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November 25, 2009

The rise and fall of the National Post

Scott Stockdale

Scott StockdaleConrad Black’s objective was to give a national voice for Canada’s extremes, being pro-Israel, pro-war, anti-social programs, anti-natives, anti immigrants, and anti-Muslims.

The New York Times referred to the National Post as “Canada's cheeky conservative newspaper.”

Canadians knew that Black has an agenda.

The paper was built to promote policies, views and writers all working to change Canada into another American state.

But a newspaper is a business, and like any other business: it has to make money; and the National Post has lost money every year since its inception.

However, despite owing $139 million to CanWest Media, the holding company for some of CanWest Global's operating assets, the parent company announced a deal Friday October 1, to transfer ownership of the paper into its newspaper unit, to be known as CanWest Publishing Inc.

The Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Vancouver Sun, and Victoria Times-Colonist – all dominant publication in their markets – are part of this unit.

The other papers were put into a separate company called CanWest LP and converted into an income trust in 2005.

After much dithering, CanWest bought back the trust in May 2007, in what industry analysts said was one of several missteps by 45 year-old CanWest CEO Leonard Asper.

When Mr. Asper took control of the business from his father, the late Izzy Asper, in 1999, he inherited a business built using debt as an instrument.

Izzy Asper built the media empire from a small TV station in North Dakota, later moving it to Winnipeg; and over the next three decades built it into a television and print conglomerate across Canada and overseas.

In 2000, Izzy Asper bought the National Post from Conrad Black in two stages: he received a 50% stake in the newspaper as part of a $3.2 billion deal that included the purchase of Hollingers Inc.'s Canadian newspaper assets, and gained control of the newspaper when he bought the remaining 50% for $1, one year later.

Shortly after the Aspers gained control, many of the editorial staff Mr. Black had brought over from Britain exited rather quickly and the newspaper became even more right wing, evidenced, in part, by the departure of left wing columnist and longtime Conrad Black nemesis Linda McQuaig. 

Ms. McQuaig later said the Aspers were like the Clampetts, in the old TV show “The Beverly Hillbillies.” In other words, they were parvenus: people with money who didn't understand the subtleties of publishing newspapers.

Shortly after launching in 1998, I had some experience with some of the National Post's editorial staff's insular perspective.

After receiving a letter from one of their mid-level editors, David Walmsley, requesting short articles about regional activities, I submitted a number of stories that Mr. Walmsley approved; but said they were not for his department.

Subsequently, he told me to contact another editor he had forwarded them to and ask her why none of my stories were being published. She said: “I can't give you a reason why; just because they're not right.”

Before the Aspers got control of the paper, Conrad Black was asked why he would hire a columnist like Ms. McQuaig, whose views were diametrically opposed to his.

He replied that while he probably wouldn't enjoy reading her column, if the National Post only had articles that he liked, it would have a readership of one.

It appears that the Aspers had no such reservations, as they began exercising increasingly centralized control of the editorial content of, not only the National Post, but all the daily newspapers in their chain.

Some columnists and freelance contributors protested this autocratic management style and a few quit their high-priced jobs, but it wasn't until recent years that a number of high profile National Post columnists, including Andrew Coyne and Mark Steyn ended up at Maclean's Magazine, probably more for financial rather than editorial reasons.

Last year, upon returning to Canada after a two-year absence, I was shocked to see that the National Post was a shell of what it had been when I left.

The paper is much smaller now, with some of the sections combined; and the columnists, with the odd exception, are not nearly as incisive as they used to be.

Who at the National Post would dare write now, what then-columnist Andrew Coyne wrote, three years ago, about the Mulroney-Schreiber affair: “Nobody takes $200,000 in cash in a suitcase unless they're a mafia chieftain or the former Prime Minister of Canada.”

Currently CanWest still needs a new investor to contribute $65 million to complete the court-supervised recapitalization that began months ago, and federal government regulations say it must be a Canadian.

If federal media officials decide the recapitalization translates into a change of control of the media company, CanWest must make substantial contributions to a federal industry fund, so some think Mr. Asper remains at CanWest to satisfy those ownership rules. 

Although the National Post has lost over $60 million in the past four years, the annual loss has been steadily shrinking from $47 million in 2001 to $9.3 million last year.

Its Saturday October 31, front-page editorial, said the number is expected to come down further this year, and “As our online audience and revenues continue to grow, we will cross the line into profitability.”

The National Post editorial writers added that U.S.A. Today lost money in its first ten years of operation!

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto. 

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