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Black says papers should avoid refinery editorials, but not columns

August 27, 2012 4 comments

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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David Black – yes, that David Black – proposes $13 billion Kitimat refinery

August 17, 2012 4 comments

This week, David Black didn’t just wade into the whole Enbridge/Gateway Pipeline debate, he jumped up to his armpits into the thing by proposing to build a $13 billion refinery near Kitimat to process tar sands oil. The project would provide thousands of jobs. And because gas and diesel—the refinery’s output—is apparently safer than tar sands bitumen, it would decrease risks associated with tankers weaving through that narrow straight. I’d guess that it won’t satisfy environmentalists, but it might persuade northerners to decrease their opposition.

Black doesn’t have the money (obviously). But he says he’ll raise the cash and build the refinery through his company, Kitimat Clean Ltd.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact this has on Black Press’s editorial pages. A decade-plus ago, Black asserted his right to order his papers not to publish pro-Nisgaa Treaty editorials. As the Vancouver Sun‘s Jeff Lee reports in a profile on Black today, the B.C. Press Council said Black was within his rights to do so, since his order applied only to editorials.

But according to Lee’s piece: “Black said he’ll be in a publishing conflict in Kitimat and Terrace because he owns newspapers there, but he won’t tell the editors what to write in news or opinion pieces.”

You should read the full story, but here are three paragraphs of note:

His model for newspaper ownership — buy cheap or distressed properties, ruthlessly cut unnecessary staff, make budgets squeak and consolidate common services such as printing, accounting and human resources in regional centres — has wholly rewritten the newspaper industry in British Columbia and Washington. His Black Press Ltd. also owns daily newspapers in Hawaii, Ohio and Alberta and he also owns the San Francisco Examiner, once owned by Randolph Hearst. Between all of them his companies have a circulation of more than 2.8 million and an annual estimated income of more than half a billion dollars.

But for the first time in his business life, Black is stepping outside his area of expertise and is heading into a business that certainly no one else in Canada has recently been willing to try: building a state-of-the-art world class oil refinery, and in British Columbia, of all places.

Black, 66, said it doesn’t bother him that he doesn’t have the personal expertise it takes to build and run a refinery capable of processing 550,000 barrels of crude oil a day, especially Alberta oilsands crude. Why should he when he can hire that expertise? What he does have, he says, is a patriotic and passionate view that Canada needs to take control of its energy policy, a policy now driven by U.S. interests that stacks the odds against Canadian resource producers.

more…

Here’s a big story on the proposal that tells you pretty much all you need to know.

Here’s the website for Black’s company. He might be trying to raise billions of dollars of capital, but Black seems to think $500 was too much to spend on his business’s web presence.

Kitimat’s Northern Sentinel has a story on the proposal, but you can’t read it unless you’re a subscriber. That’s a definite flaw in the Black Press paywall: this news is everywhere. It makes no sense to have this huge breaking story behind the paywall. [UPDATE: it makes no sense especially when you can find the article on other Black Press sites. As commenters have pointed out, a story is available here.]

Also, leave a comment.

In which publishers complain/brag about layoffs

April 18, 2011 Comments off

Publishers sure are funny people.

Last week Alison Yesilcimen, the former head of the Okanagan Valley Newspaper Group, which runs the Kelowna Daily Courier and Penticton Herald sent out the following email:

Good morning…
During my time as President & CEO at The Okanagan Valley Newspaper Group, I encountered four major challenges facing the publishing industry;
    1. Reduced Staffing
    2. Declines in revenue
    3. Finding diverse rich content from non-traditional markets
    4. The restrictive costs and limitations associated with traditional newswire services
I always felt strongly there had to be a better way for publishers to buy and sell their content. This is what inspired me to create www.MediaCooler.com, a digital content marketplace that allows media companies to sell their content to non-competing media outlets and buy news, features, columns, and photos a-la-carte, from professional journalists throughout Canada.
Unlike subscription services, MediaCooler is free to join. Just register, search for desired content, embargo competing media outlets from purchasing the same content and click the Buy Now button. All purchases are securely processed through PayPal.
To sell your own content, just freely register, submit your content, embargo any competing media outlets and you’re done! Every time your content sells, you get paid instantly through PayPal. Create once, sell many.
Feel free to contact me directly with any questions or thoughts on the website at alison@mediacooler.com or 250-808-9994 or follow us on Twitter @MediaCooler.

Thanks in advance for your support!

Perhaps it’s my reporter’s permanent feeling of victimization talking, but it seems just a tad disinengenuous for the former publisher of one of the province’s leanest newspaper groups to talk about “encountering” that dastardly challenge of “reduced staffing.” Especially when Yesilcimen wasthe one who “reduced” staffing levels.

Oh yes, if only there was an easy way to address problems caused by “reduced staffing” that didn’t involve, you know, increasing staffing.

Is this too harsh? Perhaps.

But then, I just came across the resume of the former publisher of the Kootenay Advertiser, Lake District News, Terrace Standard. (I’m not sure why it’s listed on this site, but a similar one can be found through this portal.)

Here’s are the highlights from Rena A. Mlodecki-Walsh’s time with the Kootenay Adveritser:

Kootenay Advertiser, Cranbrook, B.C.  – 1997 to 2001

Publisher/Owner

*Purchased free distribution shopper with rack distribution of over 31,000

*Downsized staff from 28 to 14

*Managed a separate distribution centre that collated upwards of 25 flyers twice weekly

*Launched Friday edition and harnessed over $250 million in preprints

*Sold operation to my former boss, David Black in 2000 and remained Publisher until my relocation to Idaho in 2001

Looking at a publisher’s resume is revelatory.

First, let’s try to be kind here: most publisher’s in the last decade or so have probably had to lay people off. And Mlodecki-Walsh writes that she worked as a reporter/photographer 30 years ago at her first newspaper, in Brighton Ont. So she’s got that going for her. But at that Brighton paper, she was also responsible for pre-press and ad sales duties. So her sense of journalism ethics can’t be that high. She later calls that paper the “family business;” a Victor Mlodecki is cited as a reference and a vice-president of Irving Newspapers.

Here’s what a publisher (or this publisher, at least) doesn’t brag about: helping foster good journalism. Also not worth mentioning: hiring people.

Here’s what this publisher does brag about: buying a paper, laying off half the staff, then selling the trimmed-down operation to David Black.

Speaking of Black, he’s listed as a reference here, as is Bob Grainger.

The first B.C. Reporter book club-ish post (UPDATED)

April 14, 2011 1 comment

I’ve finally got a copy Mark Leiren-Young‘s Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, a memoir about Mark’s time as a rookie reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune in 1985-6.

The book won the 2009 Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, which is the single biggest prize out there for a writer who aspires to be funny. I know several other local journalists offered their take on the book when it was first released, but this blog wasn’t around back then and anyways, I only heard about it a couple months ago.

So, I’m 77 pages and can’t offer too much of a comment on it yet. But the book does touch on several characters that are sure to be familiar to an, ummm, “more experienced” generation of community reporters. I might as well take a swing at trying to ID one of them right away.

One figure whose already popped up is the publisher, named Stan. At the start of the book, Mark explains that “some real people are now what the lawyers like to call ‘composite characters’–in the hopes that my friends in the Cariboo will still talk to me after they read this, and to avoid giving my publisher’s lawyer a heart attack.”

Now I’m not sure about the life history of David Black, but from what I can surmise, it seems likely that he is one large component, but not all, of “Stan.” (If Black’s got an alibi for this, please, please, please leave a comment. I don’t want to go through this whole book thinking Stan is Black when that’s not the case.)

[UPDATE:  Someone has since left a comments suggesting (I think) that Bob Grainger may in fact be Stan. Given that I have no reason to believe otherwise, and that Grainger was the Cariboo Press GM in 1984 as shown here, I think it’s probably more likely than the proceeding speculation. By the way, whatever happened to Grainger? I can find no online trace of him online after 2008, including no retirement notice.]

Here’s why I think [thought] this:

Black, of course, built his chain around the Williams Lake Tribune, which he bought in 1979.  Stan, meanwhile, told Mark “he’d helped take over a few Ma and Pa operations and that’s how is chain now included almost two dozen newspapers.”

The quote that follows also sounds like it’s straight out of Black’s playbook.

“‘I don’t know anything about journalism,’ [Stan] boasted, ‘but I know how to make a profit.'”

Elsewhere, Stan hopes his new reporter isn’t too proud to write business profiles and reminds him that “advertising pays the freight around here.”

That sounds like Black’s philosophy, although it’s a pretty tin-eared way to greet a reporter who you want to stick around for any length of time.

The only things that make me think that Stan isn’t Black, are Mark’s physical descriptions of him.

Stan, for example, “was as big as he sounded on the phone” with a bushy moustache that belonged in the Old West. He also sounds like an older guy in his mid-50s, rather than his mid-30s, as Black would have been at the time. Today at least, Black’s not a very physically imposing guy.

Seventy-seven pages in, though, that’s about the only thing that has me believing that Stan isn’t David Black. I will report back later.

In the meantime, the book is an entertaining read, albeit one obviously written for a general, rather than journalist, audience. That’s not a bad thing, it just means that some of the funny tales Mark writes about are occurrences that repetition has caused at least this reporter to look at as routine, rather than out of the ordinary.

But while the book makes one want to head to the computer and pound out the last several years of humorous anecdotes accrued on the job, there’s probably not much point in trying. Mark’s way with language and a quip is such that even if you manage to do as well as him, you won’t be breaking much ground.

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This blog had more visitors in March than any previous months. It’s still a one-person show, though, so any help would be great. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter (at) gmail (dot) com.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll shamefully update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

Black Press made $17.9 million (US) last year

March 5, 2011 Comments off

The Hawaii Reporter, umm, reports that Black Press made $17.9 million (US) last year:

An earnings report filed by Torstar Corp., which owns almost one-fifth of Black Press, shows the Victoria, British Columbia-based Black Press had an about $17 million profit excluding impairment charges during 2010. That compared with about $12.9 million of earnings in 2009.

The year was a busy one for Black Press, which publishes more than 100 weekly and daily newspapers and shoppers. It bought more than a dozen newspapers, at least four of which it closed.

more…

The Reporter is interested in Black Press because those purchased included the Honolulu Advertiser, which it “merged with its Honolulu Star-Bulletin to create the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. In the process it fired more than 450 people as CEO David Black combined the operations while hiking advertising rates and prices for commercial printing at his Kapolei press.”

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Meanwhile, the rating of Postmedia’s debt — or, rather, a portion of its debt — was raised from horrible, to merely bad — or something like that.

A public offering of the company’s stock this year will take place sometime before August, at which point life could get better for its employees.

Twelve resolutions for the New Year

December 30, 2010 Comments off

Most papers are still stuck in that Year In Review/no new news wasteland. That and my chocolate-turkey-wine spritzer hangover mean that posts will continue to be sparse until something noteworthy happens and/or papers get back to their day-to-day operations.

If I had been running this blog for a year, I’d come up with a top 10 list. But I haven’t. (And unless I get some help, I probably never will).

Still, when all else fails this time of year, there are still those New Year’s Resolutions.

Like rules and Tim Hunter‘s nose, resolutions are made to be broken.

But I’ll ignore that little fact.

Below you’ll find stock resolutions for reporters, photographers, editors and publishers, David Black and Paul Godfrey.

Reporter:

I will never lede with the statement that the representatives of a municipal council, school board or regional district. By doing so, I will acknowledge that the meeting is not news. What was said at the meeting is.

I will, when given the opportunity, name names of wrongdoers when documents can be found to back up one’s story.

I will look, and use, documents.

I will file at least one Freedom of Information request this year, even if it’s of the frivolous, fishing-expedition nature.

I will write in the active voice.

I will use narrative.

I will be funny.

Photographer:

I will sit on a football, soccer or rugby field instead of standing.

I will purposely tilt my camera at an angle during a portrait shoot, just to see what happens.

I will carry a step ladder in the back of my car — and actually use it.

Editor:

I will not write an editorial that does not make an argument.

I will not run a grip-and-grin on the front page.

I will not ask a reporter to write a business story that reeks of lame-ness.

I will hound the publisher for more resources.

Publisher:

If I do not have an editorial background, I will ackowledge that fact and step away from the newsroom.

I will grow a thick skin.

I will recognize that car dealers are largely slimy bastards who  will push and push until they feel push-back.

Paul Godfrey:

I will repent for forcing SwarmJam on newsrooms.

I will acknowledge the fact that I own community newspapers and that they are profitable.

I will sell the newspapers to someone who cares.

If that proves too much, I will send some sign that I am grateful for their work.

I will restore in-company award banquets and competitions as a way to promote and foster better journalism. I’ll throw in free booze, for the winners (and the losers).

David Black:

I will acknowledge the fact that I own newspapers and not a series of presses that happen to print editorial content.

I will make clear to publishers that they are not to fire editors who piss off advertisers (i.e. I will grow a pair).

Failing that, I will follow in another Black’s footsteps by buying up cratering American papers, going bankrupt and selling all of my papers to someone new.

I will also restore in-company award banquets and competitions as a way to promote and foster better journalism. And I too will throw in free booze, for the winners (and the losers).

Have you made a resolution? Leave a comment.

Photo by Jeff Golden via Flickr.

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Help keep this blog running for weeks to come by becoming a link farmer. It’s easy, quick and the pay is shite. E-mail bclocalreporter@gmail.com. Also, take the poll on the right. It’s free. Lucky you.

Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment and I’ll duly update the post.

We’re making inroads into our census of B.C. community newspapers, but there are still a lot of blanks in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. How many journalists work at your paper? How often do you come out? Who’s your publisher? Participation is free! The benefits unlimited! The exclamation points boundless!

Online amateurs

December 9, 2010 Comments off

Community newspaper bosses have become obsessed with the Internet in recent years.

“The Web!” they scream. “Post to the web! Video, slide shows, photo galleries. This is your new job.”

Behind it all, however, has been a determined reluctance to hire the number, or quality, of web-savvy producers required to achieve such a goal. You can count on one hand the beleaguered folks who post stories to the web for the two largest major B.C. paper chains. And unfortunately, they’re so swamped with plugging holes and shovelling news that they don’t have time to ensure the websites are actually as forward-thinking as the 50- and 60-year-old Luddite executives they work for think they are.

As today’s example of untapped technology, let’s consider the RSS feed of BC Local News, the hub of David Black’s digital empire. As I started this site, I hoped to add RSS feeds for all the Black Press papers so as to be able to monitor the stories being written and, hopefully, point to the good and the bad.

(RSS feeds for the uninitiated allow readers of blogs or news sites to have new content–or portions thereof–sent to a centralized hub as soon as they are published, where they can be read alongside the consumer’s other subscribed to sites.)

But when I first went to subscribe to the overarching BC Local News site, no matter what I did, I was signed up for the “Kootenay Rockies” subscription. Even after I figured out how to independently subscribe to each individual region (Hint, go to Bookmarks > Subscribe To This Page > Region of choice), the feeds were still useless. Every single article and cutline is posted, each with a title. But most (although, mysteriously, not all) don’t include so much as an introductory sentence or blurb that would give me a sense of what may be behind the sometimes mysterious headline or kicker.

Postmedia sites are better. Barely. To subscribe to the Postmedia websites there is a link, way at the bottom of the page, for “Sitemap/RSS.” At the sitemap you can subscribe to various RSS feeds. But it takes some serious navigation and I only found the feeds after significant searching.

Granted most people don’t know what an RSS feed is. But that is surely not helped when an industry that would benefit from the subscription model don’t even understand the potential of the technology. And there are readers out there if you can properly access them. The Kamloops Daily News feed only has 11 subscribers who use Google Reader to access the site. But the blog of that same paper’s sports editor, Greg Drinnan, has 109 subscribers through Google Reader. Given that Drinnan’s blog has no easy-to-find RSS button, those subscribers likely have above-average levels of computer literacy. But these are the young readers newspapers are trying, but failing, to target.

I know what you’re thinking: newspapers can’t make advertising dollars if people only read their content on, say, Google Reader. That’s true.  But RSS feeds don’t have to provide all of a site’s content. The best technique is the one in which a site provides a paragraph or two–the lede or a nut graph–that entices a reader click the “more” icon and follow through to the site. This, for example, is the Burnaby Now RSS feed. And this is the Lillooet-Bridge River News feed. Neither feed scoops the paper, and both would be useful to readers if they weren’t so hard to find and if they were educated on how to use them.

For an industry that was once based on the subscription model—and which hopes to prosper from the Internet revolution—this seems like a massive oversight from both chains. Glacier deserves kudos. There is a gigantic “follow” button, which includes RSS, at the top of most (but not all, unfortunately) pages. Each feed also relays the first paragraph, rather than the first sentence, of each story.

For me, the lack of reliable RSS feeds makes it a pain in the ass to monitor community newspapers in British Columbia. And the one thing a newspaper doesn’t want to be these days is a pay in the ass.

You can sign up for this blog’s RSS feed by moving your mouse over the RSS icon at the top of the sidebar. You can either click the icon, or choose a provider like Google to handle your feeds. I recommend using Google Reader to monitor multiple feeds, but you can always save the feed as a like your run of the mill bookmark.

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Have I made an error? It wouldn’t be the first time. Leave a comment (the button’s up top by the headline) and I’ll duly update the post.

Seen something else I should know about? Want to write a post? Have better photos than the Creative Commons Flickr pool ones I use? E-mail bclocalreporter(at)gmail.com.

Help complete a census of B.C. community newspapers by filling in the blanks for your newspaper in the Journo-lust Spreadsheet. 

Photo courtesy of Robert Scoble via Flickr
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