Thursday, August 07, 2008

The National Post can't stand alone

Speculation on the possible sale of the perennially money-losing National Post has been running rife of late, with far more people than those that actually read it mulling over its fate.

Lawrence Martin says the Post’s sale would be politically ground shaking
, particularly if a Liberal such as Senator Jerry Grafstein picks it up, given the Post’s long-held Conservative bent (it tried single handedly to bring Jean Chretien down with the manufactured Shawinigate scandal – Jean actually gained seats in the next election). But then again, we heard the same thing when the Liberally-connected Aspers bought the Post, so who knows.

And in the Post itself, Jonathan Kay says the death of the Post will somehow be the death of print journalism, and the opening of the drawbridge to the unwashed blogging hordes. Actually no Jonathan, the death of the Post won’t be the death of print journalism. Heck, as much as I’d wish it so, the death of the Post won’t even be the death of really bad print journalism. Just the death of a really bad newspaper.

If I could put my business journalist fedora on for a moment though, I have trouble seeing a standalone sale of the National Post being likely, even for peanuts, as I just don’t see a business case. No one is likely to write a cheque if they can't see a path to profitability.

Now, one part of Conrad Black’s decision to found the National Post, after Thomson wouldn’t sell him the Globe and Mail, was definitely vanity. He wanted a national pulpit to take on, and take down, the dastardly Liberals and to espouse all his closely-held Conservative ideals, such as, oh, delicious irony, cracking-down on crime and attacking lenient judges and sentencing.

Vanity aside though, while I’m no Conrad fan I wouldn’t consider him a dumb businessman, and the Post was about business. Mainly, advertising business. Southam owned most of the daily newspapers across the country, and at least one (sometimes two) in every major market except one, the biggest one: Toronto.

More than vanity, the Post was about getting a foothold in the Toronto market and allowing Southam’s ad sales teams to be able to sell advertisers a national ad package in papers from coast to coast. To be taken seriously, that package had to include Toronto.

The National Post was a national newspaper in name only. That’s even more true today, with the Post having disappeared from many markets. It has always been a Toronto paper. And it has failed to compete in this market, which was already saturated before it arrived.

Even though it has lost money from day one, in the context of a Southam or a CanWest, the Post made some sense as a loss-leader, given the already discussed advertising considerations and the prestige factor of being in the nation’s largest market. For CanWest today though, given the tightening media market overall, and the Post’s continual cash hemorrhaging, clearly the losses now outweigh benefit of having a Toronto paper in their ad package, unless they hope to work out an ad sales deal with the new ownership.

Which is why a sale makes even less sense. Well, getting rid of it makes sense. But, subtract the need to have a Toronto paper in a national ad buy, who would want to buy the National Post.
Perhaps another chain needing their own Toronto media market, but what chain would that be?

With consolidation there are few other conglomerates of any size left in the print world. The only one with national scope is Bell GlobeMedia, and they have the Globe. On a more regional level there’s TorStar, but they have the Toronto Star. Black Press is confined to the West. The Irvings have some papers in the Maritimes.

That leaves the possibility of operating the Post as a stand-alone entity. And as I said, it’s essentially a Toronto paper, and in this market it’d be going up against the Star, Sun, Globe, and subway freebies. And in every other market, it would now have to compete with the Canwest dailies (Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Calgary Hearld and so on). And a new owner would have to hire staff across the country if it wanted to continue pretending to be a national paper. The Post relied heavily on content from its Canwest cousins. Either that would change, or a healthy fee would be extracted by CanWest for “wire” access.

If the Post wasn’t a viable business in the context of a national chain needing ads in the Toronto market, its far less viable as a standalone paper. Just what would the business model be?

As much as it pains me as a journalist to say this in an era when jobs in my field are scarce, it makes more sense to just shut the doors and sell the assets. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

EDITED TO ADD: One scenario that could possibly work: buy it cheap, dump everything but the business section, and revert to being the Financial Post. That's what the paper was before Conrad bought it and wrapped news, sports and arts around it. But could a business daily survive in the Internet age, and in Canada/Toronto? I frankly doubt it. It would be a slightly less crazy scenario though.

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bigcitylib said...

It is hard to see a postive outcome to this.

TO Sun's in pretty bad shape, in that their free paper is apparently cannibalizing their ad revenue, but at least that end of the business is working for them.

Cliff said...

I was going to post exactly the scenario you added at the end. A slimmer, pricier, beefed up Financial Post only. One way or another expect that more than any other long term result aside from it folding completely, no matter if it stays in the Asper's hands or not.

They can always keep a token editorial page to continue portraying all Israeli settlers as peaceful saints and all Muslims as subhuman savages who want to make Jews wear yellow badges - seemingly their number one preoccupation for years.

BlastFurnace said...

I agree with you and Cliff. The FP was a fine paper as it was, and when it was under the ownership of the Toronto Sun . It held its own against the G&M's Report on Business, and on occasion it was the paper I picked up over the other papers from TO.

But when you get consumed by vanity, as first Mr. Black and now the Aspers have, you naturally carry it to its logical conclusion. The contrarian editorial stances of the NP were fine reads at first but it's gotten way past ridiculous, if that's the best they can do to stay alive. If the FP ends up going down along with its present parent it would be a huge loss -- even with all the online biz content out there.

Jennifer Smith said...

Goodbye and good riddance. Now maybe my ex-Progressive Conservative dad can go back to reading the Globe & Mail.

The Rat said...

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manner of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

By the way, Jeff, How is Computer World doing? Seems to me Kay is lamenting a hell of lot more than the Natty Post, but your other commenter seem a little to wrapped up in themselves to have noticed.

Cliff said...

We aren't watching the deaths of all newspapers - just one crappy one. The print journalism field is in serious trouble but there are papers holding on to and even growing their audiences.

When the Western Standard closed their doors there was similar 'Any independent media voice going under is a tragedy' moans. I found it unpersuasive then and still do.

Both the Standard and the National Pest were and are pushers of a kind of capitalist absolutism that demands that every human activity be subject to market forces. In the marketplace of ideas their toxic stew of rightwing politics and economics has now failed first at the Standard and at the Pest.

Live by market absolutism, die by market absolutism.

Jeff said...

Rat I'm actually now with another mag in the same company, but overall we're doing fine. It's all about moving online these days, but print is still the flagship/brand to get the online eyes. Thanks to some market consolidation dead tree edition is doing alright.

And Cliff I agree, print isn't dying. There may be some further whittling down, and those that don't adapt will perish, but that's survival of the fittest. Print as a medium isn't going anywhere.

The Rat said...

"Rat I'm actually now with another mag in the same company, but overall we're doing fine."

I've been getting the online edition. Hadn't seen an article by you in a while. What are you writing about now?

Jeff said...

I'm covering the channel with CDN.