New Brunswickers woke up to a new reality today with the announcement that the Irving monopoly newspapers have been sold to Postmedia, a Toronto-based chain that publishes more than 120 papers across the country including the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Sun and Calgary Herald.
“I was amazed. I just could not believe it. I didn’t think I’d ever see it happen,” says Jacques Poitras, the veteran New Brunswick journalist who wrote the 2014 book Irving vs. Irving.
“That was my initial reaction,” he adds, “and then, as I thought about it a bit more, it started to make a little more sense.”
Poitras, who has worked at the Telegraph-Journal and the Moncton Times & Transcript, two of three Irving-owned dailies, says it’s clear that the papers have been struggling financially.
“Eliminating the print edition on Mondays and things like that; there have been signs and hints that they’ve been cutting costs.”
He adds, however, that the Irvings did not sell in previous times when the papers may not have not been making much money because, people assumed, the family thought it was worth keeping out other publications that might scrutinize the Irving industrial empire.
“My speculation is — and it is just speculation — is that the losses have reached the point that the papers aren’t worth it anymore,” Poitras says.
Good news & bad
“It’s big news for New Brunswick,” says Erin Steuter, the Mt. A professor who has studied the Irving papers for more than 25 years.
“It’s good news and it’s bad news.”
Steuter explains that with the Irvings gone, it may be easier for others to establish media outlets here.
“It seems unlikely to me that a larger owner, such as Postmedia, would be as vicious and personal in shutting down alternatives,” she says.
On the other hand, Steuter feels Postmedia is likely to slash costs.
“I don’t see a scenario in which Postmedia is going to own Brunswick News and keep it at its current level, which is already a very pared, stripped down and poor version of the type of media that we need,” she says.
After the New Jersey hedge fund Chatham Asset Management acquired a two-thirds stake in Postmedia in 2016, the newspaper chain cut costs by closing papers across Canada, laying off hundreds of journalists, cutting the salaries and benefits of those who remained and centralizing its news operations while paying its top executives millions of dollars in bonuses.
Steuter predicts readers will see a lot more news and editorial content from Ontario in New Brunswick’s papers with fewer journalists reporting the news here.
At the same time, however, she says her extensive research on the Irving papers has painted a disturbing picture.
“New Brunswickers have been very poorly served by the Irving family’s ownership of the print media in our province,” she says.
“The coverage has been very, very self-serving and it promoted the interests of the Irving businesses, usually at the expense of the workers of the province, the taxpayers of the province and environmental issues.”
Fire sale prices
The Postmedia announcement said the company was acquiring the Irving papers, along with its digital outlets and parcel delivery business, for $7.5 million in cash and $8.6 million in voting shares.
“That is a fire sale price to me,” says journalist Jacques Poitras.
“That tells me something about how much the company was worth or not worth,” he adds.
Philip Lee, who teaches journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, agrees.
“I think if you valued those publications 20 years ago, it would have been a much different picture,” he says.
Lee, who worked for the Telegraph-Journal in the 1990s, says the Irvings kept daily papers in each of the province’s three biggest cities because of their concerns about federal combines investigations dating from the 1970s.
He explains that the papers operated independently and competed with each other, but that has changed in recent years with more sharing of resources.
“But, I’m sure that Postmedia will be asking questions about how many publications New Brunswick needs,” he says, adding that the province may end up with only one daily paper.
Julian Walker, author of the recent book Wires Crossed: Memoir of a Citizen & Reporter in the Irving Press, says he’s glad the Irvings have finally got the message that the newspaper business is no longer profitable for them.
He points out that their other major companies are all international competitors, while their provincial papers only generated bad publicity because of the Irving monopoly.
“Their status in owning virtually all the newspapers and many radio stations had become untenable for what is such a large and important series of corporations in New Brunswick and I think they were maybe tired of being tarnished by this media problem they had,” Walker says.
“I think it’s good to make a separation between the media and the rest of the economy or industry.”
For additional coverage from the NB Media Co-op, click here.