So exclaims Humphrey Bogart's editor character, in the 1952 noir crime film Deadline—USA, co-starring Ethyl Barrymore, Kim Hunter, and Jim Backus (who more memorably if less seriously played Thurston Howell III, on Gilligan’s Island). It’s a great flick. I won’t tell you who or what may or may not end up in the morgue.
Flash forward a few decades, though, and it turns out it’s actually pretty easy to murder a newspaper—to murder an entire newspaper chain, in fact. It’s been happening since the ‘80s, before Big Tech, before online news, but not before greed, the driving force of capitalism, made its way into corporate boardrooms. Whether publicly traded or privately held, every newspaper company became susceptible to the lure of riches offered through leveraged buyouts and asset stripping.
As we saw last Friday, the latest Canadian casualty is Metroland Media, which, in the face of mounting losses and an inability to attract a last-minute sugar daddy, filed for creditor protection in bankruptcy court, announcing that it would immediately stop printing 71 community papers, including Niagara This Week.
The loss of 600-some jobs across the chain is genuinely lamentable, yet to some degree it was also preventable. As soon as printed news seriously started aping online news around the early 2000s, its eventual doom was foretold, its fate sealed, its ticket punched (stop me anytime).
Metroland’s corporate policy mirrored that of pretty much every chain in recent years—go online first, go to print second. This meant that stories were posted immediately to their newspapers’ websites, then they also ran in print at the end of the week. Do we see the problem here? Bueller? Anyone? Emphasis on the “also ran.” Correct—why would you bother to pick up a printed newspaper when you already knew what was in it, because you’d already read its contents online two or three or five days earlier.
That’s why we never did this with the Voice. Except in rare cases—missing kids, one cop shoots another—the Voice website did not break news. That was the newspaper’s job. That’s why Voice readers would be waiting at Avondales and grocery stores to pick up their copies as soon as they arrived on Tuesday mornings. The stories were fresh, not second-hand goods from the website.
I’ve gotten to know various Metroland reporters and editors over the years, and they are a talented bunch. Unfortunately, they weren’t running their parent company, and therefore couldn’t be held responsible for the almost comically inept websites they were saddled with, or for the abysmal graphic design of their newspapers—duplicated across the chain to save money. Reading Niagara This Week was an assault on your eyeballs. (For one thing, newspapers aren’t websites, and nothing about their design should look like a computer screen or smartphone.)
Yet even with all this working against them, arguably the proverbial death knell sounded this spring, when Metroland’s parent company and others in the industry successfully lobbied the federal government to create and pass Bill C-18, a deeply flawed “fix” for a problem that doesn’t exist. The appearance of news on Facebook and Instagram benefits the tech giants, sure, but it also benefits the news organizations sharing it, as well as the social media users reading it. When you shoot yourself in the foot, don’t be surprised at the resultant gangrene and amputation. And investor disinclination to lose any more cash.
Here’s something else that capitalism is good at: cannibalism, chowing down on the competition and spitting out the bones. Entire regulatory frameworks exist in democracies to curb this appetite, Teddy Roosevelt and the Trust-Busters, et al. That’s the big national picture. Locally it’s another story. Metroland was a few-holds-barred competitor for advertising dollars and by all appearances hoped to wipe out the few remaining Niagara weeklies. So while I’m empathetic about those lost jobs, the few tears I shed over the company’s Titanic troubles are of the crocodile variety.
Am I saying that the Voice would still be around now if Niagara This Week had gone belly-up a year ago? Nope. While Metroland could virtually give away ad space when they decided it was strategically useful, the fact is that it’s the tech giants who have come to dominate the ad business, even at the local level. Any print publication that depends on advertising to survive is not long for this world. The costs of materials and distribution are just too high to sustain.
Our friend Eve dropped by on Sunday and talk turned to her time in the newspaper business. She was a teenager, and liked hanging around the typesetters to watch them set the pages, reading the text upside down and backwards as easily as you’re reading these words now. These actually were typesetters, working with pieces of lead, because Eve is now 98 and this was during the war, in Nazi-occupied Holland.
Technology advanced, leaving lead typesetters behind as layouts moved to “paste-up”—the actual pasting of early laser-printed text onto cardboard. That’s what I learned in the late ‘70s. Then these machines were soon relics with the advent of the personal computer and desktop publishing from the late ‘80s until now. (From 2016, every edition of the Voice was produced on a single Mac laptop, 100 percent digitally.) My guess is that the written word itself is on its way out as video takes over all human communication, much to our collective intellectual detriment.
Eve came by because it was my 64th birthday, and she was dropping off a lovely tray of homemade cookies. Sixty-four doesn’t quite seem believable, and over the last several months I’ve been increasingly mindful of mortality. First we lost our beloved Labrador to sudden illness, then I was hospitalized again for an uncooperative small intestine. Zach Junkin’s passing at 38 still feels unreal. Then on Saturday I met with Tillie Clapp, Earl Clapp’s widow, to discuss how we might commemorate Earl’s death by manslaughter three years ago this October. Her account of these three years is sobering, yet another reminder that it can all be taken away in an instant.
Which naturally prompts a 64-year-old to ask how much longer he wants to keep working in a business that can be exhausting no matter how few hours he puts into it—I’ve been part-time for awhile now—and whether it might be time to relax with, say, pickleball or spelunking or taxidermy.
One of the first editors I worked for, a guy named Larry Bensky, warned me never to underestimate how exhausting it could be to deal with “self-righteous idiots” week in and week out. (He went on to become a journalism professor at U.C. Berkeley, so presumably there are thousands of others whom he similarly cautioned.) There are many other tiring and tiresome aspects of the job, of course, and burnout among reporters is rife, as was, historically, an over-reliance on distilled comfort under the care of qualified bartenders.
Adding to the winds of change is the recent notice provided by our star reporter Don Rickers that he and his spouse are months, possibly weeks away from decamping to Europe. As in permanently. (Another thing not to underestimate: How increasingly tough it is to find a competent news writer.)
Now, the phrase which my spouse has longed to see since about 15 minutes after I started at the Voice will not, I’m afraid, appear in this paragraph, or at least not worded how she would prefer. Yes, I see retirement ahead, but as of now it's still on the horizon. That said, this particular view changes by the week—sometimes farther away, sometimes close enough to see the rivets.
As for Metroland’s departure from print, there is one thing that we’ll definitely miss each Thursday and that is 95 percent of Niagara This Week by weight, namely the flyers. Yes, they’ve exited the flyer business as well, and speaking as a cranky 64-year-old, reading flyers on the web is the worst. See you next time.