The Halifax Daily News: 1974 – 2008 By Stephen Kimber
The end for the little tabloid-that-no-longer-could came suddenly, sadly and unceremoniously.
At 10 a.m. on the morning of Monday, February 11, 2008, Halifax Daily News reporters and editors were still filtering into the newsroom with their Tims and their notebooks, ready to begin what they assumed would be just another week at the office. Instead, they were greeted by “strange guys… with their hands folded and looking very stern.” They were herded into the paper’s executive boardroom where Marc-Noel Ouellette, a Montreal-based senior vice president for the paper’s owner, Transcontinental Media, was waiting for them.
He wasted few words. The Daily News, which Transcon had acquired from CanWest in 2002, was losing money — “millions,” he would tell other reporters later — so the company had had to make an “extremely tough business decision.” That morning’s edition, with its now ironic headline, Town Holds Its Breath, had been the paper’s last.
It was all over before it was even over.
Ninety-two fulltime employees — not to mention dozens of part-time columnists, freelancers and contract drivers — no longer had a newspaper to produce or deliver. There would be no goodbyes, no thank yous for nearly 30 years’ service. It was just over.
Before Ouellette had even finished speaking, the newsroom’s computer terminals had been shut down and email accounts cancelled. Technicians replaced the Daily News logo on the paper’s website with a splashy green Metro, a multinational, cookie-cutter, news-lite, freebie newspaper that Transcon — along with its new partners Torstar Corp and Metro International S.A. — would officially launch in Halifax three day’s later. Valentine’s Day.
The Daily News was history.
There would be no more editions of the newspaper, but there were still plenty of unanswered questions? Could the Daily News have been saved? Was its failure the result of peculiar and particular local conditions? Or was the demise of one of the last medium-sized two-newspaper cities in North America just one more canary in the coal mine for print-on-paper newspaper publishing? What would its closure mean for Halifax? For journalism?
The Daily News was the brainchild of David Bentley, a British-born journalist with “an entrepreneurial thing” who’d worked for Graham Dennis’s family-owned, 100-plus-year-old Halifax Herald during the sixties and early seventies before deciding to branch out on his own.
The Bedford-Sackville Weekly News, which Bentley launched with his wife and another couple as a modest suburban weekly in 1974, quickly morphed into a daily and then, in 1981, surprised Haligonians by opening up an office in downtown Halifax, dropping the Bedford-Sackville from its title and cheekily declaring a David-and-Graham war on the venerable but moribund Herald.
Bentley provided a feisty, sometimes outrageous British tabloid-style journalism. The paper touched off an international media incident with a 1983 front page story headlined Agonies of a Princess, which directly quoted, in violation of official media protocols, the visiting Princess Diana as she complained about her loss of privacy.
In spite of — or perhaps because of such coverage — the paper managed to attract a modest but loyal and growing audience.
By the mid-1980s, however, Bentley had reached the limits of his resources. He sold the paper to Harry Steele, a Newfoundland businessman, who reined in its tabloid excesses and made it more respectable, but still feisty.
The paper reached its editorial zenith during the late 1980s under Doug MacKay, a former Winnipeg Free Press editor. MacKay and Managing Editor Bill Turpin assembled a crew of bright young reporters and editors whose investigative scoops helped drive a scandal-plagued Premier John Buchanan out of office. The paper also gleefully pursued allegations of impropriety involving provincial cabinet minister Roland Thornhill, who just happened to be owner Harry Steele’s brother-in-law. It didn’t matter.
The paper was also fun, offering its readers an eclectic stable of columnists of all stripes and hues, who frequently and often loudly argued with each other in print. (Fire The Slithery Toad, shouted the headline over one column by curmudgeonly Harry Flemming; it was a plea to the editor to get rid of me, another of the paper’s columnists. Thankfully, the editor ignored the call, though he happily ran the column.)
During this period, the paper also launched a Sunday edition, and the daily briefly flirted with paid circulation of 30,000, which many believe might have been the tipping point to make it an economically viable second daily in the marketplace.
It never tipped. Instead, a devastating early nineties’ recession wreaked havoc on advertising sales. The paper’s editorial and marketing budgets were eviscerated and its circulation began a slow, tortuous, inexorable, feed-upon-itself decline until, by the time it finally stopped publishing, paid circulation was less than 20,000.
In 1997, Steele sold out to Conrad Black’s Hollinger. During Black’s reign, the newspaper briefly became modestly profitable — thanks more to cutbacks than revenues — but those funds ended up being siphoned off to help launch Black’s own pet project, the National Post, instead of being funneled back into developing the paper.
Then, in 2000, Black, his own empire under financial siege, sold out to CanWest. Two years later, CanWest lopped off its apparently incidental eastern Canadian newspapers, including the Daily News, and peddled them as a package to Transcontinental, a successful printer with ambitions to become a real player in the newspaper publishing game.
With each change in ownership, the newsroom’s hopes would rise — “Black’s a newspaper guy,” “CanWest has the resources,” “Transcon wants us” — only to be dashed within a few months.
Inevitably, the paper’s journalists would soon wax nostalgic for their last, better bad owner.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many now cast Transcontinental in the role of Chief Villain. And, although there are plenty of black hats in this cast, there is little question Transcon merits top billing.
For starters, Transcontinental was a printer with little expertise or feel for the newspaper business when it bought the papers. It compounded its own lack of knowledge by hiring Jamie Thompson, an accountant who had no newspaper experience either, as its local publisher.
He and his bosses in Montreal shared unrealistic expectations that — by listening to market researchers and focus groups instead of editors — they could goose circulation back up to that magic 30,000 number within a year.
When that didn’t work, company executives panicked, replacing the editor they had chosen with another. And then another. In its five-and-a-half-years as owner, in fact, five different editors would occupy the position. And Thompson himself was eventually purged too. Nothing helped.
There were cutbacks. To save money, the paper lopped off its four most senior journalists — and lost their critical collective community memory.
One of the editors Transcon appointed — largely because he promised to shake things up in a newsroom Transcon had come to regard as the enemy — was so reviled that, during his tenure, virtually every reporter and editor had his or her resumé in circulation. By the time the paper closed, close to half of the 40-person newsroom Transcon had inherited in 2002 had departed, almost all reluctantly, many to government public relations positions.
Circulation, which had been sliding slowly for years, went into freefall.
Ironically, the paper’s last editor, Jack Romanelli, formerly of the Montreal Gazette, had begun to turn the paper around, editorially at least, during his brief 14 months at the helm.
During that time, the Daily News broke — and pursued — the story of a government-backed immigration scam that is still shaking Premier Rodney MacDonald’s Conservative administration. It launched a proactive, provocative series on coming to terms with the province’s ingrained history of racism. And it devoted a lot of editorial real estate to looking at possible directions for the city’s future development. Recalling the paper’s bolder history, its longtime city columnist, David Rodenhiser — who’d helped the newspaper earn a prestigious Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in 1997 — even managed to attract international attention to the paper this fall after one of his columns so incensed Celine Dion’s husband that he cancelled a planned Halifax concert by the pop diva as retribution for Rodenhiser’s “negativity.”
It was all too little too late.
Though the specific causes of the Daily News’s decline and fall are more peculiar and particular than generic, they also, of course, played out against the backdrop of more cataclysmic changes taking place in the media business as a whole.
For starters, there is the reality that more and more readers are getting their news for “free” from the Internet. Although the Daily News was one of the first newspapers in the country to embrace the web as a news delivery vehicle, budget cuts prevented it from ever building on its early success. But its availability online — at the end it had more daily individual visits to its website than subscribers — no doubt made it even harder to win back paying customers. Ironically, Romanelli himself had been musing in recent months about the notion of making the paper the country’s first online-online daily. He won’t get that chance.
The web wasn’t the only outside force working against the paper’s survival. Ever increasing concentration of media ownership has also turned small-to-medium-sized newspapers like the Daily News into corporate road kill. While it would be naïve in a city like Halifax — where local ownership has at best, a checkered history — to suggest chain ownership is the root of all evil, there is no doubt that the Daily News became an interchangeable trading chip or a bottom-line afterthought for all but its early, locally-based owners.
Whether they were diverting local profits to support more important corporate objectives or replacing an existing flesh-and-blood newspaper with a pale imitation commuter giveaway, the reality is that the suits in Montreal and Toronto and Winnipeg who made those decisions cared little for the health of local journalism and less for their readers in Halifax.
In the end, unfortunately, Haligonians — whether they subscribed to the Daily News, loved it or hated it — will be the real losers from its demise.
The paper, even in its worst days, helped make journalism better in Halifax by being there and by providing an alternative to the Halifax Herald.
Before the Daily News arrived on the scene, the morning Herald and its identical twin-sister afternoon Mail Star were such awful newspapers that the 1970 Senate Report into the state of the mass media in Canada concluded: “There is probably no large Canadian city that is so badly served by its newspapers… There is probably no news organization in the country that has managed to achieve such an intimate and uncritical relationship with the local power structure, or has grown so indifferent to the needs of its readers.”
The Herald became a much better newspaper with the Daily News nipping at its heels. Will that continue, or will the Herald fall back into what the Davey committee called “uncaring, lazy journalism?”
Sarah Dennis, the Herald’s vice president and the daughter of publisher Graham Dennis calls such speculation “distasteful and nonsense really,” but she went on to say that, in light of the Daily News shutdown, “as any business does, we’re continuing to evaluate all our costs. But no decisions have been made about layoffs or cuts, or anything like that… whether it be pages or people.”
That’s hardly a ringing declaration of journalistic fervour.
Meanwhile, over at the hastily launched Metro, Ouellette was quick to suggest the absence of the Daily News wouldn’t mean very much to readers. Halifax, said the man who had closed one newspaper and was about to launch another sort-of newspaper, is “over-mediatized… There’s media here up the wazoo.”
But more media does not necessarily translate into more reporters on the streets, or, certainly, more news.
“In this town and in this province after today,” veteran Daily News legislature reporter Brian Flinn told the CBC soon after Transcon’s announcement, “there will be one print source, so that’s one set of eyes, that’s one point of view that ultimately everything is being generated from. And that’s not good for our society and that’s not good for our democracy.”
The Halifax Daily News (1974-2008). Rest in Peace.
This story originally appeared in Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen
Stephen Kimber, the Rogers Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the Interim Director of the School of Journalism. He was a longtime columnist for the Halifax Daily News.