CanWest Global Communications Corp. is weeks away from launching this country's most aggressive attempt to centralize editorial operations across a newspaper chain.
Some time next month, the Canada News Desk is expected to begin operations in Winnipeg, where CanWest is based. The desk will act as a news hub for the Southam newspaper chain, co-ordinating stories and coverage of CanWest's 12 big-city daily newspapers. It will largely supplant Southam's news network and services, an operation with about 40 editorial staff in Ottawa and technical support in Hamilton.
The chief goal is to improve efficiency by ending duplication of editorial coverage throughout 126-year-old Southam. The newspaper group was acquired by CanWest in 2000 and includes titles such as The Vancouver Sun, The Ottawa Citizen and The Montreal Gazette.
More details of the news-desk plan are expected tomorrow when CanWest releases its first-quarter financial results.
The Southam News network "was never really an effective news gathering or news swapping or feature bank and that's really what they're [CanWest]trying to make of it," said Peter Viner, CanWest vice-chairman and publisher of the National Post.
While details are sketchy and the operation has yet to be launched, CanWest's plan has provoked concern across the industry. There's fear that the media giant's bid to make the Southam chain more efficient will mean less autonomy for its newspapers and in the end, diverse points of view will be squelched and readers will lose out. The new system will mean assignment editors across the country will work for both their local supervisors and the Winnipeg desk, sources said.
"I think it's an appalling idea," said Roger Bird, a professor at Carleton University's School of Journalism in Ottawa. For 15 years, Mr. Bird was a Southam News editor.
"The only possible reason to do this would be to have a closer control on the news flow by head office. I'm sorry, Winnipeg is a wonderful city, but it's not one of the news capitals of the country, very much or very often," Mr. Bird said.
Details of how the Canada desk will function are sketchy. CanWest management overseeing the Winnipeg news desk declined to be interviewed, but briefings to Southam employees provide some details.
In its presentations to Southam employees, CanWest has characterized the newspaper industry as a maturing business with static earnings and increasing competition for its audience. Operational gains can be achieved by having newsrooms work more closely with each other via a central Winnipeg desk.
About 18 staff will be hired from across the chain to oversee newsflow from all newspapers and write stories of national interest, thereby freeing up local resources across the Southam chain. Each day, the Canada News Desk will prepare national briefs for use across Southam. A proposed on-line editorial calendar will detail upcoming news events and planned coverage from across the country. It is unclear whether Southam newspapers will be obliged to carry stories from the Canada desk.
CanWest has assured The Canadian Press that its relationship with the Toronto-based newswire service will not be affected by the Winnipeg desk, said Gerry Arnold, CP's executive editor. CanWest's newspaper and TV operations are a key source of subscriber revenue for news gathering co-operative CP. In 1996, CP's long-term survival was called into question when the Southam chain threatened to end its relationship with the non-profit news agency.
Ideally, the CanWest central desk will end duplication and save the corporate parent money, an idea that Southam's past owners, including Conrad Black's Hollinger Inc., failed to achieve, said a former Southam senior manager.
"Now, you often end up with four or five people from the same news organization covering a Paul Martin speech. It doesn't make economic sense," the former manager said. "But it's going to have to be done with a great deal of judgment and overriding the whole thing, of course, is a chill over the whole Southam organization over Mr. Asper's favourite subjects."
Fears the Asper family, CanWest's controlling shareholders, may meddle in the desk's news-making decisions are widespread among union officials.
Izzy Asper, the company's executive chairman and co-founder, is an outspoken defender of Israel and a long-time supporter of the Liberal Party. Last year, the company's controversial national editorial policy and the subsequent firing of Citizen publisher Russell Mills over coverage of the Prime Minister's Office provoked widespread criticism.
"I don't see any benign 'let's improve the news' here. . . . What is of concern is that you will end up with a centralized point of view. You might have one good story, but it will be the story that will come out of Winnipeg," said Peter Murdoch, vice-president of media for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada. In addition, Mr. Murdoch suspects the centralized news desk will lead to further cost-cutting across Southam, including layoffs.