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Concentrating on media
He came a little early, but he had a lot to say. In a talk that was billed as the keynote address for a McGill Institute for the Study of Canada conference this February, Alain Dubuc, president and publisher of Le Soleil, delivered a wide-ranging talk November 28 titled "Who Controls Canada's Media? Nobody."
Dubuc discussed recent events of concern to many observers of the North American media scene. The merger of corporate behemoths Time Warner and AOL was followed in Canada by BCE's purchase of the Globe and Mail and CanWest Global's purchase of the Southam newspapers. These events have led to two trends -- convergence of information providers with media outlets, and a pronounced concentration of ownership.
However large the issues he addressed, Dubuc introduced himself modestly to the audience gathered in the Leacock Building.
"I'm not a scholar, I never studied journalism -- I'm a total autodidact when it comes to the media," he said. "I come not as a specialist, but as a practitioner."
Dubuc's scholarly training is as an economist, but his journalism career is a distinguished one. He was the former editorial page editor of La Presse, and has won many journalism awards, including the annual National Newspaper Award for editorial writing in 2000. As far as media concentration goes, he wryly admits to being an expert, albeit a biased one. He was sent from La Presse to Le Soleil when Power Corporation added that paper to its holdings.
"The concerns of concentration and convergence are exaggerated," he said.
The idea of media convergence -- where print reporters would be sent to events with television cameras -- was a non-starter as a business proposition, according to Dubuc.
"Convergence was not a trend, it was a fad," he said dismissively. "The idea was to buy first and think later. What do you do with CTV, the Globe and Mail and Bell? It's not obvious."
Dubuc was much more concerned with the concentration of media ownership in fewer and fewer hands. The reasons for it are the "perverse" effects of Canadian media-ownership laws that prevent non-Canadian ownership of media properties and thus limit competition. The other is the nature of the Canadian market, which cannot escape the pull of the giant to the south.
"Demand is influenced by the North American reality. You have a great pressure to deliver a style and standard of information that was defined by a much larger market," he said.
In that context, media concentration is not an end to itself, but a means to deliver a better product. The trade-off for more tools to do the job is less diversity in media voices. Although the subject has been getting a lot of attention recently, Dubuc pointed out that Canada has had a highly concentrated media for years -- to the benefit of many newspapers.
"I think my newspaper is doing well. It has more resources than it had before," he said.
In fact, Dubuc argued that the bigger a media company, the less interested they are in local issues. This can be an improvement over old-style owners who would oversee every aspect of their papers.
The obvious counter-argument to this in Canada is the recent furor over CanWest's much publicized policy of national editorials and dictating editorial policy in the Southam papers. To this, Dubuc can only shrug his shoulders.
"That's not concentration, it's foolishness. How can you legislate foolishness?"