Chronicle Herald president Mark Lever. Photo: Halifax Examiner

“We believe being in 25 communities is a big strength… I believe telling local stories in Gander, and in St. John’s, and in Corner Brook, and Summerside, and Sydney are going to be what supports this network. Not amalgamating. Not putting the same copy in every paper.”

Mark Lever, Saltwire CEO
Financial Post interview
July 17, 2017

That was Mark Lever then, back when there was only a then. This is the Mark Lever mouthpiece in the here and now.

“Unfortunately, like most companies, we face the decision that we can no longer support positions that are not necessaryThere’s no pleasure in that. It’s just one of those processes that happens as you grow and as you, like I said, find efficiencies.”

Lizzie Cramm, SaltWire’s Newfoundland president,
explaining the closure of four more company weeklies, including the Gander Beacon,
and the loss of another five jobs
July 9, 2018

On April 13, 2017, in the 15-month middle of a titanic, take-it-or-leave-it, we-can’t-afford-you labour war with his reporters and editors at the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Mark Lever stunned the region’s business and media world by buying up — can you say “28-ing down”? — Transcontinental Inc.’s 28 Atlantic Canadian newspapers, including venerable regional dailies like the Cape Breton Post, the Charlottetown Guardian and the St. John’s Telegram, as well as four Transcon printing plants.

Lever immediately amalgamated these new toys with his own profit-hemorrhaging Nova Scotia media properties to create a grand — and grandiloquent — new media venture/adventure he called the SaltWire Network.

Wha…?

“Combing the essential element of Salt, which represents the sea that surrounds us, and Wire, a tool that connects and binds…”

Sorry I asked.

Lever only managed to add all that legacy media baggage by paying $25 million he certainly didn’t have, which meant he almost certainly had to borrow at sky’s-not-even-the-limit interest rates in an unfriendly-to-media-properties environment. By doing so, he put the futures of both his new acquisitions and the family flagship 140-year-old Chronicle Herald at the mercy not only of the tsunamis sweeping away much of the mainstream media landscape everywhere but also of skittish Toronto-based lenders who are more interested in the future liquidity of SaltWire’s assets than in the future of “telling local stories.”

So how’s it all working out so far? For Lever? For his employees? For his lenders? For the rest of us?

Well, fewer than half of the reporters and editors who’d been pushed out onto the picket line in January 2016 returned to their Herald jobs when the 19-month strike finally whimpered to its inevitable end in August 2017. These days, the Herald’s evenmore-emaciated-than-before newsroom is mostly filled with middle-aged white guys. Most of the women and the few diverse journalists on staff before the strike are gone: left, bought out, laid off.

Those who remain do their best, but the Herald has clearly lost its traditional, preeminent place as the news outlet of first resort. For many of us, that would now be the CBC in all its platform glory. Meanwhile, The Coast, Star Metro, allnovascotia.com, The Halifax Examiner, The Cape Breton Spectator, and others have all hived off key constituencies of readers the Herald used to consider its own.

The advertisers who used to see the Herald as the best way to reach their audiences? They’ve disappeared too. Mostly online where their customers are.

As for the rest of the SaltWire Network? Shrinking like a pricked balloon.

In Nova Scotia, the company has merged the previously paid-based Amherst News and Citizen Record into a single freebie community newspaper. The Queens County Advance and the South Shore Breaker have also become a single community paper.

The Truro Daily News changed its name to Truro News and its frequency to weekly. The New Glasgow News didn’t need a name change, but it too stopped publishing daily, becoming yet another weak weekly.

And this summer SaltWire announced it was moving the printing of its Charlottetown Guardian and the Summerside Journal Pioneer from PEI to Halifax, so the availability of the print edition on the island will now depend on the weather-related vagaries of the Confederation Bridge.

In Newfoundland, effective August 1, the company will shutter four paid-circulation newspapers in central Newfoundland — The Pilot in Lewisporte, The Advertiser in Windsor-Grand Falls, The Nor’wester in Springdale and The Beacon in Ganderand mind-meld them into yet another freebie giveaway, The Central Voice.

Like The Compass in Conception Bay North, which SaltWire also recently re-made into a giveaway, the new free Central Voice will be centrally managed… in St. John’s.

With the closing of all those physical newspaper offices, SaltWire says reporters will now work out of their homes. “Actually,” notes regional SaltWire president Lizzie Cramm, “we’re hoping they’ll be working from their cars [because] they’ll be out in the field, on the ground reporting, doing their stories…”

No word yet on when they’ll be asked to live in their cars.

So much for Lever’s “big strength” of telling local stories in local papers, of “not amalgamating, not putting the same copy in every paper.” So much for “what supports this network…”

None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention.

In fairness, Mark Lever is being swept along and out to sea — along the saltwire? — by many of the same forces that are bringing down large legacy media companies everywhere. The problem is that Lever himself chose to plunge into these turbulent waters at a time when everyone else was swimming away… or drowning.

Consider Postmedia. The mortally wounded end-result of decades of ill-advised, debt-building media mergers, expansions and acquisitions, Postmedia has just reported it lost yet another $15.5 million in the last quarter. Even after a swap deal with the Toronto Star that killed off almost 40 once-profitable small newspapers. Which will soon be followed by the closure of six more community newspapers and the end of the print editions of three others. Which will undoubtedly be followed by more cuts of, and to, its core business.

Postmedia has two main problems.

First, of course, there is the massive debt it built up and added to through all those mergers, expansions, etc.

Uh… wait a minute. Isn’t that what Lever mini-replicated with his Transcon acquisitions last year?

Yup.

Postmedia’s second problem — endemic to newspapers everywhere — has been the collapse of its print advertising base. In the last quarter, Postmedia’s print ad revenue declined by another 16 per cent or $14.8 million, close to its reported overall loss for the period. (Because Postmedia, unlike SaltWire, is a publicly traded company, we get to see inside its mess…)

Meanwhile, over at SaltWire…

Even though print advertising is collapsing/has collapsed, Lever appears to have set himself on a kamikaze course of transforming his own reader-supported, paid-circulation community newspapers into advertising flyers with the odd bit of canned content.

The argument in favour of doing that might be that free distribution to everyone makes it easier for advertisers to reach more people. Except… the conventional counter-argument is that readers are less likely to read — and therefore see the advertising in — publications they didn’t ask to be delivered, let alone pay for.

The counter-argument to that counter-argument is that small-town newspapers may be an exception to this rule, since they’re usually the only available source of local news.

That might make sense, except for the inconvenient reality that SaltWire is also busy making their own local newspapers less local by mashing them all together.

Perhaps Mark Lever really is the author of his own misfortunes.

The short and the small of it all is that Lever is blandly, blindly traveling a well-trod path to self-immolation. Unfortunately, SaltWire’s employees — and its readers — will become collateral damage in his self-lit inferno.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. I agree with Stephen Kimber but I do not agree with Parker, that Stephen was taking any pleasure from the misfortunes of The Herald (schadenfreude).
    I cancelled by subscription to The Herald early on in the strike and when it ended I took out a subscription to the week-end edition which gives me on-line access to the daily editions. I find it has gone way down hill in terms of news and sometimes it is so obvious that it is lacking good editors – e.g. misspelled words, paragraphs repeated side by side. But I still get to read obituaries and enjoy a couple of the columnists.
    The flyers are delivered to my apartment building wrapped in something called the Dartmouth Tribune. I am sure the content is the same in every so-called “community news” that envelope the flyers. Even the notices for community events are not necessarily for Dartmouth.
    I am so glad we have the CBC and alternative media like The Halifax Examiner, Nova Scotia Advocate, etc. I also appreciate friends sharing stories on Facebook and some bloggers.

    1. I write for the Tribune, as well as for other publications, and I can assure you the copy is original. Each community paper has its own stories. You should read it before you criticize it.

  2. I guess one ad hominem attack deserves another. I note the Examiner took sides by publishing that goofy photo of Mark Lever yet again. Red-eye removal is not a violation of journalistic ethics, you know.

    Still, highly entertaining.

  3. Bruce, you complain that Saltwire is, “wedded to a business model that relies on advertising,” namely flier distribution.

    What revenue model would you propose for a newspaper that is printed and distributed throughout a sparsely populated rural Nova Scotia county? You know perfectly well that subscriptions can’t sustain it. Or are you advocating an end to printed news in Cumberland County?

    It may well come to that, but in the meantime, I admire those who are at least trying to keep print journalism alive in small communities.

  4. I’m most familiar with what Saltwire is doing with the papers in Amherst near where I live. The company was already delivering a weekly flyer bundle to about 12,000 homes in Cumberland Co. The merged Amherst weeklies are being added to the bundle to make it slightly more attractive to advertisers and readers hunting for Superstore specials.

    Meantime, Saltwire eliminated one veteran reporter leaving the two who remain to cover all of Cumberland Co. Trying to save a weekly paper by bundling it with flyers shows that Saltwire is still wedded to a business model that relies on advertising. It’s an unimaginative mindset that undervalues the local news that people in the area can’t get anywhere else.

  5. It’s quite something to see a professor and former dean of journalism taking undisguised joy at each fresh contraction of the newspaper industry in our region. Professor Kimber (and the Halifax Examiner) like to pretend that the travails facing the Saltwire newspaper chain result uniquely from the folly of one man, Mark Lever, as if small and medium-sized newspapers across the continent were not suffering similar (or worse) difficulties.

    There is no mystery about the cause of these difficulties. They were brought on by the internet’s immolation of display and classified advertising, which traditionally accounted for 80% of newspaper revenues. How many industries could survive the loss of 4/5ths of their revenue? Everyone who manages newspapers is facing this frightening challenge. You might expect someone who made a very good livelihood training journalists on the public dime to show some understanding, rather than high-fiving each stumble.

    I don’t know if Lever and Saltwire will succeed. They certainly face an uphill challenge. But I hope they don’t fail, and I don’t think it’s obvious they will. Here are some salient points Professor Kimber overlooks:

    — Lever succeeded in bringing the Herald contract with the Halifax Typographical Union more in line with union contracts at other dailies around the region. During the long, ugly strike, in which the union played a weak hand spectacularly badly, you pointedly did not hear boo from unionized employees of the Cape Breton Post, the Charlottetown Guardian, or the St. John’s Evening Telegram. They had lived with concessionary bargaining for a decade or more, while their Halifax counterparts enjoyed an unsustainably rich contract. Winning the strike was obviously a key to survival.

    — Display advertising is dead but flier revenue manifestly is not. Building a revenue strategy around flier delivery is not a crazy idea. Since flier revenue depends on universal delivery, this means sacrificing small and ever-declining subscriber revenue for the greater potential of flier delivery.

    — It would be foolhardy for the Saltwire papers not to weigh the benefits of every possible economy of scale. It turns out this means some local reporters will work from home. I made a reasonable living as a journalist in Nova Scotia for 40 years, all but five of them working from my home. It’s not the end of the world, nor is it one step away from “living in their cars,” as Professor Kimber insultingly suggests.

    — Saltwire, controlled by a family that has been in the newspaper business for 100 years and three generations, became a chain by purchasing most of the Atlantic assets of TransContinental, a Quebec printing company. Transcon did a wretched job running them for the previous decade, a track record that went unnoticed, or at least un-commented upon, by the professor and his J-school colleagues.

    — Two papers I am familiar with have improved markedly under Saltwire’s brief ownership. The Cape Breton Post is sharper and tighter. Its enlarged newsroom regularly breaks important local stories. The Antigonish Casket has shed its sleepy church newsletter aura and become something resembling a community newspaper.

    I wish I could say the Herald has improved. It remains as thin as it has been for a decade, and suffers from slovenly editorial guidance (witness its relentless vilification of the young driver in a tragic Cape Breton highway fatality).

    So, it’s a mixed bag. Some unwelcome consolidation and economies of scale based on the irrefutable need to match costs to severely reduced income. A few successes. Some failures.

    Steve Kimber has been around the news business in our region for a long time. He knows a lot. Some actual analysis of steps Saltwire might take to succeed in rescuing (and making a profit from) the vestiges of Atlantic Canada’s newspaper industry might be enlightening. Ideologically driven schadenfreude at each perceived setback is not.

    1. I’d say it’s unfair Parker to accuse us of “taking undisguised joy” in what’s happening at Saltwire. In my case, veteran reporter Andrew Wagstaff, who is a friend of mine, lost his job after many years of covering Parrsboro and vicinity. Andrew, who hails from the Parrsboro shore, knows everything there is to know about an area that the Halifax-based media rarely cover. So, no joy there I can tell you.

      I wish the execs at Saltwire, including Mark Lever, would recognize that people do want local news because — and this is especially true of Cumberland Co. — there is nowhere else to get it. I recognize, as everyone does, that the advertising business model has collapsed. Now, we need new models that are more subscriber-based, with public policies to help support them. For example, maybe the CBC’s mandate should be re-drafted requiring it to work with local media as the BBC does in the UK https://www.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/insidethebbc/howwework/partnerships/localnews

      No, it will not be easy to develop new models, but the survival of the Amherst weekly depends on it.

      1. When an industry loses 80% of its revenue because a technological tsunami has swept the globe, job losses are not a sign of rapacious capitalism or incompetent management. They’re not a sign of Mark Lever’s failure to recognize that people want local news. They are simply inevitable.

        In that process, many good people lose their jobs. That’s catastrophic for them and bad for the communities they covered. But it would be nice if you and Kimber recognized for half a second that Lever is attempting a Herculean task against great odds: finding a way to keep some jobs and some local coverage in a system based on home delivery of printed news. He is doing this at considerable financial risk. Would you rather he just gave up and folded them all?

        If you don’t want to close all these newspapers and you don’t like the way he is going about the project of their survival, please suggest an alternative.