The long, painful and inevitable death throes of The National Post — at least in its present form — seem near an end.
In Toronto, a court spent most of Friday (October 30) mulling a request from CanWest Global Communications Corp. to roll The Post, along with its other newspapers, into a new corporation separate from CanWest TV holdings.
The accounting strategy is to free up the newspapers from the colossal debt of the company’s TV arm, now around $4 billion.
Grant Robertson has an engrossing story on the failures of debt-laden CanWest in the current ROB Magazine. You can read it here.
The papers, market leaders in major cities such as Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal, are all money-makers although all are bearing wounds of the recession, and the fragmentation of media markets caused by the Internet.
But the National Post is a different animal. Launched by Conrad Black in 1998, it was meant to provide a Toronto outlet for his cross-country chain of former Southam newspapers.
It also shook up Canadian journalism. Espousing a frankly right-wing bias, it brought excellent analysis and features to readers at a time when the dominant Globe and Mail was about as dreary and predictable as a newspaper could get.
From day one, the advent of the Post forced the tired Globe to wake up and reinvent itself. To its credit, it has done so, brilliantly, and is now a far superior paper to what it was eleven years ago.
The Post has never turned a profit. It lost $60 million in 2001 and is said to now be losing a million and a half a month. It owes CanWest’s parent holding company $139 million.
The big mistake of the Asper family — first the late Izzy Asper and now son Leonard — was to fund their acquisitions via debt. Now, carrying a debt load that its reduced earnings can’t handle, CanWest’s future is bleak.
Will it get so bleak that there’ll be no solution but to stanch the losses of the National Post by killing it off? And would that be enough to save CanWest from a take-over by bottom-feeders? Probably not.
A solution short of shutting down the Post completely would be to resize it as business daily, like its predecessor the tabloid Financial Post. Some potential buyers are said to be weighing this possibility.
But a successful newspaper needs to find a multi-layered audience. The Toronto Sun has done it with a weird three-way mix of heavy sports, tons of ads from electronics retailers, and crazy right-wing columns and editorials. It’s worked for the Sun, because none of these three demographics gives a damn about what else is in the paper.
It seems to me Canada isn’t big enough — especially while we’re recession-ridden — to support two national newspapers. The Post has become what I call a “broadsheet tabloid” — a paper printed in the traditional large size format of a serious newspaper, but with big headlines and sensationalist content that is better suited to a tabloid. And the two don’t mix.
They’ve finally done it — it’s the end of The National on CBC-TV as a serious, trustworthy, watchable account of the day’s news.
Their endless tinkering with proven program formulas reached its nadir last night with an abysmal, production-poor effort that is certain to drive away more viewers than it will attract.
CBC’s reliance on confusing, rainbow-colored graphics that provide nothing but a distraction is truly mind-boggling.
Its focus on contrived news such as Adrienne Arsenault’s report from London on the survey showing Canadians are indifferent to the monarchy is troubling to anyone who cares about understanding what’s important (or even interesting) in today’s world. Ho hum – we’ve known for decades that Canadians don’t give a damn about Prince Charlie. For the past thirty or forty years, we’ve viewed the Queen as no more than a nice lady.
Even the set on the new National looks dismal. They’ve got Peter Mansbridge standing around like a school teacher about to bring out the strap, while errant pupils like Amanda Lang (business reporter) and Wendy Mesley (muck-raker) line up for their punishment.
For years now, the CBC’s been trying to fight audience losses. It’s strategy has been to opt for more American low-brow shows like the dreadful Jeopardy and to glitz up its graphics in the hope that style will win out over substance in pursuit of younger viewers.
CBC: People who want wavy colors (pink, blue, orange) fluttering over their screen aren’t interested in the news. You won’t get them, anyway.
I have a marvelous idea: Prop a man or woman in front of a TV camera and let them read the news, calling in correspondents around the world whenever you have some meaningful film to show. This is what the BBC does.
And by the way, I resent losing BBC World News at 6 on CBC Newsworld (or News Net or whatchamacall it). I always admired the job Evan Soloman did on CBC Sunday, but his new “Power and Politics” format (what else is politics about but power?) just doesn’t excite.
We appear to be watching yet another unfolding CBC disaster that is sure to embarrass and antagonize what’s left of a loyal audience, without any offsetting gains.
For another opinion on The National, here’s Greg Quill’s take in the Toronto Star.
It’s being called “the billion dollar boondoggle,” the attempt by the Ontario government to create an electronic health record for everyone in the province. The idea is to harness computers and the Internet to improve patient care, safety, and access to medical services.
So far, it’s not going very well. eHealth Ontario has been roiled by controversy over millions of dollars in untendered contracts that went to past associates or close contacts of its president and chairman. Both are gone, resigned or fired. And the Minister of Health, David Caplan, has had to resign.
eHealth represents the second abortive attempt by Ontario to bring its Ministry of Health, OHIP, and the province’s doctors and hospitals into the electronic age.
“Smart Systems for Health” was launched with great fanfare in 2002. It was going to “revolutionize health care delivery with an electronic health information sharing network.”
It failed to deliver on its promise and was replaced by eHealth. Today, nearly a thousand people work for eHealth at seven locations.
According to its web site, work is going ahead. One example: tenders are now out to establish a Diabetes Registry.
Other priorities are online management of prescription medications and a program to reduce wait times in hospital emergency rooms.
In all the fuss, there’s been virtually no light shed on the real problems at eHealth: what actually has or has not been achieved to date. The media have been singularly uninterested in examining the operations of this agency. I’ve not seen a single example of investigative journalism applied to the problems of eHealth.
These problems have been easy pickings for the Opposition parties. They don’t seem interested in getting a real reading on the agency’s work. They prefer to concentrate on the scandal over untendered contracts, rather than on what work’s been done under those contracts.
Now, they’ve got an even juicier target: the $25 billion deficit disclosed by Finance Minister Dwight Duncan in his economic update.
The Deputy Minister of Health, Ron Sapsford, was equally unforthcoming on eHealth’s operations when he appeared before the Legislature committee that’s investigating what’s gone wrong at the agency.
His main message was that none of it was his fault – the eHealth bosses had ignored his warnings about following “proper procedures” in awarding contracts.
It would be helpful if someone in authority could explain exactly where eHealth stands in fulfilling its goals.
Here’s a tip: Around half of all technology projects fail and have to be abandoned. It costs corporations and governments hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
This is the “dirty little secret” of the technology industry that no one talks about.
In the U.S., the Computer Audit association says half of the executives they surveyed report their companies have “killed” a technology project because it didn’t deliver as promised, or the company’s needs have changed.
In Britain, a survey of call centers by the Customer Experience Foundation showed that overruns and delays usually add 90 per cent to the cost of a project. New systems fail fifty per cent of the time.
“The expectation of frequent failure was epidemic,” the CEF says.
There’s no defense for untendered contracts in public business. But a contract scandal shouldn’t be allowed to cover up more serious problems of non-delivery.
That’s the real explanation that eHealth owes us.
He was Canada’s most successful politician — Prime Minister of the country for 22 years — and he’d probably have some answers for the questions now being raised about the future of pensions in Canada.
William Lyon Mackenzie King brought in Canada’s first old age pension in 1927. It paid a measely twenty dollars a month, and you got it only after passing a humiliating means test.
I’ve been thinking about Mackenzie King and today’s pensions since my visit last week to Kingsmere, his country home in Gatineau Park north of Ottawa.
I drove up on a drizzly day when I had some idle time while on a visit to Ottawa. The clouds cleared as I arrived and I got a good tramp around the ruins that King — a fan of ancient relics — had put up on his estate.
As any student of Canadian politics knows, King was a strange man. A spirituralist, he communed with the dead, including his mother and his dog, Pat.
This encouraged me to take along our dog Morag. She didn’t seem spooked by the ghost of Pat.
Today, we have a more generous Old Age Security pension plus the Canada Pension Plan. And company pensions and private Retirement Savings Plans.
But all is not well in Canada’s pension land. The recession is putting many corporate pensions at risk. It’s generally agreed that Canadians aren’t saving enough. A full-fledged pension crisis is shaping up.
I’m with those who favor increasing the scope of the Canada Pension Plan. It’s working well but needs bigger contributions by both employers and employees. That way, everyone can be assured of a living income when they’re no longer of working age.
Of course, the opponents will knock any increase in CPP premiums as a tax increase. What’s wrong with that? We get what we pay for.
The CPP has proven itself to be our most cost-effective pension instrument. Financial institutions eat up too much of our savings in management fees. The CPP doesn’t do that.
Mackenzie King would no doubt find some compromise that would allow him to ease the country into a gradual solution, a bit at a time.
He’s famous for his wartime comment, “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”
If you’d like to know more about King, I recommend Mackenzie King: Citizenship and Community by John English. (I’m eagerly awaiting the second volume of this author’s Trudeau biography.)
For anyone who has the time, the Mackenzie King Diaries make great reading. You can search by date or keyword by going here.
The King “go slow” sentiment is being echoed today by Michael Ignatieff as he contemplates his situation in Opposition. “An election if necessary, but not necessarily an election.”
But likely with less success!
I’m standing in the abandoned courtroom of the Grey County Courthouse in Owen Sound, Ontario, reflecting on what the passage of time has done to our concepts of justice, and our appreciation for the history we’ve inherited.
My visit to Grey County has given me a feel for the “literary landscape” of a story I’m working on for a national magazine. I’m looking into cases of “the Innocents” — Canadians who were wrongfully hanged during the years in which we had capital punishment.
Capital punishment was abolished in Canada in 1976. More than 700 people were hanged since Confederation in 1867. Probably several dozen went to the gallows innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.
One such case has brought me to Grey County. Back in 1884 a blind man, Cook Teets, was convicted of poisoning his young wife of six weeks with strychnine. It was known he had strychnine (commonly used to control predators) and that he’d taken out a $4,000 life insurance policy on his wife.
But there was also testimony that after sharing a meal with his wife and mother-in-law on the fateful day, he left to spend the night at his own mother’s farm, some five miles distant. His wife, Rosannah, died at six o’clock the next morning. The coroner testified that death would have come within half an hour of ingesting the poison.
Despite petitions urging clemency, Teets was hanged in the jailyard behind the County Building early on the morning of December 5, 1884. Years later, the Toronto Telegram published news of a confession by Rosannah’s mother. She had fed the strychine to her daughter. The Telegram headlined its story: A LEGAL MURDER.
Today, procedures are in place to help people who have been convicted despite their innocence. One organizaation, AIDWYCK, wages an unrelenting fight to overturn wrongful convictions. Judging from the large number of high profile cases where it has had murder convictions reversed, our justice system is still far from perfect.
But as I stood in that old courtroom in Owen Sound — now used by an amateur theatre group — it struck me how sad it is that the building is being allowed to deteriorate.
The original judge’s bench and witnesses box has been broken up, apparently put to use as sets. Peeling linoleum exposes the original wood plank floor. The courtroom reeks of decay. Paints flakes from the walls of stairwells and stair treads are worn thin.
This still handsome limestone building, a precious testament to the history of Grey County, may not long survive its current neglect.
The County turned the building over to the city in the 1990s. Space is now rented out at low rates to arts organizations. An admirable purpose. But nothing is being done to keep up the building. It’ll soon become the target of an ambitious developer looking for a cheap site.
This is a building that would have made a great case for federal stimulus funding. What a shame the City Council is so blind to its own heritage. One of the great examples of 19th century Ontario architecture — but no one in Owen Sound seems to appreciate it.