Yesterday's Postmedia/ Torstar swap is the final act of a three-act drama that began with the publication of The Shattered Mirror in January 2017. That document, written by veteran journalist Edward Greenspon, proposed to solve the problem of hemorrhaging newspaper revenues with government supports including tax breaks, expanded subsidies and even a publicly funded news-gathering initiative. Act II came in October, when Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly rolled out a new Canadian cultural policy—the Creative Canada Policy Framework—but steadfastly refused to, as she put it, "bail out news-industry models that are no longer viable." So now, in Act III, cash-strapped media corporations have done what they must. "With the corrosion of print advertising, it became necessary to look around," Postmedia CEO Paul Godfrey said yesterday. "It really picked up steam when the feds closed the door on any assistance for the industry."
The deal portends what Torstar CEO John Boynton calls "geographic synergies" in small-town news media. "By acquiring publications within, or adjacent to our primary areas and selling publications outside our primary areas we will be able to put a greater focus on regions where we believe we can be more effective in serving both customers and clients," says Boynton. Will this affect small-town Canada? Yes, possibly in the form of reduced local news coverage, definitely in the form of layoffs—in this case, the loss of up to 291 jobs.
Predictably, the deal has been met with howls of outrage from union leaders, the federal NDP and even the faculty of various journalism schools. The feds (and Joly specifically) have been pilloried for their indifference to the suffering of dislocated journalists and the disappearance of newspapers like the Orillia Packet & Times, which has been publishing since 1870. The media bigwigs have been criticized for their failure to refocus, reinvent and reimagine their operations.
Most Canadians do not have the expertise to know whether the writing is on the wall for legacy media, or whether this or that local paper has been shuttered because of managerial incompetence. But they certainly know what they're willing to pay for. As columnist Andrew Coyne noted in his critique of The Shattered Mirror, "Most of the industry's problems are self-inflicted, a series of bad choices in response to admittedly massive changes. But even if that were not the case, there is nothing whatever to prevent readers from paying for what we produce, if they so chose. They are simply choosing not to do so."
Coyne is dead right, and so is Joly. The ideal of a free press cannot be sacrificed because consumers have grown accustomed to free news.