By Gerry Barker
Weekend edition July 8, 2017
I am a curious kind of guy. It goes with a lifetime of being a reporter.
As many viewers know, I am not a fan of the Guelph Mercury Tribune. The owner of the twice a week publication is TorStar Corporation through a subsidiary called Metroland Publishing.
This organization owns and manages some 52-community newspapers, big and small, across southern Ontario. Metroland’s goal is to deliver profits to the mother ship, the Toronto Star. The Star remains a great newspaper despite degradation of its ad base, major staff reductions and farming out its production facilities to Transcontinental, a major print production group.
There exists an editorial firewall between the Star and Metroland Publishing. Metroland’s chief goal is to sell advertising to create profits. There is nothing wrong with that provided that the editorial content is usually a ratio of 60 per cent compared to 40 per cent advertising.
But editors and reporters cost money. The larger papers in the Metroland group provide greater funding for editorial personnel than say, the Guelph Tribune. When you have your Tribune delivered on Tuesday and Thursday, the 60/40 ratio is in general terms, reversed. The Thursday edition containing usually 42 pages plus a boatload of flyers is a classic Metroland strategy.
Think about this. The Tribune is the only print newspaper in our city of 131,000. Metroland folded the Mercury daily 18 months ago. The Mercury building on Macdonnell Street has been sold leaving the city with only a memory. It left an enormous editorial vacuum that has not been filled by its sister paper.
The connection between the Tribune and the city allows the administration to have a virtual monopoly controlling the news. One of the reasons the Tribune is soft in its news coverage is the paid adverting it receives twice a week from the city called “City News.” The city communications department controls the content. It’s a department that has 13 staffers, more than twice the number of Tribune editorial employees.
Can you imagine the Toronto Star allowing this to occur? Allowing the city administration to control the editorial content of the paper? In Guelph, this has been going on for ten years. For much of that time the Mercury provided a counter balance in terms of news coverage.
I speak from personal experience. A year ago I supported Guelph resident Pat Fung’s financial analysis comparing the city’s operating and capital spending to peer Cities Including Kitchener and Cambridge. Mr. Fung is an experienced financial expert with Chartered Accountant and Certified Public Accountant credentials.
When he asked the Tribune to report on the results, he was told it would take too long to check the facts. He took that as a no. I suggested we take out an ad in the Tribune explaining the report and its impact on city finances. After accepting the copy for the ad, the day before publication I was informed that the paper would not run the ad as they considered it inflammatory. Funds donated by citizens are held in a trust account to be used to promote and ensure distribution of an updated Fung Report next year prior to the election.
That order preventing publication had to be a Metroland executive decision. Of course the information, thoroughly researched and confirmed, was highly critical of the city administration. But Metroland didn’t want it published because it reflected negatively on the cozy relationship between the Tribune and the administration.
That friends, is called a monopoly that includes censorship. The administration controls the message, not the newspaper management. Most news is rewrites of city press releases. There is no attempt to check the details or investigate the background of decisions made by council.
The latest example was the Tribune’s failure to investigate the Guelph Municipal Holdings Inc. scandal that has cost the city millions. This is a tough and complex story because of the manipulation of city-owned agencies, including Guelph Hydro to pursue an abortive attempt to create self-sufficiency of electric power.
How many millions are involved? It’s difficult to pin down but it appears to be more than $100 million pending disposition of assets and a large pair of senior unsecured debentures owed by GMHI. That debt amounts is $94.283 million.
The Tribune has not covered this major story for more than a year except for press releases provided by the city or statements made in open council.
Why do I bother telling viewers about this corporate management of information?
I believe it is vital for citizens to be informed, have access to public information and be free to criticize and comment without fear of retribution.
We are the real shareholders of the Corporation of the City of Guelph, and not the employees including the members of council who are elected to represent our interests.