Media mogul begs for handouts – is Black Press failing?

May 21, 2020 – All of a sudden Black Press is running ads in its own newspapers, and online, asking for donations from the public.

“Support local journalism – donate online” reads an ad on page A9 in the May 13, 2020 issue of the local newspaper PQB News. What this ad and others like it do not mention is that it’s owned by Black Press Group Ltd., a private corporation owned by multi-millionaire David Black, which enjoys a monopoly in the newspaper business in most BC communities.

Their ads begging for donations seem to imply that Black Press is on its last legs. “The effect of COVID-19 on local businesses has had a significant impact on their ability to support your readership,” they say.

Black Press has also enlisted the help of their advertising customers to drum up support for their donation campaign, notably London Drugs which is owned by the billionaire (that’s billion with a B) Brandt C. Louie, chairman and CEO of H.Y. Louie Co. Ltd. In a letter published May 6, 2020 in the PQB News, London Drugs president Clint Mahlman wrote that the business of community newspapers is “imperiled” because “almost overnight, advertising revenues have collapsed and some major retailers have decided to cut back on their flyer distribution or have stopped printing flyers altogether.”

Locally, it seems the opposite is true. The PQB News product remains chock-a-block with flyers and ads, in both printed and online versions.

Describing Black Press’ “concentrated media holdings [as] problematic,” a past executive secretary of the B.C. Press Council explained “there is no competition and no encouragement to seek out information that’s not in the interests of the corporate owners.”

London Drugs’ Mahlman continues, “We are hearing about newspapers that are running at below cost, and they are doing everything they can to stay afloat.” Is this true? Or is it just hearsay? Or is it self-serving? What evidence is there to support what London Drugs’ president claims about the operation of businesses which are not his own?

In reality, the days of printed consumer advertising were numbered long before COVID-19. But, let’s assume what Black Press is implying is true, that their profits are in decline. What evidence exists that Black Press is about to become insolvent?

In the ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ (FAQ) section of their online pitch for donations, Black Press states “100% of your pledge goes directly towards local journalists reporting local stories.” Again – what proof of this do we have before we hand over our hard-earned money? Will Black Press make its financial statements available for scrutiny to confirm that their business is failing as a result of COVID-19? What guarantee or proof would we have that donations “go directly towards local journalists”?

Black Press begging for donations is like local businesses having collection boxes beside their cash registers, asking townspeople to donate to their businesses. There is no doubt that many local businesses are in dire straights, especially those that have been closed by authorities due to COVID-19 or which have suffered a loss of customers unable or unwilling to enter places of business for fear of contracting and/or spreading the virus.

But Black Press? It’s thriving – full of ads and bragging that they have “more readers than ever.” The requirement for physical distancing does not affect their consumer interface, as it does so many other local businesses.

Is Black Press using this unprecedented pandemic to enrich themselves by using misleading innuendo and preying on our fears? To pry money out of the pockets of ordinary citizens to fatten their bottom line, money that could be put to the many very worthwhile not-for-profit services that truly, in practical terms and actions, support the residents of our community?

Let’s be clear. Black Press is a private, for-profit, corporation. Black Press is in the business of selling advertising – not local journalism. It’s a corporation; its commodity is advertising. The newspaper content is just the product wrapper.

“Canada’s major newspapers” including Black Press, recently took out full-page ads in newspapers across the country whining about advertising dollars and data collected by their competitors, Google and Facebook. These newspapers want the public to prop up their private companies lumbering along under an unsustainable business model. Good journalism is indeed worth supporting, but private companies can’t have it both ways. Either they are public entities or private corporations.

The “plight” of Black Press echoes U.K. billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s recent requests for multiple governments to bail out Virgin Atlantic, a private, multi-national conglomerate. Branson’s pleas were met with howls of outrage from the public, and swift, sharp denials. Both the UK and Australia rejected Branson’s requests for over a billion dollars in public aid, suggesting instead that Branson use his own money to bail out his own companies.

Refusing to bailout Branson’s Virgin empire, Australian Finance Minister Mathias Corman was reported having said that if Virgin’s shareholders didn’t cough up the cash to keep the airline afloat, the next point of call was the private sector. “For any business that is in difficulty, the first responsibility to bail them out is with its shareholders” – or bond holders or lenders.

But Branson shot back, claiming he does a lot of good things. Black Press has also used that tactic, stating in their campaign for public donations, “We support local non-profits, highlight hometown athletics and employ local people.” These tactics brought a scathing and hilarious rebuke of Branson by Guardian columnist Marina Hyde, which reads in part:

“Of course, Richard is very far from the only billionaire entity to act like this. Even the trillionaire firms, Amazon and Apple, do it too. Rather than contribute the full amount to various countries in the traditional way – like all the boring little nurses and teachers and ordinary people do – they get away with the absolute barest of minimums, then swoop in flashily with “aid” initiatives, with which they can be personally associated when something’s gone tits-up.”

Gerald Porter, an instructor with the Langara College of Journalism and a past executive secretary of the B.C. Press Council, described Black’s “concentrated media holdings [as] problematic.” 

“Single ownership is not in the public interest. It reduces the scope of reportage. There is no competition and no encouragement to seek out information that’s not in the interests of the corporate owners.”

Black Press’ Western Canada Editorial Director, Andrew Holota, writing in yet another plea for public donations, “Help the ‘PQB News’ “, sees it differently. “The PQB News has your confidence as a trusted news source”, and “journalists pride themselves in being fiercely independent of government, social biases, advertiser influence – of anything that might compromise their neutrality and ability to responsibly reflect the world around them. And I stand with them, with my breath and soul.”

Holota wavers from fear mongering “economic solutions are few, most certainly including layoffs”, to grandiose efforts to engender pity “with great angst… COVID-19 is dramatically thinning our ranks” [no evidence provided] and that “the community news media industry is not in any way being spared chilling, catastrophic drops in revenues.”

This Black Press pitch for public donations refers to days gone by “when newspaper subscriptions were a primary source of revenue” but that now “news is primarily available for free, in our print products, and online.” Poor me, says Black Press, avoiding the obvious that they are in the advertising business, for which their customers pay dearly.

If their revenues aren’t sufficient for their bottom line, Black Press could increase their advertising rates, especially for corporate clients owned by billionaires, like London Drugs, or Quality Foods, owned by Jimmy Pattison. Or, Black Press could tap its own multi-millionaire owner David Black to help support the conglomerate with his own resources.

Finally, at an in-camera meeting on April 20, 2020, Qualicum Beach Council approved Black Press placing newspaper boxes around the Town. Why, when (most) of Qualicum Beach is still reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and many businesses are teetering on the edge, is our Council devoting time helping a media monopoly mogul and his billionaire customers fatten their bottom lines?

This puzzling move raises lots of questions. Why did Council feel the need to keep their discussion about their decision to place newspaper boxes around the Town from the public? What was the urgency? Why now, when most communities are trying to make more room to improve safe distancing on streets, is our Council suddenly cluttering the streets with newspaper boxes? Will this reduce the amount of walk-in traffic for small independent retailers who carry the PQB News, and was that considered? Does this mean Black Press will stop providing home delivery to our many seniors who now get the newspaper at home?

Will other publications be given the same opportunity to place distribution boxes on our streets?