Postmedia would be wise to take note that the New Brunswick media market has been wounded by a long history of ownership concentration and cross ownership issues, especially since the 1960s. Coming into this market like gangbusters could get tricky, especially if cutting jobs and costs is a primary objective. A clear signal that this wealthy chain wants to increase the quality of journalism in the province would be very welcome.
New Brunswickers also need the federal government to maintain a strong leadership role to help boost the free press here where too often it has stood by as the Irvings drastically increased their hold on the local media landscape.
While the ending of the 75-year cross ownership between the Irving family media and its industrial holdings (beginning with KC Irving’s acquisition of the Telegraph-Journal in 1946) is a positive development, there is much more for the federal government to do. Through three national commissions on the Canadian media, New Brunswick has been identified as the worst example of concentrated ownership and cross-ownership in the country.
With such steps as the forced sale of CHSJ television and radio to CBC, clearing the way for the province’s free-standing English CBC television station and three English CBC radio stations, and the establishment of a trust fund in support of the French language daily, L’Acadie Nouvelle, the federal government has shown leadership in previous troubled times.
In announcing the sale of its newspapers, Jim Irving Co-CEO of J.D. Irving Ltd. stated that “Postmedia is well positioned to make the transition to the digital world of providing New Brunswickers with a reliable source of local, regional and national news as well as access to much broader news coverage.”
At this point we do not have a commitment from the federal government on how its regulatory powers will be used to ensure that this broad goal will be scrutinized and achieved.
The obligation on the feds with the sale of Irving media holdings is all the more real because the country’s senior level of government looked the other way on the Irving acquisition after the year 2000 of all remaining independent weeklies in the province, except for the Saint Croix Courier. The obligation on the federal government has not ended in 2022.
The Postmedia acquisition of most weeklies and the three remaining dailies, the Saint John Telegraph Journal, the Moncton Times &Transcript, and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner, is unlikely, on its own, to bring competition to the province’s daily media scene. These three dailies now collaborate, they do not compete.
The current transition period could provide the federal government with the opportunity to put in place a second blind trust fund, this one backing the province’s English newspaper sector, including the creation of a new independent, English digital daily to serve the province, and likely, the rest of the Maritimes as well.
The feds would need to make a call for proposals from experienced media entrepreneurs to run such a new daily. Digital examples such as the Tampa Bay Times in Florida and the Halifax Examiner in Nova Scotia, show that there can be great reduction in printing and transportation costs, opening the way for greater investigative journalism. Such “digital newspapers” have the advantage over social media in that there is serious scrutiny for accuracy and libel issues in their reporting, and a drive to do reporting in depth.
One of the world’s great newspapers, The Guardian in Great Britain is demonstrating what a foundation or trust backing up the work of a daily newspapers can do for quality reporting and opinion writing.
New Brunswick with its long-standing press monopoly has had a serious deficit in free expression. This is what prompted the president emeritus of the University of New Brunswick, Dr. John McLaughlin, to launch his “Next New Brunswick” project, seeking a much greater degree of civic debate and free expression.
All levels of government in New Brunswick have an obligation to foster free expression through a free press that is independent, diverse, and competitive. But again, the primary obligation here is on the federal government to help New Brunswick catch up in this vital underpinning of democracy.
To improve local journalism in the current climate, we can also look to the example of our neighboring State of Maine for the use by Maine Public of tax-deductible contributions to the benefit of the New Brunswick and Canadian community press. This is in line with the public service role of many community newspapers, while leaving room for harder-hitting local news as well. If this could also help reduce costs for large media corporations such as Postmedia, then the result is still important for improving local reporting in a province where, we must remember, all community newspaper storefronts have been shuttered since the spring of 2020 and local journalism is fading fast.
Julian Walker is the author of Wires Crossed: Memoir of a Citizen and Reporter in the Irving Press (Friesen Press). Walker’s career spans 50 years as a reporter, editor, columnist, political aide, deputy minister, and university professor. As editor of the Saint Croix Courier—publishing independently since 1865 in St. Stephen, NB—the newspaper did investigative journalism on corruption in construction of the province’s nuclear generating station.