How The National Post Became The Last Post For Regional Newspapers
“Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.”— Groucho Marx
The 20th anniversary of The National Post was a bittersweet event for anyone who loves journalism. On the one hand there was an outpouring of nostalgia for a singular moment in Canadian journalism.
On the other hand… there were the real consequences to Canadian journalism of trying to support four major papers in the lucrative southern Ontario market.
First, the legacy of Conrad Black’s vanity project. Born of a desire to have a lively, impertinent conservative newspaper in the era of Jean Chretien’s Liberal power, the Post was all that and a few other things. Drawing on his experience with the British tabloid press, Black had a nose for what would stir the pot.
So he employed a number of salty scribes such as Canadians Mark Steyn, Diane Francis, Ezra Levant, George Jonas, Barbara Kay, Andrew Coyne. He peppered them with Americans such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will and the acerbic Brit Christopher Hitchens. Next to the grey, stuffy Globe & Mail roster and the Liberal Party musings of the Toronto Star, the paper found an immediate audience of people who liked provocative journalism.
The problem was that it wasn’t a big enough audience to pack the Post’s stylishly designed pages with advertising to support the paper. Its sports and arts sections never had the resources to compete. So, from its first day the Post became a ward of the regional Canadian papers in Black’s roster— the old Southam chain.
The Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen, the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, the Vancouver Sun and many others had been profitable, viable and influential outlets for a long time. But, harnessed to Black’s expensive dream at just the moment when digital was about to overtake the conventional newspaper, they soon were gutted of their assets both financial and artistic.
Even as the Post celebrated its independence and insouciance, reporters elsewhere saw their resources disappear to Toronto. These legendary papers were whittled down to shells, regional outposts serving a centralized master. Saving the Post has ironically helped kill local papers across the country.
Today, Black is long gone from the executive suite. Most of the extant papers have the feel of ghost ships with editors in other towns, layout done at the far end of the country and most of their institutional knowledge dispersed to the four winds.
The result of this diaspora— and the crushing debt Black and his successors imposed on the chain of papers— was a concentration of editorial command in the Toronto/ Ottawa market. Worse, it represented a further concentration of the cultural and political bias of that region being sent to the nation.
With virtually no-one to challenge the worldview nurtured in the shadow of the CN Tower, even the Post has become an echo chamber of conventional thought in the Toronto market. Outside of Rex Murphy and Barbara Kay, the editorial slant of today’s debt-ridden Post is indistinguishable many days from the G&M or the Toronto Star.
As my friend Bob Lewis has pointed out in his lively new book Power, Prime Ministers, and The Press, regional papers played a large role in developing the political positions in Canada till the start of the 21st century. Writers on papers in Victoria, Regina, Winnipeg, Halifax and London often brought the nation to the capital, defying the groupthink that has now overtaken Ottawa.
Despite not writing for national newspapers, John Dafoe, Blair Fraser, George Ferguson, Grant Dexter and Bruce Hutchinson created a national perspective with their reflection of disparate opinions. Today, however, the influential columnists and opinion shapers are all found in the shadow of the Peace Tower or The CN Tower. With predictably sclerotic results.
With a homogenous writing staff and journalism schools reflecting groupthink, the major organs of journalism in Canada— the four Toronto papers plus CBC and CTV News— have devolved into echo chambers. Staffers report editorial meetings at which managers beg their staff to comb their friends and acquaintances for someone whose life isn’t defined by traffic problems on the Gardiner Expressway or real estate prices in Sandy Hill.
At the same time as they struggle to find a reality outside the 416/ 647/ 613 the closeted Canadian media sneer at the hurly burly of the Trump presidency. What no one wants to admit in Canada’s cozy media lounge is that the U.S. actually contains a conservative press with strong ties to the heartland of the nation— the regional ties that have withered in Canada.
So they join the American left to vilify Trump, FOX, Breitbart and anything else that smacks of a counterpoint to America’s NYC/ DC elite worldview.
For this and other reasons, if someone decides to write the history of The National Post, might I suggest the title be The Rule Of Unintended Consequences.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on his website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And How The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.