The proposed takeover of The Canadian Press

If a deal by CTVglobemedia, Torstar Corp. and Gesca Ltée gets federal approval, one of the fixtures of Canadian journalism for nearly a century will be fundamentally changed. The companies, which operate CTV and The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, and La Presse, respectively, have announced they’ll take The Canadian Press private.

The Canadian Press has a long and distinguished history in the annals of Canadian journalism. The news cooperative was formed in 1917 by Canada’s newspaper industry as a means of sharing news across the broad expanses of an emerging country which, only a dozen years earlier, had grown to stretch from sea to sea to sea. The real catalyst for its creation, however, was the First World War and the growing appetite among Canadians for news from the front. Information was relayed via telegraph wires.

Over the ensuing decades, CP, as it became known, became the mainstay of print journalism in Canada. It was maintained by member newspapers, which also contributed stories to the service to supplement CP’s own national staff and news agenda. A photo desk was added as transmission of pictures over great distances became feasible, and broadcast news services were added as television took hold in the early 1950s.

As might be expected in an enterprise where the public interest and corporate interests frequently conflict, The Canadian Press has been close to collapse several times in its history. Canwest pulled out of the cooperative on July 1, 2004, to form its own news service to feed stories to both its newspapers and Global Television outlets. Quebecor Media Inc. formed QMI Agency last year for similar purposes; its participation in The Canadian Press ended on July 1 of this year. The agency’s pension plan continues to be hugely underfunded and needs urgent attention.

If the three-way deal gets Ottawa’s approval, it will be interesting to see how the new owners (currently, the three largest members) integrate the news service into their operations and what impact that integration will have on jobs at all four entities. Of national concern should be the extent to which the Canadian Press news service will make its content available to other subscribers — and at what price. Will small, independent or start-up news operations in small communities be able to afford the news services offered up by Canwest, QMI or The Canadian Press? How will information flow across the country be affected? Will competition between the three major companies improve national news coverage or will a narrowed focus by the three corporate news-service owners, as they seek to service the needs of their own properties and divisions, constrict that flow? If, as playwright Arthur Miller said, “a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself,” is a robust news service, or a series of them, vital to the conversations of a nation?

Far less important, but esoterically interesting among those who teach journalism, will be the question of how The Canadian Press’s new owners deal with the question of style at their operations. The Canadian Press Stylebook differs in many respects from The Globe and Mail’s Style Book, which is different again from Toronto Star style. In classrooms and labs, the importance of learning to adapt one’s news writing to some style standard — whether it be The Canadian Press (the standard at most Canadian schools) or some other — is the bane of many a j-school student’s existence. Some additional consistency here might actually be a good thing, though there are strong arguments for the differences between the news organizations on niggling points. And the style purists won’t be easily persuaded.

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