An absurd and curious scene is playing out in Ottawa this week as a single contract negotiation threatens to upend production of the capital’s two English daily newspapers.
Postmedia Network, the media behemoth that owns both the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Sun, informed the union representing workers at both papers — which operate out of a single newsroom — that if its final offer is not voted on and accepted by the end of Wednesday, workers will be locked out Thursday.
Beyond exemplifying the continued pressure management applies to working newsrooms as it fails to effectively monetize what should more rightly be understood as a public service, the episode neatly illuminates the ridiculous nature of newspaper ownership in Canada and why bloated networks like Postmedia ought to be broken up.
The 63 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) working at both the Sun and the Citizen have been without a contract since 2015.
In a recent letter to staff, Postmedia vice-president of human resources and labour relations Chris Krygiel called it time to “move on” from negotiations and threatened permanent job losses if operations are disrupted.
A spokesperson for the CWA said the union has already made significant concessions regarding pensions, vacation and maternity top-ups but membership is standing firm in defence of its benefits.
It is not Postmedia’s bargaining tactics that reach beyond the pale. Pressuring for, and defending against, concessions and benefit rollbacks is standard fare in collective bargaining.
But when one company’s failure to settle an agreement with its staff threatens all daily, English print news coverage in the national capital, the preposterous nature of a structure permitting a single owner to operate two ostensibly competing publications is brought into clear focus.
Postmedia owns more than 140 Canadian print operations — including 36 dailies and 105 community papers. Among its stock of daily papers, the network owns multiple formerly competing dailies in four major centres: Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
Much of this conflict was solidified with the 2015 completion of Postmedia’s $316 purchase of 175 print and digital publications from Quebecor, which brought the tabloid Sun Media brand under its umbrella.
More recently, Postmedia and Torstar — itself the owner of 10 daily newspapers, including its flagship Toronto Star, and another 113 community papers through its Metroland subsidiary — came under investigation of the Competition Bureau after exchanging 41 papers in 2017, leading to the closure of 36 publications and the elimination of close to 300 jobs. In court filings, the bureau claims the companies made an agreement not to compete in some regions and to shutter certain publications as part of the deal.
Postmedia’s reach is obviously vast. A 2016 study — reported on prominently by its own papers — pegged the network’s reach at more than 11 million readers through print and online.
The network’s Financial Post boasted about the nearly three million more readers than the Torstar network and five million more than the Globe and Mail. Considering the arithmetic, the stat hardly blows back one’s hair. Less readership would represent the anomaly. The number fairly reflects what Postmedia owns, not what it produces.
And as far as what it produces, the network has shown a pessimistic willingness to abuse the relationship it has with its audience.
During the 2015 federal election campaign, the network mandated 16 of its major papers to endorse the Stephen Harper Conservatives. It issued a similar directive a year earlier in the Alberta provincial election, throwing its institutional support behind the Progressive Conservatives and Jim Prentice.
While both efforts failed, they illustrate management’s willingness to exploit its reach for its own partisan concern. More recently, questions were raised during the Ontario provincial election after an internal memo prescribing Toronto Sun reporters lean Conservative in news coverage was leaked to Canadaland.
The union representing Sun journalists said the memo never reached the newsroom. But it didn’t really have to. Whatever was reported after the release of the leaked memo must be understood to be influenced by management, even indirectly.
Local editors must be free to endorse the candidates and policies that suit the communities they report on, not handed the directive from on high.
Better yet, they should be free to not endorse any party or candidate at all but argue for and analyze policies directly relevant to the communities they serve.
When too few command too much of what is reported and presented as news and informed analysis, the environment is ripe for abuse.
Readers presented with two papers, published under two banners, can be forgiven for believing they are consuming varying perspectives.
Postmedia should not be forgiven for abusing that trust.