Postmedia’s massive Alberta layoffs are bad for the whole country

OPINION by Gillian Steward

There’s been a deluge of bad news in Alberta lately.

A continuing slide in the price of oil, escalating job layoffs, a firm “no” to the Energy East pipeline from Montreal-area mayors, and warnings to the provincial government from credit rating agencies. The mood is more than a little gloomy.

So when Postmedia announced it was chopping 35 journalists in Edmonton and 25 in Calgary, and merging the newsrooms of the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun, and the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, it seemed to many people but a small drop in an already overflowing bucket of angst.

But at a crucial time in the province’s history, there is no question that Postmedia’s latest efforts to stem its bleeding bottom line — which hit Alberta newspapers far harder than any other Postmedia properties — will significantly stifle public discourse.

And make it much harder for Albertans — and Canadians— to figure out the best options for the future.

The fact is, what happens in Alberta is of national and international significance as the Canadian and world economy grapple with the impact of sliding oil prices and reduced investment in commodities. And as Denis Coderre, the mayor of Montreal, showed recently, Alberta’s efforts to move its oil to other parts of the country are not parochial matters.

If Canadians are to sort out so many vital issues and decide on a course of action, they need to be able to rely on vigorous and diverse media organizations to provide them with strong independent reporting and informed commentary.

National media organizations, such as The Canadian Press, CTV, CBC and The Globe And Mail, also need a strong base of reportage provided by local media organizations if they are to keep the rest of the country up to speed.

Instead, the arena for public discourse in Alberta is shrinking. And at this point there doesn’t appear to be any credible print or online products on the horizon in either Calgary or Edmonton. Alternative papers? Vue in Edmonton isn’t what it once was and Calgary’s alt, Fast Forward, folded last year.

Meanwhile Paul Godfrey, the head honcho at Postmedia and former publisher of the Toronto Sun, seems to want to make sure his media properties in Alberta are completely pro-business, and dead-set against Rachel Notley’s NDP government and the Trudeau government in Ottawa.

After all, it was Postmedia that instructed all its newspaper editorial boards to support the Harper Conservatives during the recent federal election. And then covered their front pages with Conservative ads.

At the time Margo Goodhand, editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal, was the only Postmedia editor in Canada who spoke publicly about the orders from Postmedia head office. She was fired in the latest round of layoffs, along with the Journal’s managing editor, Stephanie Coombs, and the managing editor of the Edmonton Sun, Donna Harker. These three women were then replaced in the new merged Edmonton newsroom by Lorne Motley, editor of the Calgary Herald, which has been much more supportive of conservative opposition forces in Alberta than the Edmonton Journal.

The Journal’s editorial board had been pushing the other way: challenging the NDP government to chart a new course rather than fall back on the stale ways of previous Tory governments.

There’s no question that both the Sun newspapers and the Journal and the Herald are experiencing serious erosion of subscription numbers and advertising revenues as have newspapers across North America. Online news sites didn’t bring in the revenue many hoped they would.

But at least Edmonton and Calgary each had two rival newspapers and they kept each other on their toes, not wanting to miss anything that the other may have covered.

But when Postmedia assumed ownership of both chains, the writing was on the wall.

Now we have this bizarre arrangement of one small newsroom in each city, one set of reporters funneling stories into two supposedly different newspapers. How long can that last? Surely it won’t be long before both newspapers look the same in print and online and then one, or perhaps both, will slowly fade away because readers will have lost all interest in such weak products.

Hopefully by then some smart people will have found a way to create a new business model that will support vigorous journalism.

Alberta — and Canada — could sure use it.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star,