Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver's Newspaper Monopoly

Marc Edge

Almost any way you look at it, Vancouver's daily newspaper monopoly, Pacific Press (now known as the Pacific Newspaper Group) is a quirky place. The company was created in a 1957 deal between the Southam chain's Province and the independently owned Sun. Federal regulators ruled it an illegal combination, but allowed it to stand. Since then, every major owner of Canadian newspapers - from Federated Papers (FP) Publications to Thomson to Southam to Hollinger to CanWest Global - has had a hand in the company.

Between them, the Sun and Province have employed some of the greats and not-so-greats of Canadian journalism - from the admirable (Bruce Hutchison, Max Bell, and Stuart Keate) to the ambitious (Allan Fotheringham, Gerry Haslam); from the strange (Ormond Turner, Doug Collins) to the tragic (Harvey Southam). As a workplace, the company has been home to some of the most active and aggressive union locals in Canada. Labour strife has been a constant. But following a consolidation ordered by the British Columbia Labour Relations Board in the mid-1990s, the entire workforce now belongs to a single local. This means Pacific Press now has a level of labour convergence unprecedented in Canadian newspapers.

An interesting place, no doubt, but a quirky one. Marc Edge, a long-time reporter at Pacific Press and now an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Sing-apore, has written a history of the company that is almost as interesting and quirky as the company itself. The book began as Edge's dissertation at E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, for which he won the American Journalism Historians Association Doctoral Dissertation Prize. It is an "unauthorized story" in that the company in no way contributed to it. The story is told in 21 meticulously researched but relatively short chapters, organized more or less in chronological order, starting in 1957 and running through 1991. The ending date coincides with the decision to move the Sun to morning publication. This means it stops short of Conrad Black's takeover of Southam (and most of the rest of the daily newspaper business in Canada). However, Edge touches briefly on the Black era, as well as on the subsequent sale of the Southam dailies to CanWest Global.

Each chapter is a pastiche of people and events. Chapters typically include a short magazine-style profile of a prominent individual, a section on the state of labour unrest in the particular period the chapter covers, and a discussion of management changes, the state of the business, circulation wars, challenges from rival newspapers, tales from the political reporting front, and so on.

The chapters are well written and engaging, full of gossipy anecdotes about the petty rivalries and personal peccadilloes of a range of interesting characters, as well as substantive material on business decisions. But the structure means that important narrative or analytical threads end up meandering in and out of several chapters. For example, the Southam and Thomson shutdowns of, respectively, the Winnipeg Tribune and Ottawa Journal in 1980 appear near the end of chapter 16, which is titled "Black Wednesday" in recognition of the shutdowns but concentrates mainly on Ken Thomson. Chapter 17, entitled "The Ayatollah," begins with a brief profile of Clark Davey, who became publisher of the Vancouver Sun in 1980 and earned that nickname for his management style. (His other nickname, Edge reminds us, was Waldo.) The chapter then details management changes at the Province. The middle of the chapter describes the creation of the Royal Commission on Newspapers, in response to the shutdowns of the Journal and Tribune, and the charges of conspiracy that were subsequently laid against Thomson and Southam. The chapter then moves on to an account of the final days of the Columbian, a rival to Pacific Press. The story of the conspiracy charges reappears late in chapter 18. But first, Edge presents a lengthy section on Province publisher Gerry Haslam's ideas for remaking the newspaper, followed by an analysis of Southam's decision to turn it into a tabloid. The chapter ends with a discussion of the 1984 Pacific Press strike, which lasted from March to May. The storytelling reflects the chronology in which these events occurred. But for the reader, it can be jarring. Given the number of characters, editorial crises, labour disputes, and failed competitors, it's easy for the big ideas that frame the analysis to get lost in the minutiae.

The big ideas are there, however. Edge's preface presents his book as a case study of the adverse effects of removing competition from the marketplace of ideas (p. xxiv). He amplifies this idea in his first chapter, describing Pacific Press as a case where "a government-sanctioned monopoly proved such a financial disaster that it contributed to the demise of one newspaper chain and by 1991 was threatening the ownership of another" (p. 11). His final chapter contends that Pacific Press illustrates both the phenomenon of corporate ownership and the rise of marketing as the fundamental mission of newspapers, then adds that labour strife did "as much as anything to diminish the franchise for daily newspapers in Vancouver" (p. 375). The pages between the first and last chapters offer ample evidence to support all these strands of argumentation, and many others besides.

The chapters also sketch out a pattern of large egos and small minds, of individuals who were so hard-headed or so short-sighted - or perhaps both - that at times it seems the newspapers survived almost in spite of them. And this is an area Edge does not address - at least, not directly. Were these individuals the product of the monopoly, or its chief beneficiaries? Were they the victims of its flaws, or the engineers of them? It's hard to tell. Indeed, one of the genuine strengths of Edge's book is that it portrays Pacific Press as a place that defies easy answers or simplistic explanations. Nevertheless, it is clear that the company is a living example of the tensions between the ideals of a free press and the demands imposed by corporate ownership - be it Southam, Hollinger, CanWest, or any other corporation. Unchecked corporate control over the news, Edge argues, "has proven a disservice to the community and, ultimately, to the owners of the press" (p. xxiv). And, his book shows, to the citizens who rely on newspapers for information about their world.



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