Source : Toronto Star
When a powerful corporation bought out an alternative weekly in St. John, New Brunswick, it was not only a sad day for the city but a blow to Canadian democracy
On Oct. 29, 2004, residents of Saint John, New Brunswick woke up to the news that here newspaper, the province's only alternative weekly, had been bought by the Irving family, the province's most powerful corporate entity with industries spanning oil and forestry, real estate and newspapers. Here was now in the crowded company of every English-language daily paper in the province, as well as the numerous weeklies, periodicals and radio stations owned by Brunswick News, Irving's media arm.
Readers were furious and many remain so today. It's not surprising: Saint John is a small city on the Fundy Coast known for heritage buildings, fog, backwards water, the Irvings, and a doggedly unpretentious nature.
It does not conjure images of vibrant cultural life, booming economic growth or outstanding intellectual achievement. And yet, for 4 1/2 years, Saint John was able to do what few contemporary cities of its size have done: sustain an independent alternative newspaper.
Here was born in April 2000 as a challenge to the city of Saint John. Its creators (Mark Leger, Janet Scott and Judith Mackin) sought to provide an alternative source of news and perspectives on the community's social, political, economic and cultural life.
People responded. Beginning as a bi-weekly publication, here was snatched off newsstands in a frenzy of anticipation and well-worn copies littered the city market, coffee shops and bars. Readers approached here's editor and writers on the street, hungry for what here represented in spirit.
Here was young, it was liberal, and, most important, it was independent.
Irving is the largest non-government employer in New Brunswick. It employs roughly 8 per cent of the workforce in Saint John. Kenneth Colin (K.C.) Irving moved the company's operations from Bouctouche to Saint John in 1924.
The city is home to a number of major Irving operations, including a famously foul-smelling pulp mill and Canada's largest oil refinery. Saint John and neighbouring Rothesay are also home to several of the Irvings themselves.
Forbes magazine estimates the Irving family's wealth at $4.4 billion U.S., making theirs the 117th largest fortune in the world.
In a province and city so firmly dominated by one economic power, the need to feel independent boils fiercely beneath the skin.
Here tapped this passion when it began publishing in Saint John five years ago, and it sought to continue in this vein when it expanded into Moncton last spring, with plans to move into Fredericton as well.
Issues of here are now published in all three cities, but they are no longer independent. Mark Leger, here's co-founder and former editor (he resigned Feb. 10), says he and the other owners underestimated Irving's reaction when here moved to Moncton, the headquarters of Brunswick News.
Within five weeks of here appearing on Moncton streets, Brunswick News launched its own alternative weekly, Metro Marquee. According to Leger, the Marquee fought aggressively to secure advertisers, offering heavily discounted or free ad space. Boasting considerably deeper pockets than here's four owners, Brunswick News made it next to impossible for here to compete. "We looked at their ad rates the first week (Metro Marquee) came out," says Leger, "and said `we can't do it. We can't print the paper for that.'"
Opting to sell rather than face financial ruin, here's owners approached numerous organizations, other publications and the federal and provincial governments. But, says Leger, "nobody was going to buy into that paper knowing the Irvings were trying to take it down." Swallowing their pride, i's owners approached Brunswick News about buying the paper, and on the afternoon of Oct. 28, they signed ownership of here over to Brunswick News Inc.
Despite assurances from Brunswick News management (including vice-president Victor Mlodecki and Al Hogan, here's new general manager) here has changed significantly since the sale. On a structural level, Brunswick News switched from a "full-time model" to a "freelance model," whereby writers lose job security but the publication saves money.
As another cost-saving measure, here's Saint John office moved from its centrally located uptown accommodations into the basement of the Telegraph Journal (the Irving-owned daily) building. Irving also owns its own press and Brunswick News is able to print papers for significantly less than the fees paid by here when it was independent.
Leger says Brunswick News is also keen to "merge promotions and advertising with editorial in a way I'd never witnessed before." The day before production for here's Dec. 9 issue, a senior editor for Brunswick News contacted Leger with instructions to run a cover story on the band Sum 41. The band wasn't scheduled to play at the Moncton Coliseum until February, but it appears that Brunswick News was more interested in helping SRO Entertainment Ltd. sell advance tickets than in running a relevant story.
Leger refused to run the ad/cover, but a story on Sum 41 written by Canadaeast News Service ("people looking for a seat may want to consider buying themselves an early Christmas gift or adding them to their holiday wish list") appeared in the Moncton issue of here all the same.
The line separating editorial content from advertising dollars was not the only casualty under the new management. Following here's sale to Brunswick News, content itself came on the chopping block.
"They decided to kill the sex column before they bought the paper," says Leger. "But they didn't tell me." According to Leger, the decision to cut it came straight from J.D. Irving (president of J.D. Irving Ltd., Irving's forestry, food processing and transportation arm) himself.
"The end of the sex column isn't the end of the day," says Leger, "but readers think if J.D. ends that, what else is he doing? It kills readers' faith. And I couldn't get them (Brunswick News management) to get that."
The death of here's sex column confirmed readers' worst fear: The Irvings directly control what goes in their papers. This isn't necessarily the case — "they don't seek to overtly control the news," says Leger — but by getting their knickers in a censorial knot over sex advice, readers felt the chill of corporate interference.
News publications enter into an unwritten contract with readers to deliver fair, accurate and relevant information. If readers perceive that a publication is breaching that contract, they lose trust in its ability to report credible information and the publication becomes irrelevant.
When Brunswick News bought the rights to publish here, they bought the responsibility to continue fostering Saint John's diversity of interests, events and perspectives.
In failing to do this, they have cost Saint Johners an important voice, and weakened the spirit of Canadian democracy.
Megan Wennberg is one of two winners of the Dalton Camp Award, named after the legendary Toronto Star columnist.
© Toronto Star
Related Documents June 14, 2005
- Toronto Star
: Honouring Camp
Winners of the 2005 Dalton Camp Award have been announced.