One of Canada's newspaper giants, Postmedia, has announced plans to purchase 175 English language newspapers and their associated online assets from telecom and media giant Quebecor. But late last night, The Globe and Mail revealed that the acquisition is being financed by a U.S.-based hedge fund specializing in junk bonds, and will give control over 42.5 per cent of Canada's daily newspapers over to foreign owners.
The $316 million dollar deal could take months to go through, pending approval from the Competition Bureau. But if it does, its impact will certainly be felt by Canadians. In many English-language markets across the country, residents would only be able to buy major daily newspapers from one company -- delivering a crushing blow to the diversity of voices in the news media.
As a HuffPost Canada article points out, the deal would make it so Vancouver's three largest newspapers -- The Vancouver Sun, The Province, and 24 Hours -- will all be owned by the same company. Vancouverites will not have any non-Big Media alternatives when it comes to mass-market newspapers, where experts suggest over 85 per cent of original reporting is done. The same will be true of papers in Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.
Now, when it comes to media concentration, Canada is truly world-class. Regardless of which medium we're discussing, the situation looks similarly bleak. In traditional TV broadcasting, we're the worst in the G8, with 81.4 per cent of the TV distribution controlled by vertically-integrated telecom companies that also create TV content. Compare this with the second worst country, Japan, which has 32.7 percent controlled by content owners.
For newspapers, the problem was identified as early as 2004, when a Senate-commissioned interim report on Canadian news media showed that the top 5 newspaper conglomerates controlled 78.9 per cent of all the newspaper distribution in Canada.
Today, if we take a look at the big picture, recent data from The Canadian Media Concentration Research Project suggests that 70 per cent of all revenues across the entire media landscape is controlled by just four companies: Bell, Rogers, Telus, and Shaw. This renders diversity of ownership in Canada's media to be just about non-existent.
Given the proposed merger, a tweet from ex-Globe and Mail staffer Steve Ladurantaye (@sladurantaye) sums up the situation quite succinctly:
So, it looks like Big Media want to get even bigger. But will the Competition Bureau allow it? A representative from the agency said, "While media ownership concentration can raise other public interest concerns... under the Competition Act, the bureau's mandate is to review mergers exclusively to determine whether they are likely to result in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition."
This means that Canadians must take it upon themselves to let the Competition Bureau know where they stand, in hopes that the watchdog agency does the right thing and stops this deal that would give one media conglomerate control over every major daily newspaper in many cities.
But there is hope for non-Big Media alternatives. One of the most exciting recent trends for journalism has been the emergence of online nonprofit and crowd-funded news outlets. Examples include iPolitics, The Tyee, rabble, Ricochet, Jesse Brown's CANADALAND, and a host of others that have emerged to meet the needs of everyday Canadians. And of course, let's not forget about our public broadcaster, the CBC, which, despite severe government cutbacks, remains an extremely popular platform - especially online. Experts cite the CBC's online presence as "...the top ranked Canadian media content site today."
It's no secret that traditional journalism has been facing challenges for a long time now. Dwindling revenue streams and increased concentration of ownership have contributed to newsroom layoffs, increased reliance on advertising revenue (including new forms of sponsored content -- see this example from the Tyee), and a general decline of the public interest ethos central to professional journalism throughout much of the 20th century.
And these themes appear to be playing out in the Postmedia-Quebecor case at hand. The company has said that they expect to save $6-million to $10-million per year if the deal goes through. But it's hard to imagine where those savings will come from without significant reduction in operations by way of layoffs or perhaps shutdowns of entire newspapers -- especially given that it's funding is coming from outside Canada.
At the end of the day, the acquisition -- if approved -- would be bad news for Canadians. One large media conglomerate would control nearly half the daily newspapers in Canada, which would restrict the diversity of voices and range of perspectives available to engaged citizens. That means the voices of Canada's most marginalized groups will see themselves begin to disappear from the news, as increased commercial pressures and reliance on new forms of ad-sponsored content will colour our world through commercial eyes.
What this all speaks to is a need for non-Big Media controlled, independent media. This could look new, like the startups listed above. But it could also look a bit more familiar, with renewed interest and funding in our public broadcaster, the CBC. Regardless of how it looks, one thing is clear: right now, there are only a handful of media outlets independent of Canada's Big Media conglomerates that have resources to invest in quality journalism. And they need our support now more than ever.
As the American technology writer Clay Shirky wrote in a 2009 essay on the future of newspapers and the Internet, "This is what revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff gets put in place." And in an era of decline for traditional journalism, it's becoming more and more apparent that crowd-funded, independent, Internet-based alternatives are indeed "the new stuff" we need to support -- and fast.
To find out more about exciting new media outlets, and the future of journalism, be sure to catch the annual Media Democracy Days conference in Vancouver, taking place November 7-8.
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