Making changes to keep his newspaper viable
Craig Westcott says he regrets running for the Conservatives in the federal election of 2008 – and is still on a provincial government blacklist for advertising.
Those are just two of the things Westcott told me in a wide-ranging interview, my first with the journalist – and unsuccessful politician – since October 2010, when he was exposed for writing that saucy email to then-premier Danny Williams.
Westcott, you will recall, ran for the federal Conservatives in 2008, to register his opposition to Williams’s ABC campaign. He became a Liberal staffer late in 2010 and was relieved of that position in August 2011, when Yvonne Jones stepped down as party leader.
In each case, Westcott returned to his position as publisher and editor of The Business Post – a publication that looked totally different when it arrived recently in my mailbox. It wasn’t The Business Post any more. The layout and content had changed, and it was now called The Newfoundlander. (The Business Post was still there, but it was tucked inside.)
Writing on his editorial page, Westcott said he hopes to “broaden our readership and advertising support” with the new front section, by exploring “other areas of our lives in Newfoundland and Labrador, such as the arts, politics, history and culture.”
It was time to catch up with Westcott, to see what prompted these changes. I sent an email, Westcott responded, and our subsequent back-and-forth generated more than 2000 words of interview.
“I’ve wanted to broaden the coverage of The Business Post for some time, but with limited financial means it’s tough to do,” Westcott said. “The Business Post turned six years old this past June. I've also been publishing the Irish Loop Post, which has been bi-weekly for the past year, since 2008. I still do almost all of the work myself, so it’s hectic.”
Westcott added that he still has contributors, including columnist Patrick O’Flaherty, editorial cartoonist John Meaney and freelance feature writer Josh Pennell.
“Unfortunately, I don't have the financial resources to hire more columnists and feature writers just yet… but I am optimistic that I will be able to add (them) as we go forward. If the provincial government ever takes my name off its blacklist it would be a big help. It’s hard to publish when the biggest advertiser in the province pointedly avoids you.”
I recall seeing some scraps of government advertising in the paper, not long after Danny Williams resigned as premier. I probed some more about this.
“The Business Post gets no provincial government advertising. I email all government departments every issue to let them know the booking deadline, including government agencies such as Workers Comp, which you would think is a natural fit for a business publication. The Irish Loop Post got three government ads one week, but nothing has been booked since. The provincial government is the biggest advertiser in the province, so it hurts. If the provincial government blacklisted, say, a road contractor and excluded him from any consideration of paving tenders, or any kind of company that does business with the provincial government, people would say that’s discrimination and unethical. I don't see how a newspaper is any different. It’s unfair, but I’ve been surviving now for over six years. The blacklist says a lot more about the character of the people who are singling my papers out for unfair treatment than it does about me, who, like any other editor, is entitled to express a public opinion.”
Has Westcott’s political experience – running as a Conservative, working for the Liberals – diminished his ability to be objective, affected his credibility or hurt his business?
“I think I am a more objective journalist now, partly as a result of my political experience, but more as a result of maturing and aging, than I was a decade ago. That said, my involvement in politics has hurt my newspaper business and affected my credibility in the eyes of some people, probably mostly my peers in the industry, even though fellow local journalists such as Brian Madore, the News Director at VOCM, and Craig Jackson, the former News Editor at The Telegram, did the same thing by leaving journalism for political work and then returning to it. Even Rex Murphy ran once or twice in politics, as did Randy Simms and Bill Rowe. Working in politics for most people is not equivalent to robbing the local corner store and bear spraying the attendant, but some small-minded people treat you like a criminal for getting involved in public service.”
Westcott said he ran federally with “great reluctance” because so few people were standing up against then-premier Williams’s ABC campaign.
“I saw that Danny Williams was trying to isolate Newfoundland even further from Canada … Telling people to relinquish our right and responsibility to have someone represent us in the federal government was a selfish move on his part and destructive to Newfoundland’s interests. But nobody was ready to hear that message at the time and I paid a large price for saying it. In the year following the election, revenues at the newspapers fell some 43 per cent. (They have since recovered from that drop.) Not only that, I also lost all freelance work that I had been getting, such as the weekly commentaries on CBC Radio, which because of the small income I was taking from the papers, constituted about 25 per cent of my total personal income. The year to 18 months after the election was very tough financially. I struggled with bills and reminder notices and even the threat of cut-off notices almost every week. It was a lot of work building the papers back. My income is still only a fraction of what I made at CBC or The Telegram when I worked there. Worse though, my involvement in the federal election was very hard on my family. Some people treated me like a pariah because I had run for the federal Conservatives. It didn’t bother me much, but it affected the people I love and that was really hard. One idiot accused me on public radio one day of having sold my soul to Stephen Harper. I never received one cent or political favour from the federal Conservatives. I ran because I thought someone had to stand up to Williams. The media weren’t doing it. But if I had my time back, I would not have run.”
Westcott says he took the communications job with the Liberals for financial reasons – as a direct result of running in the federal election.
“When it came up in the summer of 2010 I was just getting the newspapers back to a sounder financial footing but still struggling financially and was still being blacklisted by the Williams government. My wife was urging me to find a more lucrative line of work. It’s not cheap these days trying to raise three children. At the time too, the Liberals looked like they were on the point of being annihilated in the next provincial election. That would have given Williams complete control in the legislature. So I bit the bullet and applied for the job. I was offered it, changed my mind and turned it down twice and then finally accepted it. I really enjoyed working with the people in the Liberal Opposition Office. I also enjoyed a lot of the work, which is important work. But I was glad to get away when Yvonne Jones stepped down.”
In the short term, Westcott is working to keep costs down – which means doing more of the work himself – and even revisiting the business model of his newspapers, which have free distribution. This ensures that all copies are circulated, but also eliminates cover sales – an important source of revenue. More importantly, Westcott said, there are subsidies available under the federal Publications Assistance Program, which support local and Canadian content. The subsidy pays tens of thousands of dollars every year to community newspapers in this province, he said, but there’s a rub: paid circulation is required to qualify.
But that’s medium- to long-term stuff. For now, Westcott is hunkering down and weathering the storm.
“If there's one thing I've learned in the newspaper business these past 25 years it’s the importance of living within your means. Like you, I was involved with The Sunday Express. Later, I played a small role in the rejuvenation of The Independent. I think in both cases the publishers simply had too many employees and too much overhead given the limited revenues that start-ups face. I believe both of those papers could have survived if they had adjusted their staff sizes accordingly. So I’m going to take it slow and hopefully steadily and build towards eventually publishing weekly.
“The one thing I wish I could offer, but simply don't have the resources to provide just yet, is investigative coverage. It seems the mainstream media, CBC in particular, have largely given up on investigative journalism, particularly when it comes to politics, which is a shame given that CBC in particular is the only media in the province with independent financial means (federal tax dollars) to finance that important work. But there are lots of other niches and subject areas to make The Newfoundlander and The Business Post worth reading, I hope. As for the media here generally, there’s lots of good stuff being done aside from the glaringly noticeable absence of investigative work.”