Nine candles and ten months

This excellent article in the Globe and Mail, bearing the fingerprints of no fewer than five reporters, details CanWest’s difficulties and suggests two possible solutions: the Aspers, and apparently Leonard more than the others, might take the company private; and the company might cut the National Post loose. Senator Jerry Grafstein is listed as a possible buyer.

This news has already inspired the usual snickering from the usual suspects. It’s unfortunate that, along with the rest of their yeoman labour on this CanWest story, the Globe‘s armies weren’t also able to do what Richard Pérez-Peña, a very fine New York Times reporter working these days on the media beat, was able to do singlehandedly: put the troubles of one media corporation into a little perspective. A lot of media companies are in profound trouble — Pérez-Peña cites several cases of market capitalization falling by more than 90% in a year and a half. So several of the English-speaking world’s most venerable news outlets could be bought for a song tomorrow, if only any buyer could believe they won’t simply decline in value still further.

This simple circumstance makes a lot of the commentary on the Globe’s comment board and elsewhere look comically parochial. Boo-hoo, boo-hoo, I don’t like Jonathan Kay’s editorial page, so that explains it. Frankly I think Jon Kay’s editorial page can be pretty knee-jerk too, with the occasional and honourable exception of Jon himself, but unless there’s a connection I haven’t been briefed on, he’s not the guy who piddled away 99% of the value of the New Haven Register in 18 months. It’s almost as though something else was going on. Like, I don’t know, maybe some kind of magic pipeline was giving people access to information for free, at any distance, that they used to pay a local newspaper to provide. Or something.

Anyway, let’s assume there is fire where the Globe team spotted smoke, and the Aspers are looking to get rid of the Post. It would indeed rid CanWest of some losses, though barely a fraction of what’s needed to rescue the company. But it’s hardly clear how the surgery would work. The Post comes attached to a country-wide (well, Montreal on westward) chain of newspapers, and it has announced a divorce from the Canadian Press news-gathering collective. Neither the Post nor other member papers have autonomous reporting staff in Ottawa any more; a new Post buyer would basically have to staff Ottawa up from zero, or allow CanWest News Service to make most staffing and coverage decisions for the paper, which calls into question the logic of a purchase, if there ever was any such logic.

As for potential buyers, Grafstein’s name makes some sense, both because he was an early driver behind CityTV and because this isn’t a new rumour: our friend Antonia Zerbisias reported on it three years ago, linking Grafstein to Gerry Schwartz and Ray Heard. I’ll leave it to readers to judge whether those names suggest the level of wit and imagination a struggling newspaper needs.

The Post was launched with a mandate to create buzz and attention, and worry about the bottom line later. When later came, Black had already sold the paper, and the new owners blew a huge chunk of our hard-earned goodwill by cutting nearly a third of the paper’s daily pages. They were astonished when circulation, which had pulled to within shooting distance of the Globe‘s, collapsed. It has never really recovered, even though a skeleton editorial staff now puts out close to the previous number of pages.

The Post‘s arts pages still easily beat the Globe‘s on most days. There is often strong reporting throughout the paper. The editors have decided to own the political right and to forfeit the rest of the spectrum to competitors. But frankly the paper’s strengths and weaknesses never had as much to do with political orientation as its fiercest critics and defenders like to believe. In an ordinary market, it would be possible for the Post to struggle ahead of its current position with a small number of fairly low-cost changes. In the current market, it’s less obvious how even that modest fight-back could be accomplished.

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