The author of a new book on the concentration of media ownership in New Brunswick is calling on the federal government to support a free press here before it’s too late.
“The feds have been looking at this problem for an awfully long time, it’s 50-plus years, and they’ve really not done a lot to get at the root causes,” says Julian H. Walker, author of Wires Crossed: Memoir of a Citizen & Reporter in the Irving Press.
Walker, whose career spans 50 years as a journalist, political aide, deputy minister and university professor, was referring to the three federal studies of the Canadian news media that have been conducted since 1970.
He points out that the co-author of the most recent Senate report in 2006 concluded that investigators couldn’t find anywhere else in the developed world to compare with New Brunswick.
Irving-owned companies not only dominate the provincial economy, but also publish all of its English-language newspapers except for one small, independently owned weekly.
Walker argues in his book this creates a “wires-crossed” relationship in which the Irving media monopoly covers the Irving industrial empire sowing cynicism and disillusionment among New Brunswickers.
“If the feds really wanted to get a solution, they could have a [trust] fund that even the Irvings could contribute to,” Walker says.
He adds that the fund could be used to help finance a new, independent daily newspaper that could serve New Brunswick and perhaps all three Maritime provinces either in print or online similar, for example, to Florida’s Tampa Bay Times.
Reported cost cuts
Walker was commenting on a CBC report that the Irving-owned Brunswick News is planning to trim costs by no longer printing the Monday editions of its three dailies and by distributing two of its community papers free inside its weekly flyer bundles.
“They definitely don’t want to be in this business much anymore and it’s not profitable, certainly at the community level,” he says.
Walker adds that the Brunswick News decision to close all of its community news offices in May 2020 and to have local reporters work from their homes, sounded a seeming death knell for the weekly papers themselves.
“If they want a way out of this, then assisting the federal government in setting up a trust fund would be a significant, good news story for them,” he says.
Meantime, Jackson Doughart, editor-in-chief at Brunswick News declined to comment on the apparent decision to stop printing Monday editions of the Times & Transcript, Telegraph-Journal and Daily Gleaner or the plan to include free copies of the Bugle-Observer based in Woodstock and the Miramichi Leader in weekly bundles of advertising flyers.
At the moment, both community papers have paid subscribers and both publish three times a week.
In an e-mail to Warktimes, Doughart said he would “pass on an interview right now because we’re still in the middle of implementation. But we’ll be communicating to readers directly in print and online with the details so you’ll be able to get more information there.”
Meantime, a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton says it’s always sad when communities lose the “voice” that their local newspapers provide.
“The Irvings have jealously guarded their monopoly in these small towns because they wanted to have the advertising market for themselves,” says Philip Lee, who served as editor-in-chief at the Telegraph-Journal in the late 1990s before joining the faculty at St. Thomas.
“I do think maybe there comes with that some form of social responsibility, that there’s a greater purpose here than simply measuring the level of your profits that you’re able to extract from a certain advertising market,” Lee adds.
“There’s a public good to journalism and small-town newspapers and this is one of the wealthiest business families in North America and maybe they can afford to extract fewer profits and still keep doing a kind of public service in those communities.”
Lee says he doesn’t know how the Irving papers are performing financially, but suspects they’re suffering the same sharp declines in advertising revenues that other papers are facing.
“I wouldn’t take the position that they should be operating them [only] as a kind of public service, but I think that you could ask yourself, how much of a profit margin do you need to make and at the same time, be able to be giving something back to the community through hiring journalists and putting out good-quality news publications.”