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Cutting off circulation

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Cutting off circulation

Journalism in Edmonton is losing its voices

“Whenever we had a meeting, there was a joke like, ‘Oh, is this going to be the day?’” says Hamdi Issawi, a former reporter for StarMetro Edmonton.

What some in the newsroom were anticipating was an announcement that the small, free, local newspaper would suffer the same fate as so many publications before it: getting shut down by its owners. On Nov. 19, 2019, it was no longer just a joke.

“When we heard we had a meeting that day, the jokes floated around again, but you don’t really know what to make of it until you’re in there,” Issawi says. “When we actually got the announcement, it was just like a punch in the gut.”

Torstar Corp. told the Toronto Star, its flagship newspaper, that StarMetro Edmonton and the other editions in Calgary, Halifax, Toronto, and Vancouver, were no longer financially viable, citing a decline in advertising revenues as the main reason. Their last issues were published about a month later on Dec. 20, at which point the newsrooms closed for good and 73 people were laid off, 30 of whom are journalists. This was also the point at which Edmonton was left with just two newspapers —both owned by a single company.

Of course, that situation was not brought about by this singular event. The trend of newspapers — most commonly smaller ones — merging, downsizing, or shuttering outright that left members of the StarMetro team in apprehension has been around for years, and has gradually left newspaper ownership in the hands of an increasingly small number of publishing companies.

In fact, the concentration of news media ownership has been a concern across Canada since at least 1969, when a Senate committee known as the Davey Committee was formed specifically to investigate the matter. The committee’s final report concluded that “what matters is the fact that control of the media is passing into fewer and fewer hands, and that experts agree that this trend is likely to continue and perhaps accelerate.”

This turned out to be quite prophetic, and in 1980 and 2003 respectively, a royal commission and another Senate committee were formed to investigate the same thing, each looking at a worse situation than the last, and each recommending approximately the same solutions with varyingly severe tones: place stricter laws on mergers and acquisitions, and break up the bigger chains. None of their recommendations were adopted in a meaningful capacity.

In 2014, a pending deal was announced between the two largest Canadian newspaper companies at the time, in which Post- media Network Inc. would purchase the 175 publications that made up Sun Media, a subsidiary of Quebecor Inc. This would turn Postmedia into the largest publisher in Canada by far, with ownership of 51 percent of all English-language dailies in the country, according to News Media Canada.

“A lot of people recognized that we had this knack for approaching news a little differently.”

Hamdi Issawi, former reporter at StarMetro Edmonton

In spite of being opposed by a number of experts on the matter, most vocally by Dwayne Winseck, the director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, for being a major milestone towards becoming a monopoly, Canada’s Competition Bureau approved the deal in 2015. In a public statement, the bureau said that “the proposed transaction is unlikely to result in a substantial lessening or prevention of competition in any relevant market,” citing, among other things, the “existing competition from free local daily newspapers.”

In Edmonton, this meant StarMetro.

One of the major implications of this type of concentration is that it can “narrow the range of editorial voices,” says Brian Gorman, a professor of journalism at MacEwan University. While he also contends that “to say StarMetro, a free community paper, was competition for the (Edmonton) Sun and the (Edmonton) Journal was kind of specious anyway — because of the difference in their scopes and sizes — the community newspaper developed a talent of tackling local issues in a way that was noticeably distinct from the big guys.

“We knew what we weren’t. The Journal has been here forever and we couldn’t compete with that history,” Issawi says. “What we tried to do is provide a progressive voice for news in Edmonton wherever we saw gaps. We wanted to tackle stories that we thought people had been missing, or provide interesting angles.”

This coverage was broad: the largest investigation into how exactly MacEwan lost $11.8 million in a phishing scam, a 3,000- word feature on Edmonton’s oldest strip club, Issawi’s own first-person account of what it’s like to play soccer with the members of Iron Maiden, which he remembers purposely writing in a “vastly different” way once he saw the more standard coverage of the same event coming out of other outlets.

“It resonated pretty strongly — a lot of people recognized that we had this knack for approaching news a little differently,” he says.

The losses have not been confined to just daily newspapers either. In November 2018, Edmonton lost VUE Weekly. Once the city’s foremost alternative publication with a focus on arts and culture, VUE served as a crucial platform for local artists who could rely on it for a spotlight in the early stages of their careers.

“We were the only thing that actually had interviews with these people — artists that are trying to make a name for themselves. Bands, sculptors, poets, it didn’t matter. We did it all,” says Stephan Boissonneault, the former music editor for VUE.

As an alt-weekly, it was even less wed to the conventions of news reporting and became well-known for pushing the envelope.

“We were like the Rage Against the Machine of news coverage in Edmonton,” Boissonneault says. “(The city) lost a huge voice — a controversial voice — that wasn’t afraid to call out injustices. There just isn’t anything like that here anymore.”

Torstar is maintaining a presence in Edmonton, though it’s in the form of a digital-only bureau of the Toronto Star, operating with a fraction of the staff of StarMetro — just five reporters split between Edmonton and Calgary. This amounts to hardly any competition for Postmedia overall, and as far as print dailies in Edmonton, it has a monopoly.

Part of the concern has to do with Postmedia specifically. Re- ports over recent years indicate the company’s management has been increasingly meddling in the editorial content of its publications nation-wide. The National Observer reported in 2015 that then-CEO Paul Godfrey ordered all of the company’s major publications to print an endorsement of the Conservative Party of Canada in that year’s federal election, even at the behest of some of their editors. More recently, in August of last year, Canadaland published a 7,000-word documentation of how current CEO Andrew MacLeod has “given a directive for all of its papers to shift to the political right, in an unprecedented, centralized fashion,” Sean Craig writes. This issue is only made worse by the decline of the company’s competition.

“If you’re sitting in the newsroom and the editor comes up to you and says ‘I want you to write this,’ and you think it’s unethical, but you look around at all the empty desks … I think the tendency might be to keep your comment to yourself and write the damn story,” Gorman says.

“We were like the Rage Against the Machine of news coverage inEdmonton.”

— Stephan Boissonneault, former music editor of VUE Weekly

The announcement that StarMetro was closing came only a year and eight months after Torstar had poured a bunch of money into expanding its newsrooms — a move that was celebrated at the time as an unexpected reversal of the dominant trend. Cathrin Bradbury, then the vice-president of StarMetro national, said in a letter to readers it meant “more original local reporting and in-depth investigations, the kind of journalism our readers want and deserve.”

It was this expansion that had brought together what Issawi calls the “young … mega-diverse team of writers” that pushed StarMetro to punch above its weight class.

“When people are competing to offer you news and they’re competing for your buck, that works out better for people,” he says.

“We were always trying to be better than the other guys.”