BY JANUARY 23, 2016

Most of the money drained by Postmedia from its newspapers went to its offshore debt-holders. Time to declare the news media a national strategic industry with tighter controls imposed against monopoly ownership.

Torontonians probably don’t feel it the way those of us in affected cities do – Postmedia’s latest job-killing, democracy-sapping manoeuvre was all too obvious on the front page of my Vancouver Sun.

On the day Postmedia merged the newsrooms of The Sun and the city’s other large and venerable Vancouver paper, The Province, and laid off a total of 90 workers in similar mergers in newsrooms in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, there were no big headlines announcing the news in The Sun.

The de-facto death of one of Vancouver’s long-standing dailies should have been a heck of a  local story. But it wasn’t. Instead, the ugly reality that these newsrooms will function like machines taking the mixed raw meat of news, running it through a blunt grinder or rewrite desk, and peddling the output as steak to readers, was buried in an anonymous story in the back pages of the business section.

Machines are by their nature soul-less and easily manipulated, as Postmedia has shown in demanding pro-Harper Conservative editorials and front-page advertising in all its dailies during the recent federal election.

Postmedia promised it would never kill its wholly-owned competing newspapers. It lied.

As the largest newspaper chain in the country, Postmedia reaches more than three-quarters of all daily readers across Canada, but since 2014 it has jettisoned half its journalists, abandoned local reporting for centralized chain-wide production and even gobbled up costly competing chains, all ostensibly to save money.

Postmedia’s latest crisis manoeuvre is partly driven by the collapse of advertising revenue right across the newspaper industry. The company has suffered a $300 million loss on operations in the last three years.

But as the Toronto Star’s David Olive presciently pointed out a year ago, most of the money drained by Postmedia from its newspapers  – some of which were actually breaking even or better – went back to the offshore debt-holders (the company is 35 per cent owned by Manhattan-based hedge fund GoldenTree Asset Management) instead of into better content that could actually attract readers and advertisers. Advertisers won’t pay for expensive print ads when they can reach more eyeballs on TV and online.

Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey claims that convergence, extreme economizing and digitalized “news products” will soon pay off for Postmedia, but not, as Olive argued, the escalating payouts continue to go to its American owners who keep the newspaper chain alive only to pick it clean beyond the bone.

If Canadians want a diversity of independent and reliable sources of professionally-curated essential information to get through their day – and at election times – the time has come to think about alternatives to machine-made journalism.

That may require more philanthropists funding truly independent media, encouraged by federal tax credits. But Canada could also emulate Europe where governments grant media outlets across the political spectrum annual subsidies, no strings attached, to keep alive diverse approaches to news and opinion.

The news media can be declared another national strategic industry and tighter controls imposed against monopoly ownership.

If the media charade at Postmedia is allowed to continue we will never get the full story of what’s happened to our media – and our democracy.

Ross Howard is a Vancouver-based journalism instructor. His career in journalism spans 40 years and includes stops at the Star and Globe.