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In Newspapers
by Matt O'Grady

The other day - in one of those navel-gazing, "where are all the people like me" moments - I decided to take stock of the newspaper junkies of the world. They include, but are not limited to: the crotchety old man, hibernating in a suburban bungalow, whose full-time job is letters-to-the-editor writer; the disheveled eccentric, warming a seat at Timmy H or on the TTC, who startles passers-by with his scattershot critiques of the news; and the socially-challenged loner, sequestered in a sterile bachelor pad, who gleans facts and opinions for a dinner conversation that he'll never be a party to. I fall into the latter category, although I can easily see myself aging into one of the former. What connects us all - young and old, eccentric and getting-there - is our disconnectedness from reality; our sense of community comes alive not through interactions in the real world, but through a world that we've pieced together from the pages of our papers.

The problem, though, is that our community is fragmenting, our chosen newspapers rejecting us for more profitable niches. Taking editorial chances and incorporating a diversity of voices, it would appear, is not good for business. A case and point is the National Post. For a year and a half after its October 1998 launch, it was the most interesting newspaper in Canada. Each issue presented an eclectic amalgam of high- and low-brow content: in-depth reports on political scandals in Indonesia mixed with salacious celebrity scandals, tossed into a broth of T & A and sprinkled with a bit of microeconomic theory. It was, in those days, a newspaper you could envision almost any reader finding something - one story, one column - that held appeal. It was (and remains) a decidedly right-wing paper, but rather than spurn the left, the Post invited some of the left's most eloquent essayists - Mark Kingwell, Linda McQuaig - to share the spotlight on its editorial pages. It had the country's strongest Arts section, with leading critics like Robert Fulford, John Bentley Mays and Robert Cushman, and had two of Canada's best sports writers in Allan Abel and Roy MacGregor (a bit of a moot point, though: real jock-sniffers don't read the paper). And all of this was built upon the paper's bedrock, the 75-year-old Financial Post.

The problem was that while readers liked the Post - it came within a whisker of usurping the Globe as Canada's biggest circulation national daily in 2000 - advertisers didn't take to it. Too eclectic. Unpredictable. Predictability is what advertisers love, for instance, about the Toronto Star: Canada's most circulated, most read, and most profitable newspaper. For 100 years, the Star has toed the liberal line - with nary a variance from the script of "government is good; Americans and businessmen are bad" - and for 100 years, the good liberals (and Liberals) of Toronto have rewarded the Star handsomely. But while the Star flourishes, the unpredictable Post is at death's door; reliable estimates have the Post's obit being penned by year's end (although, in typical newspaper fashion, the obit is probably already written, waiting in story banks across the country). In its golden era, the Post was losing something like $100 million a year, and while that number has been trimmed to a mere $10 million a year, it's still $10 million too much for penny-pinching CanWest. And so, with no advertisers left to call upon, yet another paper readies itself for the recycling bin of history.

The Globe and Mail makes a valiant effort at being an interesting, eclectic, pan-Canadian publication; usually, though, it falls a bit flat, much in the same way as my 54-year-old Grade 10 English teacher failed at being "hip" by rapping Hamlet's soliloquy. The Globe has too much history to overcome as the establishment paper; the transformation from reverential to irreverent is too arduous an undertaking. The paper has figured out where the nexus of power, money and politics lies, and targets its paper accordingly. The fact that a few outliers - penniless students, Quebec farmers, citizens of western Canada - also read the paper is immaterial: half the Globe's readership - but more to the point, almost all of its advertising - originates from the 630 square kilometers of urban wasteland that is Toronto. Interestingly, while the Globe has always had an "in" with Canada's élite, and treated the power brokers of government and business with kid gloves, it used to be a lot worse. A recent Toronto Life article detailed how, during the reign of editor William Thorsell (1989-1999), the Globe became a veritable house organ of the Conservative party, with Thorsell a close confident of the then-PM, Brian Mulroney; when Thorsell's secretary would announce that "an important call" was on the line (as happened regularly during Globe editorial meetings), all work would stop: Brian wanted to chat.

The situation at local papers is even more discouraging. Most are now owned by one company, CanWest, whose intent is on turning them all into vessels for the corporate pap factory in Winnipeg; the Vancouver Sun in particular - once a proud, award-winning publication - has been reduced to a CanWest Reader's Digest, with in-house stories a rare and treasured find. With the Post whistling dixie to its grave, the Globe preaching to its well-heeled choir, and CanWest on an evangelical mission to Asperize the nation, some slack is being picked up by community newspapers and alternative weeklies; but while these alternative community voices might bring breadth and depth to a general-interest paper like the Post, when left to their own publishing devices, they exhibit a grating parochialism. Mitchel Raphael, an arts reporter during the Post's good years, wrote regularly on Toronto's gay scene, and acted as a fascinating counterbalance to the neo-con ranting, a few pages away, from columnists who could hardly be less sympathetic to gay issues. That contrast, that editorial tension, was one of the things that made the Post such a good read. After being axed (along with most of the Arts staff) in September 2001, Raphael moved on to become editor at fab, a publication so stultifying in its celebration of hedonism that it makes 70s-era Pravda look like a paragon of plurality. Yet such homogeneity is to be expected: with half the ads in papers like fab and Xtra promoting sex-related goods and services, plastic surgeons and cosmetic dentists, what sort of diversity, really, can there be?

In the post-Post era, it's back to safe and predictable. Every paper speaks to a narrow audience defined by advertisers; this, we're told, is the economics of modern newspaper publishing. William Thorsell, who now has a column with the Globe, wrote on March 3rd that, "the only way to make money, and thus to sustain newsrooms and high-quality printing and distribution, is to define a subset of the total market for newspaper readers, penetrate it to a convincing degree, and then prevent wasteful printing of extra newspapers." "Wasteful", of course, means papers being read by undesirables. I, for instance, represent wasted circulation for every paper I read: the Globe, because I have no money to invest; Xtra, because I don't buy porn or get liposuction; the Georgia Straight, because I don't patronize fine restaurants or swanky clubs; the New York Times because, amongst other reasons, I don't live in New York.

This shouldn't come as a revelation: that I, Matt O'Grady, don't matter to publishers; but for some reason, it has. I always thought, self-importantly, that a newspaper's most avid reader was its most prized asset - where in fact, it is the paper's most avid shopper (and most cursory reader) who publishers lust after. There is no reward for being a newspaper junkie: the publisher doesn't want me; the editor won't listen to me (no matter how many thoughtful letters I write); and society puts scant value on my ability to regurgitate yesterday's news. And so, a year after this picayune exercise began, In Newspapers is coming to an end. There's nothing left to say - and frankly, I really need to get out more. I don't want to become that crotchety old man in the suburbs. I need to make some money, get some liposuction, and hit the dance floor at that swanky new club.

I need to become a desirable.


Matt O'Grady don't like reading no books.


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