Dark Days at Black Press

October 4, 2007
in Category: Articles, Media
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There’s a good chance many of you haven’t heard about the recent ugly “purges” at Black Press. That, however, is not due to any dearth of journalists yearning to divulge every detail. Most reporters have been talking about it; with few exceptions, they just aren’t being allowed to report it.

Black Press is local mogul David Black’s company which owns the Victoria News, Oak Bay News, Saanich News, Monday Magazine and some 70 other BC newspapers.

Since new publisher Penny Sakamoto and president Mark Warner came aboard, there’s been a steady exodus of staffers this year. At a recent Movie Monday showing of “The Paper“, Black Press journalists Keith Norbury and Patrick Blennerhassett replicated the movie’s complaints about increasing budget pressures and disappearing lines separating editorial content from advertiser influences.

This real-world tale climaxed in August.

“Public Eye” and CFAX journalist Sean Holman broke the story. It seems the Victoria News ran an article about a local woman who’d saved a whack of money buying a second-hand car in the big-market, weakening-dollar U.S. Now, she intended to publish a how-to pamphlet.

Sounds innocent enough. But in the world of corporate media, apparently not.

Bye-bye senior writer Brennan Clarke. Adios regional editor Keith Norbury. Sayonara and enjoy the fishing supreme news supervisor Brian Lepine.

Yet by Black Press standards, Clarke’s article was completely professional, if typically short. Meanwhile, together, these people represented decades of loyal, successful commitment to Black Press. So what happened?

According to Black Press executives quoted by Holman, major automobile dealer Dave Wheaton complained the story didn’t describe more about cross-border shopping’s drawbacks.

In a letter to employees about the situation, Black Press Chief Operating Officer Rick O’Connor explained that Sakamoto and Warner called a meeting to “express their concerns and explain the impact a potential loss of advertising from the automotive sector would have on these newspapers. Neither Penny nor Mark knew the article was scheduled to run and asked to be apprised in future when potentially controversial articles or editorials were to run.”

Cross-border shopping, highly sensitive, “controversial” news? Yeeeeah, riiiight… By those standards, we should give furniture store ad copyrighters investigative journalism awards for those controversially outrageous low prices they boldly expose.

Clarke and Lepine resigned and Norbury was fired, and Holman’s reports became a cascade of contradictory, dishonorable cover-ups from Black Press executives alternately claiming Wheaton’s complaint had no relevance, Clarke had long meant to resign, Norbury was fired for “confidential” personal reasons etc.

With settlements pending, few will talk publicly, but I can state Clarke’s article was indeed THE issue. However, disagreements were exacerbated by a follow-up, syrupy Norbury editorial, “Cars Be Praised”, which the now-suspicious employers believed was satirically mocking.

Regardless, the mere fact Black Press executives even called such a meeting in the first place says it all. What sort of minds think a 400-word piece about cross-border second-hand car shopping requires a pre-publication summit of the highest ranking executives to discuss the serious issues it raises for the whole corporation?

Instead of impassioned fights about press freedom leading to their uncomfortable exits, it’s more likely Clarke, Norbury and Lepine simply couldn’t politely and professionally suppress their astonishment at their managers’ ridiculous and pathetically small-minded attitudes.

And that’s chilling, because Sakamoto and Warner are establishing a brave new benchmark for advertiser control of pervasive BC news. With this exemplar, every Black Press journalist now knows there’s scarcely any topic they can write about which won’t potentially lead to being summoned upstairs to “A M-E-E-T-I-N-G”.

Unless you’re a rebel ready to be fired, self-editing kicks in as quickly as you can type, and soon imprints a fairly consistent corporate worldview: Don’t mention cars in stories about global warming. Blame government for a lack of readiness to handle toxic spills, but don’t blame the companies involved. No sympathetic explorations of troubled backgrounds–be cold or merciless when writing about criminals who’ve robbed businesses. High rents are caused by a tight market, not by gouging from the landlords who advertise in our classifieds.

So Black Press publications are now spooning utterly unfiltered propaganda, and who’s going to enlighten us?

CanWest Global is still covering its own tracks after canning a reputable writer for gibing about the high costs of tourist attractions, and refusing to let their journalists report or discuss it even as it became national news.

Similarly, when Dave Wheaton Pontiac Buick GMC suddenly and surprisingly took out consecutive full-page, full-colour ads this August-September in our notoriously pro-cycling, anti-SUV weekly, Monday Magazine‘s writers probably choked on their Black Press muzzles while having to, without commentary, witness what looked like some creepy form of post-purge golden handshake.

It’s so exasperating, it all makes one wonder why such people are even in the news business. Why does David Black keep accumulating newspapers, only to constantly institute practices that undermine decent journalism? Can’t he see his senior managers look more like frightened lapdogs than competent executives? Doesn’t he care about how his unnecessarily excessive, profit-squeezing strategies ultimately damage not just the newspapers he buys, but the lives of the people who work for them and the health of the communities they serve?

Of course, David Black and his ilk are also doing a very good job at ensuring such questions rarely emerge prominently in public anymore.

Rob Wipond

Thank you for reading.

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