The newspaper business has been trudging along in a death march for years, bleeding out in a sea of red ink because of shrinking relevance and revenues created by a ponderous and often ham-handed transition from hard copy to digital. Self-inflicted wounds.
As expected, Postmedia spent Tuesday hacking away at its editorial staff again, this time cutting 90 jobs in four newsrooms across the country, including 35 in Edmonton. Having been on the leading edge of that blade myself in 2007, knowing it was coming didn’t make it easier to take.
The spin last April, when Postmedia acquired 175 Sun Media properties for $316 million, was that Edmonton’s two daily newspapers, the Journal and the Sun, would continue to operate independently, each with separate newsrooms. Competition, Postmedia president Paul Godfrey assured us with a straight face, was alive and well. Sure.
Tuesday. Godfrey announced the business model had been “disrupted” by debt load and further erosion of ad revenue. Newsrooms would be merged. Reporters would produce copy for both “brands,” leaving editors to tweak it for each paper. Of course, there would be casualties. Thirty-five editorial staff — like any semblance of competition between the sheets — got the bullet, some in person and others on the phone.
Jeezus, Columnists John MacKinnon and Georgie Johnson, two excellent writers and reporters for years and years, lose their jobs. Crappy day.
— Jim Matheson (@NHLbyMatty) January 19, 2016
At a time when newspapers should be spending more on resources, it’s grabbing the low-hanging fruit and getting rid of good people.
— Ken Campbell (@THNKenCampbell) January 20, 2016
While some of you who come to this website to read about the Edmonton Oilers might shrug at all the above – times are tough all over, the economy sucks and a lot of people have lost jobs – I damn sure don’t. In an era when professional sports teams, like the Oilers, manage the message more than ever, when there are more reporters standing around in scrums but fewer storylines and actual insight, I want more competition, not less.
PLAYING FOR THE TIE
In terms of people who cover the Oilers, Journal beat writer Joanne Ireland and columnist John MacKinnon were the casualties. Until Tuesday, coverage of the team involved two beat writers from each paper plus MacKinnon and Terry Jones from the Sun for a total of six. Now, it’s four – Jim Matheson, Jones, Rob Tychkowski and Derek Van Diest.
Ownership of two daily newspapers in one city by one company isn’t new. The broadsheet Vancouver Sun and tabloid Vancouver Province competed with each other for years. They had separate editorial staffs and distinctly different demographics. What we’ll have now, with one group of writers producing copy and editors dumbing it down and tarting it up for the tabloid in the name of branding, is not the same.
When I first walked into the Oiler dressing room during the 1989-90 season with Matheson, competition with the Sun was real. In my first six years, the Journal had columnist Cam Cole and Matheson, backed up over the years by Ray Turchansky, Mark Spector and I. The Sun countered with Jones, Dick Chubey, Dan Barnes, Mario Annicchiarico and Tychkowski. We spent every day trying to find the best angle, to break stories, to beat the other guys.
With no Twitter and no digital presence in the form of a live website, the best thing about getting the scoop on a player move or landing a juicy quote was the guys at the other sheet couldn’t catch up until the next day. We loved shoving it in the other guy’s ear for 24 hours. We lived in fear, at least I did, of having it go the other way. Barnes and Jones took care of that a time or two.
I felt the same way after I jumped to the Sun in 2000. I seldom snagged anything before Matheson, but the times I did were a pure shot of adrenaline. When newspapers finally started to address the growing appetite for immediate information by adding websites, the kick didn’t last as long, but it was still there. Now, with Twitter, breaking news is regurgitated within minutes of the original report. Fans don’t care as much as reporters do who gets the information first, they just want it now. Still, until Tuesday, Jones, Tychkowski and Van Diest from the Sun were going toe-to-toe with MacKinnon, Matheson and Ireland from the Journal trying to get the story first, even by a minute.
This merger puts an end to that. It eliminates any meaningful competition between the newspapers, be it hard copy or digital. What’s the motivation to break stories and explore different angles for readers? That used to be the lifeblood of the business. Worse yet, it comes at a time when pro teams insist on serving up the same pasteurized pablum to everybody.
THE INSIDE TRACK
In Edmonton, like all NHL cities, the proliferation of media outlets means there’s infinitely more people with credentials now than when the Oilers were winning Stanley Cups. The problem, in every sport, is all those outlets are getting pretty much the same story, in large part because teams herd them around from scrum to scrum like cattle.
Time was, beat writers would wander into the Oiler dressing room before practice, grab a coffee and shoot the breeze one-on-one – on and off the record. You could stroll down the back hall to have a chat and a smoke with Ron Low. We’d huddle in the seats with Glen Sather. If players trusted you, you had their phone number. We got the best stuff that way, stuff nobody else had. Nobody played for a tie.
That kind of access is a thing of the past. A one-on-one? Maybe, if you go through the media relations department first or have time to hang around until everybody else has left the room. That’s assuming the player isn’t whisked away once the team media man has decided the scrum, 20 people crowding around the same guy getting the same quotes, is over. Is it any wonder fans feel like they’re getting the same story from everybody?
The best newspaper, radio and TV guys find a way around it. They find a way to sniff around, to get the story. They make calls. They get texts. Mark Spector at Sportsnet and Ryan Rishaug at TSN get after it. Jason Gregor of TSN 1260 doesn’t give up a thing to Bob Stauffer over at rights holder 630 CHED. He gets his share. The best guys still compete. Matheson and Jones will, too, just not against each other. That’s a damn shame.
MORE TO COME
What’s really scary is Tuesday’s 90 job cuts nationwide will save Postmedia about $9 million. With $700 million of debt on the books, the company has stated it intends to trim $80 million in costs by the end of 2017. More jobs will be lost. Those who weren’t shown the door this time will get the bad news next time, or the time after that.
Whether it be radio, TV or newspapers, fans are best served with more people asking questions, competing and hustling for the story and refusing to settle for what’s spoon-fed in the scrums. Today, we have fewer, and it’s only going to get worse.
A bit of a late update based on what I’m hearing . . .
It sounds like Matheson and Tychkowski will be the writers covering the Oilers for both papers, while Van Diest is being moved off the beat into a catch-all position in the sports department. In addition, we could see a situation where each newspaper has its own columnist, with Jones writing for the Sun and the Journal filling MacKinnon’s spot from within. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Barnes ends up writing a column again. He’d be my first choice.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.