A Na­tional Post party? I’ll pass

The Southern Gazette - - Editorial - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 36 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@thetele­gram.com - Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

If any­thing from the Na­tional Post ever falls into your on­line bowser - the news­pa­per it­self hasn’t been de­liv­ered east of Mon­treal for years - it was hard to miss the recent self-cel­e­bra­tion of the pa­per’s 20th birth­day. So­cial me­dia has been stuffed with happy tales of cham­pagne jour­nal­ism, with lit­tle men­tion of who has spent two decades pick­ing up the tab.

More on that later.

But first, a few of the cel­e­brants.

Here’s columnist An­drew Coyne: “As any­one who was there at the time can tell you, the first years at the Post were like some­thing out of a dream. (Ken) Whyte had been given carte blanche to hire any­one he liked, and ev­ery­one wanted to work at the Post.”

Here’s Rex Mur­phy: the Post “ex­panded the realm of Cana­dian jour­nal­ism, un­locked a sealed agenda and brought flair and style to a field when once unc­tion passed for grav­ity and drab­ness for re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

An­other columnist, Bar­bara Kay, talked about how the ed­i­to­rial team was given “the finest ed­u­ca­tion that money could buy.”

I know about that: I re­mem­ber head­ing to the Na­tional News­pa­per Awards as a fi­nal­ist, only to be ab­so­lutely stunned by the sheer size and op­u­lence of things like the news­pa­per’s ball­room hos­pi­tal­ity suite - moun­tains of smoked sal­mon and more, free beer and wine - when there had been ques­tions about whether I’d be able to even jus­tify the travel cost of at­tend­ing the awards.

I also have a more in­sti­tu­tional point of view. I was the edi­tor of St. John’s Tele­gram dur­ing those heady early times at the Post, and while the new na­tion­ally avail­able news­pa­per was send­ing re­porters to Europe for months on end to cover a sin­gle story, I was tasked with pinch­ing pen­nies to pay for it.

The over­ar­ch­ing name of the com­pany that owned most of Canada’s news­pa­pers and founded the Na­tional Post was apt - Post­media. There was the Post, and then there was the rest of the com­pany’s me­dia, the ones pay­ing for that brash and ex­cit­ing cousin.

The Na­tional Post took our train­ing bud­get and our travel bud­get first, and then started in on tak­ing re­porters, too. As I started as edi­tor, four po­si­tions left the news­room. And the re­duc­tions would con­tinue. But we were lucky - other news­pa­pers had to cut deeper to make the kind of re­turns that were ex­pected to go to head of­fice.

News­pa­pers were sold - we were - and oth­ers were closed. Staff mem­bers were of­fered vol­un­tary buy­outs and non­vol­un­tary lay­offs.

Some Posties talked about how the pa­per was a vic­tim of bad tim­ing, go­ing print-heavy just as the in­ter­net was tak­ing off. I think the pa­per’s been a vic­tim of bad re­search as well, go­ing big on na­tional news just as news­pa­per re­search showed that buy­ers were more in­ter­ested in lo­cal con­tent.

Yes, the Post had fine writ­ers and took ex­pen­sive chances. It could af­ford both. At a time when news­pa­pers were start­ing to lose rev­enues and were also mis­play­ing the dig­i­tal model by giv­ing work away for free, lo­cal work­horses couldn’t af­ford the same largesse.

Has the Post ever made money? I don’t know. Is it mak­ing money now? I doubt it. Post­media’s fi­nan­cial re­port­ing is opaque when it comes to talk­ing about the fi­nances of in­di­vid­ual print ti­tles. The great irony is that a self-de­scribed con­ser­va­tive pa­per has de­pended its whole life on sub­si­dies from some­one else.

I do know the Post has spent 20 years can­ni­bal­iz­ing its smaller-town cousins, while at the same time, look­ing down on the hicks and mak­ing fun of their staid­ness. The Post has shrunk, but I’d bet the jour­nal­ists it has lost are dwarfed by the hun­dreds that lost jobs as other pa­pers con­tinue to pay its way.

I won’t be jump­ing on the Happy Birth­day train.

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