Tag Archives: Torstar

Here are some thoughts: Monopoly is just not a board game

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.

 

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The Guelph Mercury: An old friend passes and we are the less for it

By Gerry Barker

Posted January 25, 2016

I guessed last year when the Mercury presses were moved to Hamilton that the newspaper may close. Love it or ignore it, the Merc has been a key news source in our city since Confederation in 1867.

While the bulk of local advertising went to the Guelph Tribune, it spelled trouble for the six-day a week daily to sustain its existence. My condolences go to the staff of 23 fulltime employees, eight of whom were editorial writers and editors. A fine pool of talent managed by Phil Andrews.

I expect Metroland to find homes for these talented people who have performed their job under trying conditions. The bean counters decided that Metroland would be financially better off.

Other’s affected are the members of the Community Editorial Board whose variety of opinions were a cheap way to fill the space. Most of that group was writing self -serving pieces but not all, there were some levl-headed members who wrote balanced points of view and did it well.

Missed, will be the locally paid columnists such as veteran newsman, Geoffry Stevens, Owen Roberts and Michael Strickland.

Remember that the Letters to the Editor feature will pass on and no longer provide space for individual opinions. Instead, the only letters content will be in the twice weekly Tribune, with space to print no more than three of or four each issue. That’s a far cry from the Merc’s letters, space that published sometimes 24 letters a week.

But here’s the real fallout of this corporate decision to close a daily newspaper: In the business, the space provided for news and opinion is referred to as “the newshole.” That means the rest of the page space is for advertising.

This is what happened to our Mercury.

The editorial staff filled its space allotment every day. But the advertising space kept shrinking putting more pressure on editorial to fill the remaining space, thereby reducing the nember of pages each day.

Our Mercury has been on a page diet ever since Metroland bought the paper.

The corporate strategy of Metroland, a subsidiary of Torstar, owners of the Toronto Star, has driven the newspaper to oblivion, through patronizing the former Farbridge administration for some eight years. The result is the paper was way behind the wave of pubic rejection of that administration. The civic election results of 2014 were obviously the harbinger of the death of the Mercury.

The reason was the Metroland decision to support the former administration was to protect the estimated $500,000 a year advertising contract with the Guelph Tribune to buy city-paid space in the name of “City News.”

The Mercury editorial was instructed to support the Farbridge administration up to the election, despite the the loss of some $23 million, buidling the new city hall following a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal brought by the general contractor of the project.

In those days running up to the civic election last October, the Mercury, in its editorials, questioned the management of the city hall project’s cost overruns.

So what’s the fallout of this decisions to shut down our daily newspaper?

A friend and space is gone. A platform for personal expression is gone. An essential part of community is gone.

Oh well, only an estimated 9,000 subscribers really care if you believe the Metroland corporate decision.

It all occurred right under our very noses.

The rush is at city hall to force citizens to rely on city propaganda. It is being pumped out daily on the Internet by a large staff in the public-financed city communications department. It is presumed that it is sufficient to meet the balanced news of a multi-dimensional, community,

No, it isn’t

We know the power of the Internet. But not everyone is connected. It doesn’t provide sufficient public critique of action taken by the city on its website.

Our democratic right is to ask, challenge, demand answers and influence our elected members of various legislative bodies.

Today, we lost that ability with the death of the Mercury.

Finally, our Mercury delivery lady, Marla, presented our Mercury every day. We oten chatted with her at the front door and she was a credit to her employer. She was like a daughter to us but a corporate decision comes home and we won’t see her at our doorstep now. Just another victim of corporate action.

This decision was nother but a naked corporate exploition of a small community that cannot fight back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Newspaper readers deserve better says Torstar Chairman

By Gerry Barker

Posted November 9, 2015

In an op-ed piece in the Toronto Star, the chairman of the Torstar Corporation. John Honderich takes umbrage over Postmedia CEO, Paul Godfrey, ordering his chain of 16 papers to endorse Stephen Harper.

Honderich decries the Postmedia action in the recent federal election pointing out that “owning a newspaper is a privilege, not a right.”

The Torstar Chairman goes further stating “ Newspapers are an essential informing part of the democratic process and their first responsibility must be to the local readers they serve.”

Right on, John.

He goes on to state: “In the interest of transparency, it must be declared that editorial independence has always been the official policy of the Torstar newspaper group.”

For clarity reasons, it is important to know that Metroland Publishing, a division of Torstar, is owner of the KW Record, Guelph Mercury, Guelph Tribune and Hamilton Spectator.

Two people manage the Guelph Mercury editorial department. The managing editor and, who reports to Lynne Haddrall, editor in chief at the Record and Mercury. Donna Luelo is publisher of both papers. The Mercury is now printed in Hamilton resulting in closing down its in-house printing operation.

So, perhaps Mr. Honderich can explain how the Guelph Mercury is independent and transparent? As he pointed out, the first responsibility is to the local readers they serve. So with the publisher of the Mercury and his editor in chief working and living in Kitchener, where is the editorial independence of the Mercury/Tribune readers and citizens of Guelph?

Mr. Chairman, I can help you with this as I have been covering Guelph municipal affairs for nine years. For five years I wrote a regular column in the Mercury that was often critical of the administration.

I was let go about three months after announcing that I started an online blog guelphspeaks.ca to fill the void of three weeks in which my Mercury columns were not scheduled. I have no regrets about that decision. It gave me more freedom to question the administration’s policies and how our city was being managed.

The bottom line is, in eight years, the Mercury suffered staff cuts in the editorial department, thereby reducing its ability to check slanted news releases from the city communication department and investigate the facts and operation of the municipality.

As time went by, it became increasingly apparent that the two-term regime of Mayor Karen Farbridge was in serious trouble. The situation exploded in June 2014, when a superior court judge found the city wrongfully dismissed the general contractor  constructing the new city hall and the renovation of the old city hall into a provincial offences court.

It became known as the Urbacon affair and the current overrun cost to the municipality is $23 million.

Mr. Chairman, the result in the October civic election was the defeat of the mayor and four councillors who either quit or were defeated. This happened because the people were galvanized to bring about change in the operation of the city.

I regret that the two newspapers that Torstar owns in Guelph played so little role in this major political upheaval. Their phlegmatic approach reporting the news over those eight years, and their loyalty to the administration, did not go unnoticed. Record numbers of electors flooded the polls. Shortly after the election the editor of the Tribune retired.

So John, perhaps you ought to inform your Metroland group to grant real editorial independence and transparency to the Guelph Mercury and Tribune.

Otherwise your declaration of the newspaper’s first responsibility is to the local readers they serve, doesn’t wash in this part of the province.

Guelph is not Kitchener-Waterloo nor is K/W, Guelph.

I think you get the point.

Regards,

Gerry Barker

 

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