Monday, November 3, 2008

Get used to Tory governments

It’s a bit difficult, all the way down here in Texas (where it may hit 80 degrees again today), to get a handle on how Canada’s news media covered the recent federal election. But from my recent research on the country’s converged media landscape, I’m not surprised by some of the rumblings I have gleaned online. The Harper Conservatives, after all, blessed convergence of television and newspaper ownership as a business model despite the warnings of the 2003 Lincoln report on broadcasting and the 2005 Senate report on news media. It should be no surprise if Big Media in Canada returned the favor by doing its best to return the deregulationist Tories to power, albeit with another minority government. Globe and Mail columnist Rick Salutin commented on how the decade-long rightward shift in Canada’s media has arrayed an impressive list of media allies behind Harper.

We now have a clear pro-Harper tilt from the two big private TV nets, CTV and Global. . . . There's the National Post, the CanWest papers under the stern Asper thumb, the Suns and Maclean's, the sole national newsmag. Outside the tent are just the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, which more or less defines the centre and has always been a conservative business-oriented paper, and the CBC.
Even the public broadcaster, noted Salutin, is hardly as small-l liberal as in the past, given the political and media climate that might see it privatized just as soon as Harper can pull a majority in Parliament. “Public broadcasters tend to run scared under right-wing governments,” noted Salutin. “The BBC did in the Thatcher years and the CBC did in the Mulroney era.” Still, as he pointed out, it was “striking that majority voter opinion has remained statistically firm,” with the social democratic vote remaining at 60-65 percent, albeit split between four parties.

More worrying to me is the rightward shift in coverage on the Left Coast, from where I hail. One of the few non-conservative print publications in Vancouver, the Georgia Straight weekly entertainment giveaway tabloid, noted the trend and promised to do what it could to oppose it. “Vancouver is not a conservative city,” moaned news editor Charlie Smith. “And Vancouver doesn’t need another conservative paper telling us we should vote for a guy who relied on a plagiarized speech in 2003 to explain why Canadian kids should be sent to their deaths in Iraq.” Smith professed astonishment at the Vancouver Sun’s coverage of that embarrasing mid-campaign disclosure, which was buried on the inside pages. Coverage of the environment, traditionally a hot topic in Beautiful British Columbia, had received similar short shrift, from what Smith could see.

Climate change is perhaps Harper’s weakest issue. By not hammering away at this, the Canwest media and its columnists are helping to ensure that the environment flies somewhat under the radar during this campaign. No wonder the pollsters are saying it’s not very high on the list of public concerns at the moment.
Smith nicely encapsulated an example of agenda-setting theory, which posits that issues not covered prominently in the news media are not perceived as important by citizens, and vice-versa. Pioneered by media theorist Max McCombs of the University of Texas, with whom I spent some time this summer at a conference in New Zealand, it is a theory that truly demonstrates media power over the public mind. Its wonderfully succint bottom line is that while the media cannot tell us what to think, they can greatly influence what we think ABOUT. The phenomenon has been deomonstrated in replications that have numbered in the hundreds worldwide in the four decades since McCombs and Donald Shaw conducted their first agenda-setting study in North Carolina. (The results of which, Max told the Australia New Zealand Communication Association conference, were first rejected as a conference paper before being published in Public Opinion Quarterly.)

This is where the perils of concentrated media ownership become apparent. A few large media owners, as in Canada where they now own both newspapers and television, are both more powerful in molding public opinion and more susceptible to political influence. If there is anything I have noticed down here in the Excited States, it is that coverage of this presidential campaign has been much more diverse that four years ago, when I was teaching at another school in Texas. The emergence of MSNBC as a liberal alternative, led by the riotous rants of Countdown’s Keith Olbermann, has re-stretched a media spectrum that once crowded the right side of the dial to emulate the jingoist popularity of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News – or “Fixed Noise," as Olbermann now calls it. As a result, Americans will tomorrow elect a president who is for a change more liberal that Canada’s leader. It is a testament to the power of media diversity. Will the pendulum swing back to the left north of the border? Not until the Canadian media becomes more (wait for it) Fair and Balanced. We could be waiting for awhile.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

CanWest slide good for media democracy?

I might be out several hundred dollars, but I’m willing to take the hit if it means the breakup of Canada’s largest news media company, which dominates in the western part of the country, where I come from. As speculated in my Tyee article, and bruited on radio, asset sales may be the only way for the Asper boys to keep their heads above water in this economy. That could mean them selling the National Post, or even the Southam dailies they bought from Conrad Black in 2000. This is good news, especially as this past weekend saw Media Democracy Day marked in several cities across Canada.

Perhaps illustrative of CanWest’s questionable journalism ethics has been the complete lack of coverage in its newspapers of this major business story, as journalism educator – and media blogger – Mark Hamilton pointed out. “This makes no sense to me,” he admitted after barely being able to find any coverage at all online. “It is, perhaps, not surprising that none of the CanWest-owned newspapers appear to be covering this story. What is surprising is that very few others seem to be covering it, either.”

I’ve been tracking this, and the stock has underperformed market averages every day this week. Yet when I do a google search on the words “CanWest” “share” and “price,” the top three hits are news story from January 2007 and July 2008, and a blog post I wrote about this a couple of days ago. Really? We have what appears to be a significant Canadian business story here, and in the general Google search category the results throw up two outdated stories and a small blog post. When I hit the “news” tab at Google I get a single relevant story.
Hamilton’s search efforts later turned up a Reuters article, and a day later he admitted he “may be over-reacting to this,” but he continued to express amazement that not only had CanWest dailies been silent on the subject, but that there had been barely a peep out of the rest of Canada’s business press. “I’m still puzzled why a story about a company of this size and importance to the Canadian media scene seems to have attracted so little attention,” he admitted. Well, it’s just a symptom of the problem, Mark. CanWest newspapers are more than eager to publicize any Asper good deed done for PR value. They trumpet press releases from CanWest headquarters about every deal, donation, and honor the company cares to publicize. But you won’t ready anything negative about the company on their pages. For that, you’ll have to rely on the CBC, the Globe and Mail, and alternative media.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Memo to Lawrence Martin: Facts matter

No matter how insightful your analysis, mangling the facts leaves you wide open to criticism. That's why I was moved to write a corrective to the Globe and Mail columnist's piece of Aug. 7, "The sale of the National Post would reverberate in political circles." Martin is absolutely right that Conrad Black's acquisition of the Southam newspaper chain and founding of the National Post changed journalism in Canada. My survey of scholarly research on the subject for Asper Nation showed how the Post fiddles the facts to suit its ideological agenda, which is not so much journalism as propaganda. But it is wrong to characterize Black's acquisition of Southam as a "purchase," or to suggest that Southam family members willingly sold him their historic newspaper chain. Instead, as I state in my letter to the editor, it was a "classic hostile takeover." That was for the sake of a 200-word limit. In my book, I characterized it as "a work of high-finance artistry." But for the full story, you have to go back to an article I wrote in 2003 for the International Journal on Media Management, "The good, the bad, and the ugly: Financial markets and the demise of Canada's Southam newspapers." It told how the Southams had been scheming for years to keep Black from getting his hands on their newspapers before he finally outsmarted . . . or outlasted them.

By the mid-1980s, stock in Southam was widely held. Southam family members, by then into a fourth generation of ownership, had sold off so many shares that together they owned only about 30 percent of the company. When a mystery buyer began buying up large blocks of shares, family members panicked, figuring it was Black. It may instead have been Toronto real estate developer George Mann, but that didn't mean Conrad didn't have designs on Southam. He did, and had been steadily acquiring shares in it. Share prices rose on speculation of a takeover attempt, and family members became frantic. The attempted a couple of measures to ward off predators before finally settling on a "share swap" arrangement with Torstar in 1985. Southam traded 20 percent of its shares for 30 percent of the smaller Torstar in a "near merger" that made a Southam takeover nearly impossible for any other potential acquisitor. Part of the deal was that neither Torstar nor Southam would attempt to take over the other for a "stand-still period" of 10 years. Black sold his Southam shares for a tidy profit and bought the Daily Telegraph in London, which became the cornerstone of the worldwide newspaper empire he built over the next decade.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, shareholders disgruntled by the share swap found that Southam had failed to provide sufficient notice for a vote on the arrangement, and went to court in an attempt to have it struck down. An out-of-court settlement shortened the stand-still period to five years, which meant Southam became a takeover target again in 1990 instead of 1995. By then, Black had made millions by cutting costs (read staff) at the Telegraph and numerous other newspapers he had acquired. He talked Torstar out of its 20 percent stake in Southam, and family members panicked again. They sounded out Paul Desmarais, one of Quebec's largest press owners, on his support for quality journalism, and thinking they had an ally issued him a similar 20-percent block of shares from the company treasury. Desmarais and Black, however, were neighbors in Palm Beach, where they conspired to break up Southam. Black would get several of the smaller dailies for his 20 percent. Independent directors of Southam blocked that move, only to be branded an "obdurate rump" by Black. Instead, Desmarais sold to Black, who gained effective control over Southam as a result and fired the independent directors. Over the next few years, he made repeated offers to other Southam shareholders (of which, as a result of the Southam employee stock purchase program, I was one) in an attempt to acquire enough stock to take the company private. First, he used his de facto control to disperse Southam's considerable cash reserves, declaring a special dividend that enriched him most of all. Then he used Southam's considerable credit rating to borrow for another special dividend. It was difficult not to admire the kind of mind capable of such scheming, but by 2003 Black had outsmarted even himself and his house of cards came down around him.

Before he turned his back on Canada, however, and well before he was incarcerated for fraud, Black craftily cashed in on his ingenious takeover of Southam by inculcating it with the very kind of neoconservative agenda the moderate founding family had feared. Unlike the Aspers, however, Black knew enough about newspapers to realize he would encounter stiff resistance if he tried to impose a radical new political agenda from on high, and that doing it gradually from the bottom up, through hirings and promotions, would take many years. Instead he did it in short order by giving Southam the flagship daily it had always lacked. Only the "right" journalists were selected for the Post, and the direction was thus set for the rest of the chain. When he quit the country to take his seat in the House of Lords, Black took pains to pass his hard-won newspapers to a like-minded owner in Izzy Asper. If the continued losses of the National Post force the Aspers to sell in order to keep CanWest afloat, you can be sure they will do likewise and ensure the newspaper ends up in the "right" hands.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A whirlwind of publicity

A return to my Home on Native Land to spend the summer aboard my boat has brought a series of appearances in support of my latest book, copies of which my beleaguered publisher is desperate to unload. In an eight-day period earlier this month, I gave two speeches, appeared in-studio for two radio interviews, and attended the Canadian Communication Association conference in Vancouver, where I presented a paper on my favorite media company, CanWest Global Communications. Unfortunately, Asper Nation didn’t win the CCA's annual Gertrude Robinson book prize, for which it was short-listed, but the book that won looks like a doozy, so I was just glad to be considered in such company. Sure, right. I’m sulking, and you know it.

My busy week began with an appearance on CBC radio in Montreal, for which I had to travel downtown to the Mother Corp’s Vancouver bunker, which is STILL under renovation. It was in similar disarray last summer when I was in studio. The program was Radio Noon in Montreal and I was on for their second hour, from 1-2 p.m. their time, or 10-11 a.m. in Vancouver. The host was Anne LagacĂ© Dowson, and we had no shortage of things to talk about, as CanWest has been just as active there with the Gazette as it has been elsewhere in Canada. Find the interview archived online here.

The next day, the CCA conference began out on the Point Grey campus of UBC, where the Learned Societies basically took over for two weeks or so. Unfortunately, the weather this first half of June has been just horrid, cold and wet, with high temperatures only in low double digits. I was actually in the belly of the beast for a confab at the School of Journalism on whether to set up a Journalism Studies offshoot of CCA. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the speakers actually referenced my writings on journalism education in Canada. I presented my paper the second day of the conference in the rickety old Math building. It was raining cats and dogs when I arrived, but by lunchtime it had abated somewhat. My publisher had a booth at the book fair on campus and reported selling all of two copies of Asper Nation. The awards reception was supposed to run from 7-10 p.m., so I decided to be all west coast about it and show up fashionably late, figuring the hardware wouldn't be handed out until at least 8. As I arrived about 7:45, I heard the awards being presented, and by the time I got there the whole thing was over. Maybe it’s best that I didn’t win, for I wouldn’t have been present to accept.

On Friday, I gave a speech at a rally outside the Vancouver Sun and Province offices downtown in support of Mordecai Briemberg, the activist who is being sued by CanWest for helping to distribute a parody issue of the Sun that lampooned their pro-Israeli coverage of the Middle East conflict. It was again gray and chilly, but just as we got going with songs and speeches the sun started to come out. You can watch video of the event here. An interesting historical footnote: Mordecai was one of the infamous “PSA 7” faculty members at SFU who were fired in the late 1960s for radicalism. As a result, the university was under censure by the Canadian Association of University Teachers the entire time I was an undergraduate there in the mid-1970s. He ended up teaching at Douglas College and has since retired. While I was waiting to go on, a former colleague slipped me a copy of a memo publisher Kevin Bent circulated to all employees that morning giving the company’s side of the dispute. I passed it to one of the event organizers and it ended up in the Georgia Straight.

The next morning, I had to get up early to appear on Co-op radio. Their studios are on the Downtown Eastside, and it was rather daunting to pull in about 9 a.m. just as multitudes of street people were pulling up their bedrolls on what must qualify as the world’s largest outdoor dormitory. I was a little bit nervous about parking my car there, but she was still intact when I returned. You can listen to a podcast of the interview here.

I then caught my breath for a couple of days before my next appearance, which was for a speech at the Planetarium to a group of retired executives and professional people called Probus. I merrily rattled on for 40 minutes or so, aided by PowerPoint, about CanWest’s stranglehold on local news media and their naked political agenda, assuming my impassive audience would be sympathetic. Instead, once the questioning started, it became apparent that most of them figured the media had a flaming liberal bias, CanWest notwithstanding. Oh, well. I put it down to demographics, as the crowd was exclusively Old White Males. The worst part was that we sold only a few books afterward, which was the main reason I was there. At least they bought me lunch and a couple of beers afterward and I didn't feel so bad.

I now look forward to relaxing for a few weeks. I brought about two dozen books back with me that need reading, plus I have a mountain of boat work to do. The weather just changed yesterday, and the forecast says that we may even hit 20 degrees this afternoon. I have to get some sun on my lilywhite, and I hope to even get out sailing soon.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Press freedom ranking falls again

For the third time in the past four years, Freedom House has downgraded Canada’s press freedom ranking in its annual survey of world media. While our press is still firmly ensconced in the “free” category, it dropped one point in the past year to rate an 18 on the Freedom House scale, which considers legal, political, and economic pressures on press freedom. Canada now ranks tied for 25th in the world, behind such countries as Estonia, Monaco, and St. Vincent & The Grenadines. Canada took a two-point tumble a few years ago as a result of CanWest’s intimidation of its own journalists, but had recovered somewhat recently. Here’s the bottom line over the past few years.
2002 16
2003 17
2004 15
2005 17
2006 18
2007 17
2008 18
In dropping Canada by a point in its most recent ranking, Freedom House deemed legal constraints on the press to have increased. Its report noted that cases continue to be brought under a 2004 law forcing reporters to present documents to the police if deemed vital for a criminal case.

In June 2007, Ottawa Citizen reporter Gary Dimmock was ordered to produce his notes regarding allegations of bribery against Mayor Larry O’Brien. The appeal also continued of Ken Peters, a reporter for the Hamilton Spectator who was found in contempt of court in 2006 and fined C$31,600 for refusing to give up a confidential source, though the source later came forward voluntarily.

Freedom House also noted the shroud of secrecy under which Ottawa currently operates due to the perception management policies of the Harper Conservatives. That was nicely illustrated recently with the revelation that government MPs have been issued with wallet-size laminated cards instructing them on what to do if approached for comment by a reporter. According to the Toronto Star, the instructions to MPs include first clamming up, then asking a series of questions before going to the PMO for permission to speak to the journalist. The Freedom House report also notes threats against Canadian journalists made by religious extremists, a nasty example of which was recently revealed by Vancouver Sun reporter Kim Bolan, who has been the subject of death threats over the years from Sikh extremists due to her dogged reporting of factional violence in the Indo-Canadian community.

Despite the increasing vitriol, I was still startled two months ago to find a photo of myself posted on a Facebook page that had been started a few days earlier to attack me. A bullet hole had been photo-shopped onto my forehead, blood dripping from the wound, my left eye sliced open and more blood flowing from my nose and mouth.

RCMP traced he Facebook page to a Calgary man and the offensive image was quickly removed. CBC reporter Terry Milewski has also been subject to death threats and online vilification, noted Bolan in her chilling account of the perils of journalistic persistence. As World Press Freedom Day passes for another year, it’s important to remember that in Canada, despite the intimidation from a small minority – including some owners of the media – many journalists are still willing to hold the public’s right to know above their own personal welfare.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Canadian newspapers defy gravity

While the bloodletting continues at U.S. dailies, with earnings and circulation coming in down sharply, Canadian newspaper revenues continue to defy gravity. Monday’s Audit Bureau of Circulations data showed major dailies down 3.6 percent for the six months ended March 31, with only the national newspapers USA Today and the Wall Street Journal showing increases, albeit less than one percent. In Boston, the dailies were particularly hard hit for some reason, with the Globe down 8.3 percent during the week and the Herald off 9.5 percent. While I am on the record as believing much of the circulation loss is strategic, with dailies cutting unprofitable distribution, there is no denying that profits have been going through the floor recently at U.S. dailies, with revenues down 7.9% in 2007. Now that first-quarter earnings are starting to come in, it is obvious that trend is not only continuing, but accelerating. Gannett’s earnings were off 9 percent, with ad revenue down 12.8 percent overall, led by real estate and job ads tumbling 26.3 and 24.2 percent respectively. McClatchy even posted red ink, recording a loss of $849,000 compared with a first-quarter profit of $9 million last year, as advertising revenues fell by 15 per cent.

Canadian newspapers aren’t as swift at counting as their American cousins, so 2008 numbers aren’t in yet, but judging by the recently-released 2007 figures, they seem to be holding their own. A two-percent drop in print advertising last year was basically offset by a 30-percent rise in the smaller category of online ads. The Canadian Newspaper Association has an interesting graphic in its latest report tracking ad revenues over the past decade compared to those in the U.S. It shows a steady rise over that period, despite the wild dips taken in the States recently, and during the 2000 stock market crash. CNA President Anne Kothawala urged media buyers not to be influenced by “tainted” results in the U.S.
"Advertisers and their agencies, many of whom are global businesses, should ensure that their Canadian buying decisions are not tainted by the US data. In an age when consumers are increasingly tuning out advertising content, studies show they continue to find newspapers engaging. Many readers turn to their paper as much for the ad content as the editorial content. The real story is how well we are holding our own in an age of global media disruption.”
I will suspend my disbelief in this gravity defiance until I see whether the trend continues into 2008 in the face of U.S. housing starts falling to their lowest level in decades.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Battle of Titans shaping up

First, bitter rivals Leonard Asper and Ivan Fecan linked arms last week to plead in unison for the CRTC to throw them some of the crumbs that cable companies have been piling up for the past few yers. Now Shaw cable boss Jim Shaw has weighed in with a letter of complaint to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in advance of his appearance before the regulatory body this week. His testimony could be similarly testy. This is one you could almost sell on pay-per-view. The Global and CTV network chiefs making a joint presentation was all Shaw could take before bashing off a five-page letter from his Calgary office to Harper, a Calgary MP. The bid to impose fee-for-carriage, which will charge cable customers for content that is broadcast free over the airwaves, goes against the Conservative government's deregulationist mantra, he pointed out.
Unfortunately, the government's objectives of driving innovation, investment and fair competition for the benefit of Canadians, and Shaw's efforts to help realize them, is being undermined by the CRTC's current review of satellite and broadcast regulations. I believe the issues being discussed show a significant gap between the CRTC's goals and your government's policy objectives.
Shaw is schedud to appear before the CRTC, which received a copy of his letter and released it to the public, on Thursday. I'm with Shaw on this one. Big Media moguls love deregulation, which allows them to grow larger and thus more profitable and politically powerful, but when it is to their financial advantage they show no shame coming cap in hand to regulators like the CRTC begging for a handout. Cash grab indeed!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Do you believe Statistics Canada?

Luckily there is an official agency that keeps track of important economic indicators in Canada, so we're not left entirely to the tender mercies of the news media to inform us about the state of their own business. Aside from periodic government inquiries into the press -- the most recent of which two years ago showed newspaper profits around 20 percent -- Statistics Canada keeps track of things like advertising revenues and company profits. Despite the media's pleas of poverty to justify massive layoffs of journalists, Statscan's latest figures show that ad revenues went up 2.7 percent, not down. Sure, the numbers are for 2006, and 2007 may show a downturn with the economy heading south, but that's a cyclical phenomenon that follows the economy.

Advertising revenues, the source of three-quarters of industry revenue, rose 2.7% to $3.98 billion in 2006. Daily newspapers
generated $2.85 billion in advertising revenues, compared with $1.13 billion for community newspapers.
The upturn in newspaper fortunes was most pronounced in Western Canada, where our favorite converged news media company, CanWest Global Communications, dominates. Newspaper operating revenues for publishers in the four western provinces rose 3.9 per cent - almost twice the growth rate in Central Canada, pushing profits to 21.1 per cent from 18.2 per cent.

Even circulation revenue increased in the latest count, despite audited numbers that show sales down drastically. According to Statscan, circulation revenue blipped up 1.5 percent, although the industry claims that changes in accounting practices are responsible for the increase. I think this helps prove the point I made back in 2006 that just because circulation sales went down, it doesn’t mean that revenue followed suit, because it gets more and more expensive to distribute copies to farther-flung areas, and newspapers can actually save money by cutting back on deliveries.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A contrast in coverage

To me, the most interesting thing about the CRTC hearings that start today won’t be the testimony, nor the arguments, but instead how the press in Canada covers them. Most of the major dailies, of course, are owned by CanWest Global Communications, which is the Big Dog in this fight. CanWest would like to convince the CRTC to force the cable companies to charge their customers to watch local stations they can get free over the air. It would like to convince Canadians that what they are seeking is not highway robbery, and that’s where the propaganda value of owning the country’s largest newspaper chain comes in. Right off the bat, it appears that the CanWest dailies will be falling in line with coverage that makes the cable companies look bad. Today’s Financial Post, for example (that’s the business section of the National Post, if you haven’t been keeping track) begins its coverage with a report that top Rogers brass isn’t even on the same page. “Dissension in Rogers ranks as CRTC hearings open,” read the FP headline. Testimony from company head Ted Rogers, noted the article, disagreed with position of his top execs, who favor unfettered competition.

Later during Tuesday morning's hearings, Mr. Rogers again appeared to disagree with the company position on the subject of "targeted" advertising, which is being pitched as a way to give broadcasters more revenue in lieu of the controversial "fees for carriage" they are seeking.
The Toronto Star, by contrast, made no mention of dissention in the Rogers ranks in its kick-off coverage, instead reporting the Rogers delegation “bluntly telling the federal broadcast regulator that domestic broadcasters ‘don’t deserve a handout’ at the expense of consumers.”

Ted Rogers, the cable giant’s president and chief executive officer, told a standing room-only crowd in a Gatineau, Que., conference centre that if broadcasters are not as profitable as they used to be, it is because of spending on American programming and billion-dollar acquisition deals.
The Star bears much less conflict of interest in covering the hearings, being invested in network television in only a minor way, compared to CanWest. Its parent company, Torstar, bought a 20-percent interest in CTVglobemedia, which also publishes its main competitor, in 2006. That didn’t stop it from reporting that Rogers exec Ken Engelhart noted Canada “has got to be the only country in the world where profitable companies can come in and ask for subsidies,” or that Rogers himself warned of a consumer “revolt” if the fee passes.

Despite the optics and inevitable odor, don’t bet against the CRTC bowing to CanWest’s request. As I noted in Asper Nation, the company’s 2006 swallowing of the 13 specialty cable channels formerly owned by Alliance Atlantis leaves them vulnerable to increased ownership by U.S. investment bankers Goldman Sachs if their network revenues lag.

Their Global television operations would then need every advantage they could get from Ottawa to keep them mostly Canadian. The bridges they had been building to the new Conservative government would thus be more important than ever to CanWest. That in turn suggested mutual admiration would continue to be expressed between the federal government and Canada's largest news media company.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Does their nerve know no bounds?

Now that CanWest has convinced he CRTC to look the other way on their takeover of the 13 cable TV networks previously owned by Alliance Atlantis, which required an injection of American capital well in excess of foreign investment limits, the Asper boys have set out to achieve the unthinkable. Wouldn’t it be great for their bottom line if they could get the CRTC to order Canadians to pay for over-the-air television broadcasts that have hitherto been free for all? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what they’re asking for, and if the CRTC goes along with it the average cable bill will swell by several dollars. It’s not completely unthinkable, given the close relations between the ruling Conservatives and CanWest, but I’m betting that if they pull this one off it will be more of an impetus for public outcry than their near-complete domination of the news media in some parts of Canada.

It’s not enough that CanWest became the most profitable television network in Canada by buying up Hollywood programming and inserting their own commercials in the U.S. network feed. It’s not enough that they gave back very little for this veritable licence to print money, reneging on many of the commitments they made for Canadian content. Now they want to rake it in with both hands. Here’s the rationale from Charlotte Bell, the company’s senior vice-president for regulatory affairs, writing in the company’s national newspaper, the National Post. If the name sounds familiar, she’s the one who got caught arranging a fundraiser for former Heritage minister Bev Oda, whose responsibility included broadcasting regulation, a tale I chronicle in Asper Nation.

“Cable companies have built profitable businesses based on the exploitation of free programming supplied by local broadcasters without giving any of the proceeds back to the stations,” argues Bell, playing to perfection the part of the pot calling the kettle black. “They take broadcasters' signals, charge you for them, and pay us nothing.” This argument ignores a small thing known as “must carry,” the fact that in exchange for a local monopoly cable systems are required by the CRTC to carry local stations on basic cable. Bell continues by arguing that the very type of specialty cable network that CanWest has recently invested in get a sweet deal compared to hard-done-by broadcasters.
Canadian pay and specialty services such as The Movie Network and TSN each receive a portion of monthly cable and satellite bills. Foreign services such as CNN, A&E and even the Playboy Channel also get a slice. Last year alone, $250-million from Canadians' cable and satellite bills was handed over to foreign programming services -- but not a cent went to local television

Bell’s column was written in response to a column by Phil Lind , vice chairman of cable giant Rogers Communications, that was carried alongside it in that day’s Post. That’s right, Bell’s column was a response, as she had obviously had the advantage of reading and rebutting Lind’s points, which she described as “disingenuous and misleading.” That’s just the kind of level playing field the Aspers love. Lind attributed the money grab to the recent expensive acquisitions of more lucrative specialty channels on the part of CanWest Global. “They want you to subsidize their local TV operations until they're as profitable as their specialty operations. That, in essence, is what fee-for-carriage is really all about.”

At least the Aspers were smart enough to get the CBC and CTV networks onside with this power play in order to prevent looking rapacious by comparison. After all, who can turn down free money, right? The networks are all crying poverty in unison in order to justify what is essentially a tax on television viewing, according to Lind.

CTV paid too much for CHUM, Global paid too much for Alliance Atlantis; and both, because they bid against each other, are paying far too much for U.S. primetime shows. CBC has set aside insufficient funds to upgrade its ageing facilities, preferring to squander its limited resources in bidding wars for the broadcast rights to blockbuster movies, hockey and the Olympics.

Let’s hope that if the CRTC goes along with this, at least the cable companies will be given the choice to opt out of carrying the new pay broadcasters. That wouldn’t go down too well with the networks, who would lose out on all the revenue from simultaneous substitution of their ads over top of the U.S. network feed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Canada's media bully

It's not enough that CanWest Global Communications dominates the news media in Canada, especially on the West Coast, where I come from. There it owns the largest TV station, BCTV, all three of the province's major metropolitan daily newspapers, and most of the community newspapers in the Vancouver area. Now it seems the owning Asper family of Winnipeg also wants to stifle what few voices of dissent remain. The thin-skinned Aspers, all of whom were trained as lawyers, have shown they sure can't take a joke by suing an advocate for Palestinian rights over a four-page parody of CanWest's Vancouver Sun newspaper that he helped circulate. The lawsuit against Mordecai Briemberg -- a member of the infamous PSA 7 faculty members who were suspended in the 1960s for political activism at my alma mater, Simon Fraser University -- alleges trademark infrigement and conspiracy "to embarrass and to injure" CanWest. As the Globe and Mail pointed out, however, the lawsuit may be more about criticism of Israel, which it seems the Aspers can't tolerate in their media outlets or elsewhere.
At another level, the dispute revolves around tension over opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. . . . The publication's content focused on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and was critical of Israel and media coverage of the issue.

While I haven't seen the parody in question, I have seen many such "goon"issues that have historically been a staple of local student journalism and, more recently, media activism by groups such as Guerrilla Media. It sounds hilarious, however, judging from such items as its weather report: "Operation Summer Rains with occasional missile showers and chance of tank shelling in the afternoon." The late CanWest patriarch, Izzy Asper, was notoriously sensitive about media coverage of Israel, which he regularly denounced as biased in favor of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. His youngest son Leonard, who succeeded him as CanWest CEO, has also taken up the torch against media criticism of Israel, as I detail in my recent book, Asper Nation.

For his part, Briemberg has claimed no knowledge of who produced the parody issue, claiming only to have helped distribute it. In a statement published online, however, he raises some serious issues, including "the democratic right to use satire and other forms of humour to critique those in positions of power and wealth." As the largest owner of the press in Canada, you would think that freedom of speech is something the Aspers would choose to defend, not deny. This is further evidence, a litany of which can be found in my book, that they are not so much interested in a free flow of ideas as in dominating the discussion.

The lawsuit is the second in short order against West Coast media dissidents, coming hard on the heels of one against Rafe Mair and the online publication we both write for, The Tyee. That spat relates to a Xmas Eve column Mair wrote lambasting CanWest and the Aspers for axing both political cartoonists at the Sun's sister publication, the tabloid Province, for which I wrote for nigh on two decades. There has been some considerable misunderstanding about that lawsuit, because it is not just over a mistake of fact, as reports have suggested. Yes, Mair wrote that CanWest laid off Bob Krieger and Dan Murphy when that wasn't exactly accurate. (They were apparently offered the choice between taking a buyout package and being retrained for computer graphics work.) But that is the least of what CanWest could claim Mair wrote that "injured . . . its character, credit and reputation." More injurious in a financial way might be the boycott of CanWest that Mair renewed his call for, having originated it in 2002 as a CKNW radio talk show host. But most insulting was the nasty name he called the Aspers. Of course, I can't repeat it here, but let's just say it relates to that part of the male anatomy that Jews (as well as most Western males these days) have surgically altered shortly after birth.

Are the Aspers so thin-skinned that they can't take the kind of ribbing provided by a parody issue, or drop a lawswuit over an insulting online rant? Or does this have more to do with "libel chill," in which giant corporations drop lawsuits to silence opposition, SLAPPing critics with Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation? MEthink it is strategic and qualifies as the latter, in which case the lawsuits should be thrown out of court. The interesting thing, from a media perspective, will be to see how the cases are covered in the CanWest media compared to coverage in the few outlets that are not owned by the Aspers.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

State of the News Media

I’ve spent the past few days sifting through the just-released 2008 State of the News Media Report. I rifled through the executive summary on Monday for my Media Management class. I read the Online section (all 25,000 words) on Tuesday for my Online Journalism class, and today I’m tackling the Newspaper section. It’s only 21,000 words. Hey, I like to keep busy! The fifth annual compendium of original and compiled research by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, late of Columbia and more recently funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, shows some interesting trends in the U.S. news business, several of which may be relevant to the media in Canada as well.

Reflecting the recent anxiety over competition from online media, this year’s report is titled “The Web: Alarming, Appealing and a Challenge to Journalistic Values.” It finds that things in the news business again got worse in 2007, but the problems different than predicted. The mainstream media are not losing their audience, they’re just going online increasingly for news. Big Media is dominating Internet journalism even more than it dominates Old Media, but it just can’t get new online customers to pay. Some analysts predict it will take the media 10 years to realign its business model. But as bad as the outlook is, it could be worse, according to PEJ head Tom Rosenstiel. "Monetizing the audience is a revenue problem, and that can be sorted out,” he said. “The good news is that the audience is still there."

"Had the audience just completely vanished, splintered into a million little pieces and decided that whatever The New York Times had to offer was not of interest, the prospects for sorting out an economic future for journalism would be much bleaker.”

While audiences for local and network nightly newscasts dropped 5%, the good news was that ratings for cable news were up 9%. Advertising remained strong at the all-news networks, with revenue up 21% at Fox News, 7% at CNN and 10% at MSNBC .

Other highlights:

  • Newspaper circulation continues to decline, just as it does across Canada. Of course, I am a noted skeptic when it comes to this statistic, because I think it says little about the economic viability of newspapers, which make by far most of their money from advertising, not circulation sales.
  • The most recent numbers for employment show that the newspaper work force actually went up, but that was in 2006. With all the layoffs that have been made in the past year, I suspect the trend line for 2007 will be downward.
  • Recent grads report that he number of jobs in Online journalism continued to increase, but if you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you’ll see that by far the most jobs are still writing fro print. That table on job skills is interesting. The kids figure spelling will drop from 4th to 13th in importance in five years. Maybe that’s why they don’t bother learning it.
  • Online news consumption took a leap in 2007 after being flat to down in 2006. My students figure it’s all the primaries.
  • Here’s one I can’t figure out. It seems local TV is finally taking the internet seriously, and that must mean they think they can make money off it. But take a look at the second graphic (first table) on this page. It shows that local TV websites tend to be profitable in Markets 1-50, but not in Markets 51-150. Then in Markets 151+, they tend to be quite profitable. What gives? The only explanation we could come up with in class yesterday was that local TV websites in smaller markets are bigger fish in a smaller pond, or perhaps more a part of the community. It later occurred to m that in some smaller markets maybe it is the only advertising alternative to the monopoly daily, which gouges on ad rate due to its market dominance. Sounds like a research opportunity to ME!
  • The Big are getting Bigger online. According to AC Nielsen, the top three news websites – AOL, MSNBC, and CNN – are pulling ahead of the pack in terms of popularity for online news. It’s near the end of this page.

    Lotsa good stuff in this for everyone, and their website is fairly easy to navigate. Just click on your medium of choice and go from there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A blog is born

My blog has been created!