On Tuesday afternoon, as news trickled out about Postmedia's 90 job cuts, the Canadian journalistic fraternity convulsed in despair; most everyone else likely shrugged and kept scrolling through their Facebook feeds.
In the scheme of things – on a day, say, when Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan can shut down a mine in a hard-luck part of New Brunswick and throw 430 people out of work – 90 jobs lost across the country might seem like an economic rounding error. But the meaning of the Postmedia cuts, and the red ink that has been flooding through the news industry for a decade now, isn't really captured through employment figures: That's just an inelegant way of imposing a metric onto a slowly dying mission that followers insist can't be measured in numbers, anyway.
So reporters grapple for other metrics, such as the shared National Newspaper Award won by the Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald a couple of years ago for a joint investigation into the dozens of children who had died while in provincial foster care. An editorial imperative had led those two proudly independent papers to pool their resources; the resulting reports shook the province out of its complacency on the issue.
On Tuesday, the Edmonton Journal newsroom staff were told in blunt and brutal terms of a different sort of resource pooling: They would heretofore share a newsroom with their former rivals at the Edmonton Sun. (At least, those who survived: The papers lost a combined 35 jobs.) The papers had become corporate siblings last spring, when Postmedia purchased the 173 papers in the Sun Media chain, including the five Sun dailies in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Ottawa. A Postmedia spokesperson explained on Tuesday that reporters will file stories for both papers, with a rewrite desk adjusting the copy to suit each individual publication. Reporters who are precious about their copy won't last long in that sort of content mill.
But never mind the delicate journos: What vital stories will go unreported at Edmonton City Hall when there's only one full-time reporter on the beat? How many scandals will go unnoticed in Calgary, where 25 jobs have been lost in the merging of the Sun and Herald newsrooms? Ottawa is our country's capital; what stories will we not hear about, with the loss of 12 jobs at the Sun and Citizen? After it acquired the Sun chain last year, Postmedia became the largest proprietor of metro dailies in this country. But it has shown remarkably little interest in the unique responsibility that comes with that position. City newspapers aren't just pillars of their communities. Ideally, they are the connective tissue of the body politic, as well as its first response to nascent cancers.
As the country's largest cheerleader for the wisdom of markets, Postmedia and the Sun Media chain it devoured have regularly lectured others on the benefits of competition. But even left-leaning politicians understand its importance. Last year, after CBC announced it would lay off about one-quarter of its staff in Calgary, the city's Mayor Naheed Nenshi sent a remarkably enlightened e-mail to the president of the public broadcaster decrying the move. "As a politician, I may not always like the stories being told, but I respect the coverage and recognize the critical role media plays in accountability, as well as community building," he wrote. "I fear those important stories of the city and people I represent will no longer be told, or told well."
In Ottawa, rumours had swirled that Postmedia would shutter the Sun paper. Instead, the company cut all but two of the tabloid's editorial staff and has created a shared-resources newsroom with the Citizen. As a source of original journalism, then, the Sun is all but dead. Even its print circulation is circling the drain, dropping from about 43,000 in 2013 to about 34,000, according to the Canadian Circulations Audit Board. Still, with its eye on the only metrics that matter at head office, Postmedia understands the Sun still has value as a commercial platform.
You hear a lot about platforms from Postmedia. The boilerplate at the bottom of its corporate releases touts the company's "200 brands across multiple print, online, and mobile platforms," as well as its "innovative product development teams." It boasts that Postmedia's "exceptional content, reach and scope offers advertisers and marketers compelling solutions to effectively reach target audiences." Oh, sure, there's a mention in there of "award-winning journalists," but so little else about the company's raison d'être that the statement is almost a parody of itself.
When news organizations forget their core mission, should they be surprised if the public hears about layoffs and responds with an indifferent shrug?