Part two of Ryan Cleary's two part piece in Current magazine the "inside story" of The Independent's demise offers more of the same: this was everyone's fault but mine.
The article (September 18 edition), which you can download here, is headlined How to succeed in the newspaper business.' (I will leave that alone because I'm sure the contradiction is intentional Cleary didn't succeed, but failed twice.)
Much of the article actually is advice to aspiring publishers on how to operate a newspaper, with bland platitudes like this:
"As a provincial newspaper, you must obviously carry stories from all areas of the province, which can get expensive in terms of reporters and photographers. Make sure to do a deal with an airline - plane tickets for advertising. That should lower expenses. Ideally, the paper will have correspondents around the province, sending in material from where they live. Writing and photography contests will give you an idea of the talent that's out there."
There is a telling comment, in which Cleary says an advertiser, who he had "pissed off" in the editorial section, told him The Independent was a "luxury" and businesses didn't need to advertise in it.
Cleary's analysis is telling: "That attitude was fairly widespread, and can only be overcome by hard work and persistence."
The attitude that The Independent was a luxury' was based on the fact that it was not a necessity it didn't have the circulation to warrant being a core media buy. The solution is increasing circulation by producing a quality product that everybody wants - "hard work and persistence" will not help if you are merely digging the hole deeper.
Cleary makes the usual attack on Transcontinental the "Quebec-based media chain" - and its monopoly on print in this province.
On the one hand, he says, "All Transcon had to do to put financial pressure on The Independent was target our advertisers or potential advertisers with advertising deals they couldn't refuse, and we were done for."
On the other, he says, "there was nothing underhanded or shady about it, it was business."
I don't mind saying that the concentration of print media ownership in this province causes me concern as well. It's not an ideal situation, and I'd much rather see several newspaper owners not one dominant chain.
That said, there is the simple fact that advertising in all the community newspapers would cost more thousands of dollars more than a single ad in The Independent. The chain was in no position to compete with Cleary.
On top of that, the paper's competition was not limited to The Telegram or even Transcontinental. The fact is, VOCM, NTV, CBC TV, OZ FM, Coast FM, The Herald, The Business Post, Atlantic Business Magazine, The Scope, Current and several other media outlets are all competing aggressively for those advertising dollars. It's simplistic, if convenient, to lay all the blame on Transcon.
But at least that's fair comment and fairly benign. Lurking elsewhere in the piece are malignant comments that are typical Ryan Cleary, and the most telling if unintended reason for the paper's demise.
It was common for Cleary to take potshots at other reporters and news outlets, in a tacky attempt to make himself look good by making others look bad.
In previous spats with The Telegram, Cleary has criticized its editor, Russell Wangersky, for the crime of not being a Newfoundlander (this despite the fact Wangersky has been living here for more than 20 years). On one such occasion, Cleary concluded his editorial with the line, "What do you expect from a mainlander?"
Cleary does it again in this article, calling Wangersky "the mainland-born editor of the Quebec-owned paper". In my view, bashing long-time citizens because they were not born here is a form of bigotry.
Evidently, Cleary doesn't know that a large percentage of the population (read: potential readers), especially on the northeast Avalon, were not born in this province. Is he even aware that many people who were born here find this question of origin to be small-minded and a tad worrisome?
The intolerance continues. Whilst attacking Transcontinental, Cleary says:
"Transcon, as it's known, has a virtual NL monopoly, with the exception of two tiny papers, one of which, at the time of this writing, is published by the wife of the editor of the Sunday Telegram."
There are at least three things wrong with that statement.
For one, it's blatantly sexist. Cleary seems to suggest that the wife of the Telegram Editor is incapable of independent thought. Is he suggesting that she is somehow subservient to her husband? That he controls her, and thus her newspaper too?
Second, there is the inference that Transcontinental's tentacles somehow reach through the editor and control his wife's paper. It's incomprehensible that Cleary even think this, let alone say it out loud.
Third, Cleary knows the publisher of this newspaper; is aware she is a serious, hard-nosed, award-winning journalist who knuckles under to nobody. He knew this crap was unfair before it even slopped out of his mouth.
To turn the tables, is Cleary suggesting that his significant other is not capable of thinking for herself, and is acting out of devotion to him, in the event that she ever posts an intolerant comment about me?
What's most interesting about Cleary's two articles is what isn't said.
There is no acknowledgement of his own culpability in the paper's demise, for which he, as editor, is accountable.
The stark truth is, Cleary did not succeed in publishing a newspaper that people wanted to buy, in sufficient numbers, to make it viable. The blame for that rests with him.
I've already discussed the damage caused by the paper's nationalist stance, and the way it rigged the outcome of its cost/benefit analysis series. I've remarked on some bad judgment calls here and here .
One of the paper's biggest challenges was its inability to break new stories, consistently, every week. There were a few, and some big ones, but never enough to fill the front section of the paper.
The crux of the problem was evident on page three, the second-most important page in any newspaper. This is where real newspapers like to roll out a solid, breaking story that deserves to run the width of the page.
Covering most of page three in The Independent, however, was Cleary's Scrunchins, a questionable feast of miscellany that featured lengthy and verbatim tracts of text articles about this province in mainland publications, for example linked by rambling, disjointed themes and written with all the finesse of your average high school student. I am not saying that to be mean. I say it because it's true.
While Scrunchins didn't warrant its placement on page three, the real issue was the time wasted in putting it together; time that would have been better spent calling contacts and chasing stories.
Lacking real stories to play on page one, the paper often pimped up marginal stories with billboard-sized headlines, such as the April 26, 2008 edition, featuring a photo of a handgun and a headline that screamed, Glock on the block; Restricted handguns bought and sold in NL'.
It was clear that the paper had uncovered an underground market for handgun sales not a good thing with our frequent armed robberies. However, the story shoots off in a completely different direction, explaining that regulations and policing are so rigid, they discourage, even prevent, sales of used handguns. The story's presentation was deceitful.
Cleary's frequent attacks on other journalists were not only unjustified, they were hypocritical, for Cleary made his share of mistakes.
Like this one, in which he hammered the three members of the Liberal Party for taking pay raises for extra duties in the House of Assembly. Here's the opening paragraph:
These may be dark days for the Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador, but the sun shines on the bank accounts of the three Liberal MHAs elected to the House of Assembly. Hallelujah, I say, the culture of entitlement lives on. The three MHAs Yvonne Jones, Roland Butler and Kelvin Parsons will earn an average salary of $138,000 a year for their roles in the House of Assembly.
Only problem is, it wasn't true. Cleary saw that the MHAs were entitled to that salary on paper, but failed to confirm that they had accepted it. He went with an assumption. Here are the facts, as reported in a Telegram story by Peter Walsh that same weekend:
Kelvin Parsons is the new Opposition House leader, a job that comes with a $26,246 increase. He will get that money. But he will not get paid for his other new roles, which include chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and caucus chairman. Each entitle him to an extra $13,123 under new MHA salary rules. Technically, Parsons is losing $26,246 a year. Parsons is fine with that.
"Even though you may fill several positions, you only get paid for one. You won't be getting paid for two. That would be foolhardy," he said.
So the entire premise of the editor's column, in which Cleary raked the Liberals over the coals, was based on a falsehood. That's bush league. More shocking than that, the error was never corrected. It lives today, as you can see, on The Independent web site.
There have been other errors which the paper did correct, such as the suggestion that Diane Whalen double-billed $21,900 (instead of $291), and that confusing mess of a spending scandal story on page one, headlined This will never happen again,' which they didn't correct.
Bottom line: if you want to start a newspaper in Newfoundland and Labrador, be careful when choosing your managing editor.