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Russell Wangersky: A National Post party? I’ll pass

The National Post is celebrating its 20-year mark, but Russell Wangersky won’t be at the party. —
The National Post is celebrating 20 years, but Russell Wangersky won’t be at the party. — 123RF Stock Photo

If anything from the National Post ever falls into your online bowser — the newspaper itself hasn’t been delivered east of Montreal for years — it was hard to miss this weekend’s self-celebration of the paper’s 20th birthday. Social media has been stuffed with happy tales of champagne journalism, with little mention of who has spent two decades picking up the tab.

More on that later.

But first, a few of the celebrants.

Here’s columnist Andrew Coyne: “As anyone who was there at the time can tell you, the first years at the Post were like something out of a dream. (Ken) Whyte had been given carte blanche to hire anyone he liked, and everyone wanted to work at the Post.”

I was the editor of St. John’s Telegram during those heady early times at the Post, and while the new nationally available newspaper was sending reporters to Europe for months on end to cover a single story, I was tasked with pinching pennies to pay for it.

Here’s Rex Murphy: the Post “expanded the realm of Canadian journalism, unlocked a sealed agenda and brought flair and style to a field when once unction passed for gravity and drabness for responsibility.”

Another columnist, Barbara Kay, talked about how the editorial team was given “the finest education that money could buy.”

I know about that: I remember heading to the National Newspaper Awards as a finalist, only to be absolutely stunned by the sheer size and opulence of things like the newspaper’s ballroom hospitality suite — mountains of smoked salmon and more, free beer and wine — when there had been questions about whether I’d be able to even justify the travel cost of attending the awards.

I also have a more institutional point of view. I was the editor of St. John’s Telegram during those heady early times at the Post, and while the new nationally available newspaper was sending reporters to Europe for months on end to cover a single story, I was tasked with pinching pennies to pay for it.

The overarching name of the company that owned most of Canada’s newspapers and founded the National Post was apt — Postmedia. There was the Post, and then there was the rest of the company’s media, the ones paying for that brash and exciting cousin.

The National Post took our training budget and our travel budget first, and then started in on taking reporters, too. As I started as editor, four positions left the newsroom. And the reductions would continue. But we were lucky — other newspapers had to cut deeper to make the kind of returns that were expected to go to head office.

Newspapers were sold — we were — and others were closed. Staff members were offered voluntary buyouts and non-voluntary layoffs.

Some Posties talked about how the paper was a victim of bad timing, going print-heavy just as the internet was taking off. I think the paper’s been a victim of bad research as well, going big on national news just as newspaper research showed that buyers were more interested in local content.

Yes, the Post had fine writers and took expensive chances. It could afford both. At a time when newspapers were starting to lose revenues and were also misplaying the digital model by giving work away for free, local workhorses couldn’t afford the same largesse.

Has the Post ever made money? I don’t know. Is it making money now? I doubt it. Postmedia’s financial reporting is opaque when it comes to talking about the finances of individual print titles. The great irony is that a self-described conservative paper has depended its whole life on subsidies from someone else.

I do know the Post has spent 20 years cannibalizing its smaller-town cousins, while at the same time, looking down on the hicks and making fun of their staidness. The Post has shrunk, but I’d bet the journalists it has lost are dwarfed by the hundreds that lost jobs as other papers continue to pay its way.

I won’t be jumping on the Happy Birthday train.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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