All the News That’s Fit to Pimp
How newspapers are forsaking readers in the country’s most competitive market
BY Arthur Johnson
When Conrad Black surrendered ownership of the National Post to the Asper family in 2001, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Toronto Sun gleefully proclaimed that they had emerged victorious from Hogtown’s long and bloody newspaper war.
Three years later, the Post continues to publish, albeit with a skeleton crew, a new publisher at the helm every few months and almost daily predictions of its imminent demise. It’s never come close to turning a profit.
The Star, the Globe and the Sun, meanwhile, are struggling. And Toronto is choking on newsprint, because the combatants continue to try to attract readers by giving away tens of thousands of copies free of charge or at an absurdly low cost. What’s more, the city now boasts two other dailies, which between them distribute almost 500,000 copies absolutely free to transit riders.
It’s improbable that dedicated readers of This Magazine—or, for that matter, most other Canadians—give a damn about the fate of the Post or the cash drain on the proprietors of any of Toronto’s dailies, and I’d be hard pressed to persuade you to do so.
But if you believe, as I do, that honest, independent-minded newspapers that put their readers first are a vital part of the public debate, you should be very worried.
It used to be that a fair chunk of the cost of producing a daily newspaper in Toronto came from readers, who paid to have the Star or the Globe delivered, or bought the Sun from a box on their way to work. Advertisers, for their part, contributed an even bigger chunk of cash. That’s still the way it works in other Canadian cities and, indeed, throughout most of the world. But the crazy economics of Toronto newspaper publishing today means that advertising dollars have become far more important than money from readers.
What this means in practice is that newspapers pay far more attention to the needs of advertisers than to the needs of readers. If you subscribe to the Star or the Globe you may have noticed that, on many days, your newspaper is strangely bloated. Shake it, and several glossy inserts consisting entirely of advertising fall into your lap. Even the main sections of the newspapers themselves are likely to be puffed up with so-called advertorials—stuff that sort of looks like regular news, but is really thinly disguised advertising.
The National Post would be just as bloated if it could convince more advertisers to pay it to distribute their inserts. Failing that, the Post, if you look closely, often runs advertorials without even bothering to tell readers that it’s really paid advertising.
It’s no coincidence that the ever-increasing reliance on advertising dollars has been accompanied by efforts to cut editorial costs. Both the Star and the Globe are offering many of their reporters and editors financial incentives to get off the payroll, and some of their best, most experienced people have taken the money and run. The Post, of course, has cut hundreds of editorial jobs and millions in editorial costs.
The so-called subway papers are, by contrast, flimsy little efforts of a couple of dozen pages each. But their ruthlessly utilitarian approach to news is equally dismaying. Metro is a joint effort of the Star and a multinational based in Stockholm, which publishes similar giveaway papers in 60 other cities in Europe and North America, including Montreal. The Toronto Sun, in what seems to be a doomed effort to shore up its readership, publishes a similar effort called 24 Hours.
Both papers operate with minimal staff, packaging mainly news service stories in bite-sized chunks. Metro’s website says its intended audience “is not typically reading daily newspapers but is most attractive to advertisers.” The newspaper for people who don’t read newspapers describes its content as “headline local, national and international news in a standardized and accessible format and design, which enables commuters to read the newspaper during a typical journey time of less than 20 minutes.” Compared with this, the tabloid Toronto Sun, with its emphasis on sports, crime and sex, is a cornucopia of intellectual nourishment.
So there you have it: In the media capital of Canada, every single daily is rapidly forsaking its readers. When advertisers are all-important, what you get is all the news that’s fit to pimp.