Daily drama

Editorial by Bruce Wark

illustration Graham Pillsworth

“Journalism is a state of mind. It’s a way of looking at the world.” The speaker? None other than Eddie Greenspon, editor-in-chief of Toronto’s national newspaper, known in the trade as the Mop & Pail. The Chief Mopster was addressing King’s journalism students last week just days after the Halifax Daily News laid off eight employees, four of them veteran journalists. “Newspapers are the foundation stone of journalism,” Eddie thundered, adding that “journalism is the pursuit of truth.” He went on to mention two key questions that ink-stained wretches should ask when chasing their tales. “What is really happening and what does it really mean?”

I confess the Mopster’s grand eloquence triggered joyful tears, but through the rainfall, I suddenly spied Dave Swick, a part-time King’s instructor and one of the grizzled Daily News layoff victims. Swick toiled for decades in the DN trenches, labouring to make the tab the organ it is today. He slaved through the era when Newfie-born magnate Harry Steele held the purse strings. Alas, Steele’s interest in journalism waned as his passion for acquiring crappy radio stations grew. In 1997, he unloaded the Daily News on Conrad Black, who now stands accused of running a “corporate kleptocracy.” Black sliced $500,000 out of the paper before unloading it on the Aspers, the TV global moguls who imposed strict censorship on opinions that differed from theirs. In 2002, the Aspers, up to their arses in debt, peddled the paper to Transcontinental, a gigantic printing firm based in Montreal. And so it was to the Transcon axe that good soldier Swick fell, the victim of what DN publisher Jamie Thomson calls “efficiency-improvement methods.”

Yep, Thomson actually used that gobbledegook “efficiency-improvement methods” in a Transcon news release. When I phoned to request a translation, Thomson refused to comment, referring me to marketing director Moira MacDonald. She told me cheerfully that Transcon is focusing on its new weekly papers, delivered free to the lucky folk who live in Halifax West-Clayton Park, Dartmouth-Cole Harbour and Bedford-Sackville. (The DN is running ads for more writers to feed the new weeklies.) MacDonald explained that the weeklies (anywhere from 16 to 24 pages) allow advertisers to engage in “precision targeting” of local communities. And she assured me that the neighbourhood news in the weeklies is popular with readers. She described it as “softer” news. And how right she is. A careful perusal of the most recent papers reveals that the few stories they contain are as soft as mashed bananas. (I wanted to say baby shit, but that wouldn’t be nice.) One story opens: “More than 300 people piled into the Keshen Goodman Library on Friday, January 27, for National Family Literacy Day.” And another starts: “Children’s excited squeals and adult admonishing tones greeted just about anyone who visited the Dartmouth Sportsplex last weekend.” Yep, baby shit rules!

In his news release, publisher Thomson calls the new papers “unique weekly products.” He boasts that the new weeklies and the Daily News are delivered to over 115,000 homes a week, more than double the number the Herald reaches. And he talks about continuing the “growth strategy” at the company. But Thomson’s biz-speak can’t hide what is happening at the Daily News. Figures released last November show that Monday-to-Saturday paid circulation continues to slip. (Sunday circulation was up by a tiny 0.7 percent.) Some of the paper’s best journalists have already jumped ship. Others are looking for new jobs. The paper itself is increasingly stuffed with light, lifestyle features that advertisers supposedly love. And now it’s cutting editorial staff to focus on vapid weeklies that are little more than vehicles for advertising. If Eddie Greenspon is right, and newspapers are the foundation stone of journalism, what does that really mean for the struggling Daily News and for journalism in Nova Scotia?

Have you noticed a change in the Nova Scotia dailies? Email: bwark@accesswave.ca

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