The following was published online in The Future of Local News: Research and Reflections, Ryerson University.
The number of paid circulation daily newspapers in Canada fell between 2010 and 2016 mostly due to a series of closures and mergers by two British Columbia chains. Black Press and Glacier Media engaged in a number of transactions, including trades, which were usually followed by newspaper closures or mergers. Including non-daily community newspapers, Black Press and Glacier Media have closed or merged twenty-four of the thirty-three titles they exchanged from 2010-2014, or a competitor one of them already owned. While this would appear to be classic anti-competitive behaviour, these dealings have gone without challenge from the federal Competition Bureau. The earnings of both Black Press and Glacier Media increased in 2016 after several years of decline, which suggests the companies’ strategic trade-and-close strategy improved their bottom lines. This case study points up the laxity of Canada’s antitrust laws in dealing with newspaper mergers and takeovers.
Keywords: Newspapers, Black Press, Glacier Media, Competition Bureau, local news, media competition
Canada’s newspaper industry was convulsed yet again in late 2017 when the country’s two largest chains traded 41 titles in Ontario and closed almost all of them, creating dozens of local monopolies. The dealings by Postmedia Network and Torstar Corp. prompted the federal Competition Bureau to launch an investigation (Krashinsky Robertson, 2017). It had been criticized for allowing industry dominant Postmedia, which was owned mostly by U.S. hedge funds, to take over in 2014 Sun Media, then the country’s second-largest newspaper chain. Swaps and closures similar to the Postmedia-Torstar deal had gone without challenge in British Columbia since 2010, however, which may set a precedent preventing the Competition Bureau from rolling back the Ontario trade and closures. This chapter presents evidence suggesting that the closure of local dailies in B.C. after transactions between Glacier Media and Black Press amounted to collusion aimed at boosting the financial fortunes of those organizations. It analyses primary sources in the form of industry data and financial reports in an effort to explain the elimination of newspaper competition in B.C. since 2010. As such it hopes to provide some needed context for the Ontario dealings under federal review.
A seemingly inexorable trend toward local monopoly has defined the newspaper industry for the past half century due to its inherently large economies of scale and high barriers to entry (Bagdikian, 1983). Once a monopoly is achieved, advertising rates and circulation prices can be raised at will, resulting in increased profits (Lacy & Simon, 1993). As one economist who studied Canadian newspapers noted: “These price effects are so powerful that they provide ample motivation for the long and steady trend to newspaper mergers and takeovers” (Kerton, 1973, p. 605). Vigilant antitrust oversight is thus required to preserve competition in this industry, which is vital to political discourse. That has historically been lacking in Canada (Edge, 2016).
Recent newspaper industry consolidation in North America has been justified in large part by a persistent “death” narrative. Advertising revenues flowing to newspapers began to decline in the mid-2000s, and the trend accelerated with the 2008-09 recession. Print advertising revenues dropped by 63 percent at U.S. newspapers between 2006 and 2013, and by 36 percent at Canadian newspapers (Edge, 2014). Despite a steep decline in their earnings as a result, however, financial data showed that newspaper companies continued to enjoy healthy operating profit margins by making deep cost cuts (Edge, 2014; Edge, 2017; Herndon, 2015; Van der Burg & Van den Bulck, 2017). One 2012 study found that newspapers exaggerated the declines by creating “a false impression that the whole industry is ‘dying’ . . . when in fact they are doing well in small U.S. markets” (Chyi, Lewis, & Zheng, 2012, p. 316). The death of newspapers has nonetheless been assumed by many to be ongoing as a result of the closure of numerous titles and the bankruptcy of some major chains. The bankruptcies have invariably been a result of high levels of debt taken on in making pre-recession acquisitions, however, which owners were then unable to service with reduced earnings. The firms were otherwise profitable, and they continued to publish newspapers under reorganized, less indebted ownership (Edge, 2014).
Closures have often been attributed by owners to a lack of profitability, but such claims can rarely be verified because earnings for individual titles are not often available in company financial reports. Profitability can thus only be inferred from overall results, and it has undeniably been falling in what was once among the most lucrative of all industries. A pattern of closures of competing titles to create more profitable monopoly markets, however, suggests possible collusion between owners to boost their bottom lines.
Newspaper closures in Canada
The number of paid daily newspapers in Canada was stable for decades at around 100 until the recession of 2008-09, when several minor titles fell by the wayside. The Halifax Daily News, that city’s second-place newspaper, was closed in 2008 but immediately resurrected as an edition of the free commuter tabloid Metro (Morrissy, 2008). In Manitoba, the Flin Flon Reminder reduced its publication frequency to thrice weekly in 2009, while in Ontario the Cobourg Star and the Port Hope Evening Guide merged as Northumberland Today. That brought the number of paid dailies in Canada to 96, and despite widespread predictions of the death of newspapers as a medium the number stabilized over the next few years. A series of closures by two B.C. chains since 2010, however, helped to drop the number into the low 80s by 2016. News Media Canada data show that of the thirteen paid daily newspapers that were closed, merged, or changed publication frequency in Canada between 2010 and 2016, nine were published in B.C. and owned by Black Press (six) or Glacier Media (three). (See Table 1)
Table 1 – Daily Newspaper Closures in Canada 2010-16
Title Prov. Owner Circulation* Notes
1. Prince Rupert Daily News BC Black Press 2,800 closed 7/10
2. Nelson Daily News BC Black Press 3,300 closed 7/10
3. Portage LaPrairie Graphic MB Quebecor 2,088 weekly 3/13
4. Amherst Daily News NS Transcontinental 2,593 weekly 8/13
5. Kamloops Daily News BC Glacier Media 9,235 closed 1/14
6. Dawson Creek News BC Glacier Media 1,470 merged 2/14
7. Alberni Valley Times BC Black Press 3,088 closed 10/15
8. Guelph Mercury ON Torstar Corp. 9,371 closed 1/16
9. Nanaimo Daily News BC Black Press 3,898 closed 1/16
10. Alaska Highway News BC Glacier Media 2,143 weekly 3/16
11. Cranbrook Daily Townsman BC Black Press 2,485 3Xweek 4/16
12. Kimberley Daily Bulletin BC Black Press 1,204 3Xweek 4/16
13. Fort McMurray Today AB Postmedia 1,722 weekly 11/16
* average paid daily circulation
Source: News Media Canada
These two companies have bought, sold, and traded newspapers back and forth in a series of transactions that were usually followed – immediately or eventually – by the closure of competing titles. All of the daily newspapers lost in B.C. this decade were owned either by Glacier Media or Black Press. Most of the dailies that have been closed in Canada since 2010 suffered that fate soon after Glacier Media or Black Press acquired it from the other.
David Black began buying community newspapers in the Interior of B.C. in 1975 and then on Vancouver Island, where he soon owned twenty-one titles. His company Black Press bought a chain of thirty-three B.C. and Alberta newspapers in 1997 from UK-based Trinity International Holdings which doubled its annual revenues and made it for a time Canada’s largest publisher of non-daily newspapers (Verburg, 1998). In 2002, Black sold a 19.35 percent interest in his company for $20 million to Torstar, his former employer, with the understanding it could acquire the rest when the 57-year-old Black retired (Blackwell, 2003). Black broke into the major metropolitan daily newspaper business in 2001 by buying the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, then added the larger Honolulu Advertiser in 2010 and merged them as the Star-Advertiser (Wilson, 2010). Advertising rates soon soared in this monopoly, according to Hawaii Business magazine, with prices “sometimes doubling or tripling” (Burris & Creamer, 2011). Black Press was also controversial for its business practices in Canada. In 1998, it ordered its newspapers to editorially oppose a treaty between the B.C. government and the Nisga’a native band because Black claimed an advertising campaign urging its ratification was one-sided and misleading. The B.C. Press Council dismissed a complaint about the edict, however, ruling that “the right to direct editorial policy rests with the owner” (McCulloch, 1999). In 2007, Black Press fired a Victoria News reporter after local auto dealers complained about a story he wrote on how to buy a car in the U.S. (Holman, 2007). By 2017, Black Press was the largest publisher of non-daily newspapers in B.C., with 91 titles circulating almost two million copies a week. It ranked third nationally behind only Transcontinental and Torstar’s Metroland division (News Media Canada, 2017).