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Only the government wins as Postmedia goes dark in Ottawa by Don Martin

Feb 5, 2014

Source: CTV News

When I walked into 151 Sparks in early 2000, a wide-eyed Calgary Herald columnist covering a deep red majority Liberal government for a province where Liberal MPs could literally have held their Alberta caucus meeting in a phone booth, the Southam Ottawa bureau was pulsating with journalistic energy.

The 34 reporters by my count, including the best National Post contingent Conrad Black’s deep pockets could buy, had a tired Liberal government on the run with breaking Shawinigate and sponsorship scandals. They had a new stuntman and Opposition Leader named Stockwell Day, who provided plenty of amusing colour before facing a mutiny inside his own Canadian Alliance ranks.

Flash forward to yesterday, 14 years after Southam morphed into Canwest and then limped into a rechristening as Postmedia. On Tuesday, Postmedia brass delivered last rites to the once-mighty Ottawa operation. Another five layoffs reduced the overstretched bureau to rubble with its final four reporters sent off to join the Ottawa Citizen.

It’s a literal decimation, leaving just 10 per cent of the original Southam bureau to cover a government bloated in size and steeped in secrecy.

Those popping sounds are champagne corks going off in the Prime Minister’s Office as they celebrate another slash to their contingent of tormentors.

After all, a smaller media means a greater chance of bad news staying under wraps. The obligatory coverage of Parliament stretches reporter resources beyond the industry’s ability to dig deeper than the press release or scripted news conference. In a drought of warm reporting bodies, investigative journalism becomes a luxury, not a necessity. Add it up and that means victory for a government which has cocooned itself with communications staff programmed to deny, obfuscate or simply not respond to media requests.

It’s a loss for the entire industry. Television generates more than its fair share of exclusives, but the math is brutally simple. Fewer journalists equals fewer scoops which delivers fewer government headaches.

My despair for Southam goes beyond a personal lament as a former employee. While the remaining journalistic handful are exemplary reporters, the brain drain from its ranks in the last decade has been truly astonishing.

Our own Robert Fife was the bureau chief for the National Post. Leading columnists like Paul Wells and Lawrence Martin have moved on. Crack investigators like Andrew McIntosh and Jim Bronskill are elsewhere. Plugged-in veterans like Susan Delacourt, Joan Bryden and Joel Denis Belavance left for greener pastures. The writing genius of Roy McGregor and Scott Feschuk no longer provide unique commentary on the silly and serious sides of Ottawa life.

Beats of journalistic specialization have been abandoned and dedicated sub-bureaus writing for the Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal markets are gone. Only the Ottawa Citizen maintains its own stable of journalists for obvious local readership reasons.

Unfortunately, Postmedia’s plight is just the most painful symptom of a dire print media prognosis which needs a technology miracle to reverse.

But to see such jaw-dropping staff shrinkage is to watch a public service in a death spiral leaving a government to happily operate without a microscope.

© CTV News