Nov 1 1996

The Ascendancy of Conrad Black

Cost-cutting and conservatism are trademarks of Canada's media mogul

There’s a new player among the global media moguls, and his name is Conrad Black. His company, Hollinger Inc., is now the third largest newspaper chain in the Western world, after Gannett and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (New York Times, 6/24/96), with a combined circulation exceeding 10 million (James Winter, Democracy’s Oxygen). Black owns 650 dailies and weeklies around the world, including the Jerusalem Post, the London Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Chicago Sun-Times.

He began this media empire by buying up small papers in his native Canada. He now controls 42 percent of Canada’s daily circulation (Maclean’s, 7/8/96), and most of the large papers outside of Toronto (Toronto Star, 6/28/96). According to David Robinson, research director at the Council of Canadians, these assets include 70 percent of Ontario’s newspapers, almost every paper in British Columbia, and all the papers in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan.

Black’s ascendancy within Canada’s media elite is a recent one, compared with the old family press empires of the Irvings, Thomsons and Desmaraises, and it has been won through a wave of newspaper acquisitions in the past year, many bought from Ken Thomson (owner of Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe & Mail).

From Stingy to Ruthless

The transfer of papers from Thomson to Hollinger raises the question: What does Black stand to gain from them that Thomson did not? Thomson is infamous for penny-pinching at his papers, which has reputedly lowered their quality to the extent that, as columnist Peter C. Newman put it (Maclean’s, 10/14/91), “no self-respecting fish could bear to be wrapped in one of their papers.”

But whereas Thomson‘s financial management has been characterized as stingy, Black’s is usually described as ruthless. David Radler, current president of Hollinger, and Black’s long-time right-hand, has bragged about going at night into a newspaper that they’ve been planning on buying to count the desks, estimating from that number how many staff should be fired upon acquisition (Winter, Democracy’s Oxygen). Radler used to regularly quote from a 19th century manual on industrial relations that “began with the premise that all employees are slothful, incompetent and dishonest,” according to Black (Report on Business, 10/93).

Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians, describes a typical takeover by Black’s Hollinger this way (CounterSpin, 8/15/96):

They fire half the staff, they get rid of the environment reporters and the social affairs and the education and health reporters, and they replace them with businesspeople –or they don’t replace them at all…. Anyone not singing that very right-wing Newt Gingrich type of…line is soon let go.

James Winter, author of Democracy’s Oxygen: How Corporations Control the News, told Extra! that when Hollinger bought the Cambridge (Ont.) Reporter, it fired 30 percent of the staff, raised the number of stories expected by the remaining writers from 40 to 80 a month, and added the new responsibilities of taking pictures and writing columns and editorials. Days after buying the Saskatoon (Sask.) Star Phoenix and the Regina (Sask.) Leader-Post, Hollinger fired 173 people, roughly one-quarter of the staff of both papers (Globe & Mail, 5/28/96).

The quality of coverage at these newspapers predictably declined. The University of Regina journalism school found “a marked deterioration in the quality of news coverage” after the Regina Leader-Post was bought, according to associate professor Jim McKenzie (Globe & Mail, 7/28/96). “They’re filling it up with wire copy and pictures of kids in swimming pools,” McKenzie said.

‘Ignorant, Lazy Hacks’

A reporter still working at the Leader-Post spoke of sagging morale and self-censorship among co-workers, in which long-term reporting projects are abandoned and “everybody’s looking over their shoulder” (Globe & Mail, 7/28/96).

This is understandable, considering Black’s legendary attitude toward journalists. He has described journalists as “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised hacks” (Chicago Tribune, 3/6/94), and has referred to investigative reporters as “swarming, grunting jackals.” He suggested (Globe & Mail, 5/8/96) that those journalists who are critical of newspaper ownership in Canada should seek “whatever therapy is necessary to overcome the trauma of past abrasions and learn to distinguish the friends of the craft from its enemies.” During a 36-hour strike of the editorial personnel of his London Daily Telegraph in 1989, Black’s management put out two editions of the paper –debunking, Black wrote in his autobiography, “one of the greatest myths of the industry: that journalists are essential to producing a newspaper.”

Black is reputed to be a hands-on owner who is known to “routinely intervene in editorial policy-making,” according to Maude Barlow, chair of the Council of Canadians. Radler, Hollinger‘s president, explained the company’s editorial policy to Maclean’s (2/3/92): “If editors disagree with us they should disagree with us when they’re no longer in our employ. The buck stops with ownership. I am responsible for meeting the payroll; therefore I will ultimately determine what the papers say and how they’re going to be run.”

To the Council of Canadians’ Robinson, this type of editorial control has led to a “narrowing of political debate” in Canada. “It’s not even left versus right anymore. It’s the right versus right; [this] becomes the spectrum of the political debate.”

While Canadian journalists, with a few brave exceptions, have been quiet for reasons already covered, Canadian politicians have also been surprisingly tight-lipped. This may be explained by next year’s federal election, the campaigns for which will be covered by a press largely dominated by Hollinger and Southam. After purchasing 19 percent of Southam Inc. in 1992, Black noted that “newspapers, especially quality newspapers, remain powerful outlets for advertising and information (and political influence).” Said Laurier LaPierre, a former teacher of Black’s at Upper Canada College (Canadian Forum, 7-8/96): “I don’t think Conrad wants to be prime minister, but he really does want to be the power behind the throne and feels his money will buy him that.”

Saving CP

But it seems that Black overstepped his bounds, at least in the public’s eye, when he threatened Canadian Press (CP). Canada’s analogue to the U.S.’s Associated Press, CP is a bilingual national news wire service that has been providing news to Canadians and to the world for 79 years. Before it was founded, in the words of the late journalism historian Wilf Kesterton (Toronto Star, 6/29/96), “Canadian newspapers found it easier to get the particulars of…a petty fire in Ohio than to cover news of any importance in any part of Eastern Canada.” CP‘s news from every corner of Canada is said to have bound the nation together; and in a country where geographical isolation, language and cultural differences have produced suspicion and separatism, any institution that encourages unity is a precious commodity.

So when Southam pulled out of CP, threatening its survival by removing a quarter of its revenue base, and it announced it was putting the money saved into a news wire of its own, many Canadians were outraged. A coalition of labor and public interest groups calling themselves the Campaign to Save the Canadian Press demanded that the federal government prevent CP‘s possible collapse.

Since then, CP has agreed to cut costs and restructure the agency, a process led by Jim Armitage, a former Southam executive, while Michael Sifton, chairperson of the Hollinger-owned Sterling newspaper chain, has become the chair of the CP Board (Financial Post, 8/22/96). How CP will remain editorially independent of Hollinger remains unclear, although Black assured Extra! that “we will not interfere with [CP‘s] contents.”

The controversy raised public awareness of media concentration in Canada, a situation which the coalition, originally united to save CP, is taking full advantage of. It plans a legal challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, charging that by allowing concentration of media in so few hands, the government is abandoning the public’s right to freedom of expression.

As Robinson says: “Newspapers and news [are] not just commodities like any others — not shoes, bars of soap — they are public goods. And because they are important to allow for free expression of public ideas, there has to be some kind of stewardship on the part of our government.”