The Chronicle Herald has announced it will no longer publish a Monday print newspaper. The “saddest truth,” notes our columnist, is how little that decision seems to matter anymore.
The saddest truth about last week’s announcement that Saltwire (née the Chronicle Herald) had decided to stop publishing its Halifax Monday print edition (and those of the other Atlantic dailies it now owns) was just how little the decision seemed to matter — or even be noticed outside other newsrooms.
The big question was not what impact this could have on the quality as well as the quantity of its journalism — it won’t make either better — but whether it might mean a commensurate decrease in the subscription price. It won’t.
There was a time from before I was born extending well into my own career as a journalist when the Halifax Chronicle-Herald (then with a hyphen) was the “paper of record” in Nova Scotia. Its editors were our gatekeepers, defining what was news.
When I started in 1970, for example, those of us who worked for other media outlets — a then-anemic CBC, ATV, one of several feisty private AM radio stations boasting actual newsrooms — knew that nothing we wrote or said would matter in the public square unless someone at the Herald noticed and deigned to match (though rarely expand on) our reporting.
Love it or hate it — and I more often threw my own lot in with the latter — what the Herald said, or didn’t say, mattered to the politicians who made the laws that mattered to the rest of us, and to the businessmen who mattered to the politicians.
The Herald’s performance almost never lived up to the potential its position of journalistic primacy afforded it.
With a few exceptions — notably during Jane Purves’ tenure as editor in the late 1980s and 1990s and, for brief stretches, under Ian Thompson and Dan Leger — the newspaper tracked closest to its depiction in the 1970 Davey Senate Committee Report on the Mass Media: one of Canada’s “worst” newspapers.
The problem was not with its frontline reporters, who were often among the country’s best. It is easy to forget that at the time the Senate Committee was excoriating the Herald’s “lazy, uncaring journalism,” its newsroom boasted the likes of Linden MacIntyre, later of CBC’s The 5th Estate, Lyndon Watkins, who would go on to serve as the Globe and Mail’s Atlantic Bureau chief and business reporter, and David Bentley, later the founder and publisher of the Halifax Daily News, Frank and allnovascotia.com.
The problem was — and is — with ownership, beginning with the late Graham Dennis who was far too young and too inexperienced when he took the helm from his father, who’d died of a heart attack in the early 1950s.
The best that can be said of Graham, who himself died in 2011, was that he was a paternalistic gentleman of the old school. He treated his employees well (at least those who didn’t try to join unions), and he believed so much in the importance of his own skewed conception of public service as well as the importance of local ownership that he refused to sell, even when his newspaper was a valuable and much sought-after commodity.
Like most publishers, Graham didn’t see the internet coming, allowed it to steal his Classifieds lunch and feast on the leavings from his real estate, auto sales and display advertising dinner. By the time he realized all that was gone, it was too late.
Graham’s successors — daughter Sarah and Mark Lever, her wannabe entrepreneur husband — not only failed to stanch the bleeding from the global media revolution laying waste to the legacy media business but also managed to keep managing themselves and their company into a deeper and deeper no-way-out hole.
Remember the management-provoked 19-month strike in 2016 and 2017 that cost the newspaper much of its audience and left it, at the end, with half a newsroom trying to lure back readers who had discovered other options.
Worse, in the middle of that dispute, while the paper was still “crying poor” to its striking journalists, Lever and Dennis announced a stunning deal to buy all of Transcontinental’s 27 Atlantic Canadian newspapers and create the Saltwire Network, miring them even deeper in the quicksand of sinking print journalism. (Lever wouldn’t disclose the purchase price at the time but a spokesperson for Transcon said the papers were profitable and took in $66 million in revenues each year.)
At the time, Lever insisted all 650 of Transcon’s employees would be offered jobs “in the same capacity with the same salary and benefits they have now… Certainly, today,” he added then, “there are no plans for cuts.”
That was then.
How many of those jobs still exist? Or will exist a year, two years from now?
Will Saltwire itself still be around?
Hard to say for sure, but ending the Monday print editions is not simply, as COO Ian Scott told the CBC, about “responding to the market demand for how and where people want to see their content.”
And it seems unlikely that Saltwire will, as Scott suggested, use any savings to improve its now abysmal digital platforms or invest in producing more multimedia journalism.
Far more likely, in fact, is that any savings will go to help repay its recently refinanced $18-million mortgage on a once state of the art Wifag printing press it bought back in 2003 when it was already clear print was going the way of the dodo bird. And/or the purchase of those Transcon newspapers, which is the subject of lawsuits and counter-suits over which party deceived which in that deal.
None of which augurs well for the future of the Herald, Monday paper or no Monday paper.
Last one out the door, turn off the presses.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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