- Canadian Newspaper Ownership in the Era of Convergence: Rediscovering Social Responsibility
Concern about concentration of ownership in Canada's news media has been with us for at least forty years. It arises in acute form when newspapers are bought by owners of other media properties: well-known examples are Thomson's purchase of FP newspapers (leading to the closing of the Winnipeg Tribune and Ottawa Journal) in 1980; Conrad Black's acquisition of the former Southam chain in 1996; or the Asper family's taking them over from Black, in turn, in 2000. The Asper purchase was also an instance of the recent mania for cross-media convergence. With companies like CTV GlobeMedia and Quebecor adopting similar consolidating approaches, Canada now has a highly concentrated pattern of media ownership.
There are good reasons to be concerned about this, as Walter C. Soderlund and Kai Hildebrandt point out clearly in the introduction to this volume of essays (most of which they also co-wrote). The classic dilemma of the 'free press' is that freedom from government control – surely essential, given that governments invariably seek to reward their friends and punish their enemies – leaves the positive meaning of such freedom in the hands of privately owned, profit-seeking businesses. [End Page 405] If 'the primary purpose of journalism,' in the words of Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, 'is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing,' any threat to its ability and desire to do this job – corporate cost-cutting, an owner's political bias that affects news coverage, or a class-based community of interest with society's elites that prevents key questions of power and inequality from even being asked – is a threat to the health of democracy itself. Since concentrated ownership puts more of this power in fewer hands, the potential for harm is correspondingly greater.
Canadian Newspaper Ownership in the Era of Convergence focuses on two case studies, examining the effects of Conrad Black's purchase of the former Southam newspapers (among others), and CanWest Global's policy of requiring chain publishers to carry national editorials written at the company's head office. The authors conclude that under Black's ownership the newspapers did not become notably more right wing or pro-business in their editorial content, or at least no more so than their competitors. (This will come as a surprise to readers of the Black-era National Post, which did not include journalistic even-handedness among its merits; as a newly established paper, it was not included in the sample.) The objections to CanWest's national editorial policy – that it effectively prevents newspapers from representing local opinion on national issues, and that the order not to contradict the corporate line on a growing list of issues would become highly restrictive over time – are also clearly enumerated.
While addressing important issues, both case studies would have been more useful if published earlier in academic journals. Conrad Black, convicted of fraud, now faces a prison term of several years; his days of controlling Canadian and international newspapers are over. Similarly, the national editorial policy was, in practice, abandoned some years ago. It is perhaps asking too much of researchers that they anticipate how long the issues they examine will remain on the public agenda; certainly a study of something like how CanWest's pro-Israel policy has affected its news coverage would have more contemporary relevance.
The book concludes with a call for chain owners to allow editorial autonomy for individual newspapers, subject only to broad guidelines. Given the serious objections to government regulation, proprietors are urged to adopt a renewed sense of social responsibility as the best way to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of chain ownership.
No one could object to this injunction. But it does not address the most important issue facing journalism: the growing challenge posed by the Internet. Increasing numbers of young people no longer get their news from newspapers, and no one has yet figured...