarats pointed out in his interview with Anthony Germain (see page 18).
The decentralized approach also led to bizarre and sometimes amusing happenings. For example, one publisher whose political views were pink bordering on red startled readers of Southam papers in Montreal and Windsor when he ordered up editorials supporting the New Democratic Party, hardly the preference of Gordon Fisher or St. Clair Balfour.
But the majority of the editorial views were centrist. They varied from strongly Liberal to stoutly Conservative and even stubbornly Social Credit in Western Canada. Above all, no one in the head office told editorial writers what to say, or wished to. And unless there was a major busi- ness blooper, the Southam head office did not interfere in the running of the papers.
A third difference is that Southam supported the development of journalists, most visibly through the Southam Journalism Fellowships. These were Southam-paid sabbaticals offered to print, radio, TV and magazine journalists (not all the recipients, often not even the majority, Southam journalists) for one academic year at the University of Toronto. In the more than 30 years they existed (CanWest cancelled them a year ago) the fellowships may have expanded the minds of more than 100 Canadian journalists, and possi- bly even raised the quality of journalism in the country. (Here I admit to being conflicted because I was a Southam Fellow in the dashing but now dim 1960s.)
Even though Southam supported many broadcast journalists through the fellowship pro- gram, it was never permitted to own a TV or radio station. At that time, it was government policy to prevent cross-ownership of the media.
Of course, all the rules about media owner- ship have changed in the last 10 years, CanWest’s ownership of the Global TV network and the Southam Group is proof that the catalyst of change was the startling transformation in the economics of the media business, especially newspapers. This was caused by multiplying information outlets, including specialty newspa- pers, some of them free, and niche magazines, both of which now compete successfully with the daily newspapers. Added to that came specialty channels hitting at newspapers and shattering the grip that American and Canadian TV net- works once had on the viewer.
And now, of course, there are hundreds of news outlets on the Internet and tens of thou- sands of websites offering commentary, back- ground and historical perspective on any issue from Palestine to prostate cancer. You don’t need a newspaper to tell you what happened yesterday or what to think on any issue. You don’t need to wait for the TV news to get hockey, golf and soc- cer scores. Stock prices can be dialed up on hand- held computers. You can do your banking and buy train, airline or theatre tickets on the Internet.
Yet, despite all the evidence that newspapers and TV stations have neither the power to persuade nor the business model to churn out money as they once did, the attraction of owning them is still the prestige that surrounds owner- ship, plus the possibility of merging TV stations and newspapers to make money, a process that has become known as convergence.
So far, convergence hasn’t proven to be the salvation of telecom companies like BCE Inc., which bought both CTV and The Globe and Mail, or CanWest Global which bought the Southam newspapers to twin with the Global TV network. But these are early days””too early to make a judgement because convergence could yet prove profitable for those companies.
Meanwhile, the older model of media own- ership proved itself in several ways. The fact that the owners didn’t allow their own views to dom- inate the media outlets created a diversity of opinion for readers and a feeling of comfort for advertisers that the TV station or newspaper they supported thought and acted independently. It also allowed journalists, for the most part, to say what they wanted whether they were right or wrong in the eyes of the owner.
And in the 1970s and 1980s, there was still room for new and creative ideas. This was the era when the saucy Toronto Sun was founded with gobs of enthusiasm but little money by refugees from the defunct Toronto Telegram. Within a few years they had created a popular and hugely prof- itable tabloid, and the formula later sprouted in Winnipeg, Calgary, Ottawa and Edmonton.
In the same period in Quebec, Pierre Péladeau founded Le Journal de Montréal, combining sports with police and court stories in a tabloid format that ran away from the competition. It still does. And there were numerous examples that proved ingenuity was not dead in television either, from Toronto’s City TV to small stations from the Atlantic Provinces and BC, as well as the always distinct offerings from Radio-Canada.
So, it was different working in the journalism business 10, 15, 20 and 25 years ago. Whether it was better is an open question. Also an open question is what will happen next, because own- ership, of newspapers at least, is beginning to break up and the chains are slowly dismantling.
Thomson Corp. has sold virtually all its newspaper holdings in Canada except part own- ership of The Globe and Mail. The Toronto Star now owns several other dailies in southern Ontario, including The Spectator in Hamilton. And CanWest has announced it is selling off newspa- pers to pay down the huge debt it acquired when it bought the papers from Conrad Black. The Star in Windsor may be one of them.
How many more newspapers they sell will depend on several factors. One is whether the financial markets put pressure on CanWest to fur- ther reduce their debt. Another is the share price that has halved in the last few months, from a high of $14.25 last spring to $6.50 at the time of this writing.
Clearly, the ownership of the media 10 years from now will be as different as it was 10 years ago and the probability is that the newspapers and the TV stations will be much more widely held than they are now. Maybe that will lead to our TV sta- tions and newspapers serving up a much more diversified diet for viewers and readers.