The $193,000-a-year government handout to Postmedia you probably haven’t heard about

If you haven’t yet go and read You Must Be This Conservative To Ride: The Inside Story of Postmedia’s Right Turn from Canadaland. It’s a crucial piece for anyone who wants to understand the current state of news media in Canada, and Alberta especially--the Postmedia corporation owns nearly all of Alberta’s newspapers.

A few of the highlights: 

  • The editor in chief of the Edmonton Journal being forced out for running a paper that locals are actually going to read
  • Calgary-based columnist Licia Corbella being outed as a card carrying UCP member and then having at least a dozen articles of hers scrubbed from the internet
  • Postmedia hiring a UCP political operative to lobby the Alberta government in order to get some of that sweet, sweet anti-environmentalist ‘war room’ money. 

But there are deeper links between the Government of Alberta and Postmedia that weren’t revealed in the Canadaland report. Here’s a big one: a massive payout that Postmedia receives from the government of Alberta for “copyright-compliant access to media stories for the purposes of media monitoring.” 

In the 2018-2019 fiscal year the Communications and Public Engagement ministry in the Alberta government paid $193,675 to Postmedia for the ability to “for full daily content to be submitted to us electronically each day, and for the right to archive the content for 90 days.”  That quote is from Joanne Rosnau, the executive director of insights and coordination at Communications and Public Engagement

If that seems like an awful lot to pay for what amounts to a newspaper subscription and the privilege of sharing articles with political staff and elected officials, that’s because it is. The government of Alberta will in comparison pay a mere $20,787 in the 2019-2020 fiscal year to access the StarMetro Edmonton and Calgary daily newspapers, as part of a package that also includes the Red Deer Advocate. To access Globe and Mail content for media monitoring costs the Alberta government $39,400.

The cost for a digital subscription to the Calgary Herald or the Edmonton Journal, if you’re a private citizen? Only $9.99 a month. 

Jason Kenney and the UCP government love to prattle on about reducing red tape and making government more efficient. Well we’re happy to offer up the suggestion that there is absolutely no need to shovel almost $200,000 a year to Postmedia every year for media monitoring services. Feel free to stop this massive Postmedia subsidy at any time. 

Media monitoring isn’t the only place where Postmedia gets huge handouts far outstripping what the government spends on competitors. The Alberta government drops a fortune advertising in Postmedia publications too. Communications and Public Engagement spent $685,665 in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The equivalent advertising spend with Torstar? $110,189 in 2018/19 fiscal year. And the government of Alberta also spent $241,484 on advertising with the Globe and Mail in the same time frame. 

You might as well light your money on fire. Advertising in the physical paper isn’t measurable. The audience of Postmedia papers is rapidly diminishing and aging. You can’t improve or optimize your ad like you can online. Even if you are advertising on Postemdia’s online properties, you’re never going to have the reach or the audience customizability of a Facebook or Google.  

Though the details on the war room and whether they’ll be using Postmedia aren’t out yet freedom of information requests from Progress Alberta reveal that that no official records exist of any written communication between Kenney’s former chief-of-staff-turned-Postmedia-lobbyist Nick Koolsbergen and executive council (the Premier’s office and cabinet) or the Ministry of Energy in regards to the war room between May 1, 2019 and July 10, 2019. Nor are there any records of any meetings during that time either. 

According to the lobbyist registry filing submitted by Koolsbergen, his goals were “to discuss ways Postmedia could be involved in the government's energy war room,” and that the communication methods used would be “arranging one or more meetings, Informal communications, Meetings, Presentations, Social Media, Telephone Calls, Written communication whether in hard copy or electronic format.”

There are a handful of possible scenarios here. The first is that Koolsbergen hasn’t done any lobbying at all for Postmedia on this file. The other is that any lobbying that has been done by Koolsbergen has been through “informal communications.” This is, of course, exactly why you hire someone like Nick Koolsbergen. As Kenney’s former chief of staff he has a close relationship with Kenney and can just call him up when he needs to on his personal phone or through his personal email. 

Nick Koolsbergen, the premier’s office and the ministry of energy all refused to comment. 

Postmedia is also already getting a tidy sum from the federal subsidy game. This year Postmedia received $1,580,000 from the Canadian government’s Canadian Periodical Fund for its non-daily newspapers. And Postmedia is also planning to trouser $8-10 million per year from the federal government’s planned media bailout. There’s no good reason for the Alberta government to be giving handouts to this monopolistic media giant too.

This all too cozy financial relationship between the government of Alberta and Postmedia needs to end. If Postmedia wants to be the communication arm of the conservative movement, they can be--but there’s no reason for the people of Alberta to pay for it. 

Duncan Kinney is the executive director of Progress Alberta and the host of politics and media criticism podcast the Progress Report