Home > Industry stuff > Black says papers should avoid refinery editorials, but not columns

Black says papers should avoid refinery editorials, but not columns

August 27, 2012

It’s unfortunate that I’ve been too busy to post at the exact moment most British Columbians realize Black Press is not run by that guy named Conrad. But such is life.

Whatever the case, I need to point to a couple of articles that have come out in the past week.

First, the Globe and Mail ran a Q&A between Ian Bailey and Black, which included Black’s views on his newspapers publishing of pro- or con- editorials on the refinery. The entire interview is worth reading, but here’s the most interesting part:

I do think that the editorial itself, the unsigned editorial itself in a paper, is a grey area, a confusing area. I would hope if my editors want to write opinion pieces against it or even for it that they do so in an opinion columns and op-ed pieces and so on where it’s clear who’s writing it. If you do it otherwise in the editorials, you confuse them. Here’s the owner saying one thing, and the editorial says another. Who owns this paper and who’s responsible for it? Editorials are an area that we’ve got to be careful in. Other than that, they’re welcome to do whatever they want.

This is interesting in light of his earlier ban on papers running pro-Nisga’a Treaty editorials a decade or so ago. I feel like I should dislike Black’s position here, and yet I kind find myself in agreement with him. This is such a unique case, that it demands unique treatment. It’s also worth acknowledging that unsigned editorials are less understood by the public than those who write them think, and they do have the power to confuse. E.g.: if Black owns a paper, and the paper’s editorial line is rabidly against (or rabidly for) some aspect of the pipeline, it could be interpreted that the editorial reflects the personal opinion of Black — who now carries the weight of being a lead proponent of a HUGE project in the area. Black is not innocent here, though. By wading into the Nisga’a controversy with his editorial ban, he forever tied his personal views to those expressed within his papers’ editorials, even if he clearly has little effect on his papers’ day-to-day editorials.

[It’s also, perhaps, a time to reflect on the relevance of the unsigned editorial at small newspapers. Many daily newspapers have editorial boards that collectively determine a newspaper’s stance. Local newspapers often have a couple journalists who might write editorials (and therefore determine a paper’s “position”) based on who draws a short straw or who has a little extra time on their hands that day. But that’s a topic for another day.]

Secondly, Vancouver Sun reporter Jeff Lee — on the heels of his profile of Black — posted to his Civic Affairs blog in order to add comments by Black that didn’t make it into the original story. The comments primarily relate to the state of daily newspapers. But there’s also these quotes by Black:

There are some other things that are bloody obvious in the industry. There is NO money to be made in the digital side. You do not want to let any subscribers, if you can avoid it, leave your print product and go over to the digital side, so get paywalls in place. And there are still guys who haven’t done that.”

(Despite that, Black says a “digital first strategy” makes sense, in some cases.) [BCRR note: this is Lee]

“Akron and Honolulu, which are our biggest newspapers, have real good websites. But I am just saying there is not a lot of money to be made and there is some expense to do that and the price of the advertising on the websites is low. Unfortunately, the price is dropping all the time. And I’ll tell you why. The main reason is it doesn’t work for our clients.

If you are in Burns Lake, you have to buy the weekly newspaper. Not all the papers are free. It depends on where they are. Certainly in the suburbs they are free but in most of the small towns we are selling them for about a buck a copy and most people will buy that because for a dollar a week you are staying up with all the news in town.”

Finally, the Georgia Straight’s Charlie Smith assails the Terrace Standard for not covering the refinery/pipeline goings on in the precise way as he would have done. Smith, I think, is looking for some meddling by Black.

The overall impression I’ve gleaned from the website is that it’s okay to publish articles that quote local critics of the refinery plan, but don’t run anything that might make readers question Black’s business acumen.

Nor is there any look at Black’s proposal as public-relations hocus-pocus done in cahoots with the Liberal government to persuade more British Columbians to support Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Project.

I’m hoping that an enterprising SFU communications student conducts a more complete content analysis of how Black Press papers have covered this $13-billion refinery proposal by the company’s owner.

It would make for fascinating reading—particularly if it examined self-censorship by journalists who don’t want to rile the boss after one of their colleagues was thrown overboard.

Feel free to disagree, but I don’t think it’s possible for the Standard, with its three-person newsroom (correct???), to appease Smith, or produce the sort of investigatory takedown he seeks.

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  1. Anonymous
    August 27, 2012 at 2:00 pm

    Is anyone else confused by the “thrown overboard” bit at the end of the Straight piece? Not to downplay the massive suckage of editorial cutbacks, but it’s not clear from that link that this was anything more sinister than a good journalist losing her job because she needed to be paid in money rather that, I dunno, Safeway fliers?

    Unless there’s gossip I am missing?

    • August 27, 2012 at 2:13 pm

      Totally agree. And I very, very, very much doubt you’re missing any juicy gossip. Very.

  2. JR Ewing
    August 27, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Combined, David Black owns a bigger newsroom than any daily in BC; why doesn’t he have an editorial board to determine and write the company’s unsigned editorials for distribution to the papers to use as they need them? That would surely eliminate the “grey area” and take a bit of the load off overworked, understaffed newsrooms.

  3. August 27, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Just saw the piece from the Straight before coming here and agree with you that a three-person newsroom would make it challenging to do that sort of work. Also wanted to point out that even though that editorial mentioned is accessible from the Standard’s site, it was a piece posted to the Nanaimo News Bulletin’s site, and signed by the Victoria News. So it wasn’t written by anyone up this way. (The same piece can be viewed going to my paper’s site, the Northern Sentinel.)

    And just as an aside, on the issue of editorials/columns, my paper’s opinions are always signed by the author. Last editor started that up after finding people were a lot more engaged in the paper’s opinions when they knew it was actually written here.

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