On media monopolies

Canwest Global is selling off 45 of its newspapers, which reminds me of an episode of Planet Money which I heard recently. Apparently before wood pulp based newsprint was invented, back when all printed material including daily news rags were literally printed on paper made of linen rags, the economics of print journalism basically meant that getting kickbacks from the political party your paper supported was far more lucrative than increasing readership, leading to a predictable bias in news coverage which papers of the era made no effort to disguise. Urban centres typically had papers representing each of the local parties, leading to a sort of adversarial system in public discourse a little like a modern courtroom — except that of course most citizens only the paper which supported their particular views. (I gather that newspapers in the UK operate along similar lines today.) Anyways, when the mid-eighteenth century development of wood pulp decreased the cost of production of newsprint by a factor of 10, it suddenly became more profitable to prioritize having as large a readership as possible, meaning that news coverage became far more fair and balanced (if I’m allowed to say that without paying royalties to Fox News), giving us the situation we have today where each newspaper editor has their own biases but all state their intention to write genuinely objective news coverage.

Canwest has been a notable counterexample of this in Canada for the past several years: at one time all of its papers (except the National Post) were obliged to run centrally-written op-eds on national policy issues irrespective of local opinions, and staff not supporting the party line are likely to be fired, like the editor of the Ottawa Citizen when he criticized Chretien at a time when the owners were on side with the Liberals. Izzy Asper explicitly described his papers as having “a very pro-Israel position”, and whatever the point of publishing the Post is, it’s clearly not to make money, as it’s hemorrhaged about $15m per year since its founding twelve years ago.

Nobody’s paying the Aspers for such generosity these days, and so the inevitable has happened, and they’ve been forced to try to sell their newspapers, although it remains to be seen if anyone’s buying. (They tried to sell off the Post last year, but there were no takers, which is perhaps why it’s not on the block this time around.) My hope is that they’ll go to different owners, or at least an owner who lets them run whatever op-eds they like. Even if their editors just write whatever will increase readership, it can hardly be worse coverage than the unbalanced rantings of the Asper family dynasty.