On Dec. 5, 2011, the Irving newspaper monopoly vanished from the New Brunswick zeitgeist. Well, not quite. But that was the day Brunswick News, the media company owned by the family of billionaire industrialists, launched its new paywalled website.
After a brief transition, all the Irving papers—three English dailies, six English weeklies and six French weeklies—would be accessible online only to subscribers. No metered quota of free stories each month, like The New York Times. No complimentary search-engine hits. No workarounds via Facebook or Twitter. “They’ve disappeared from the Internet, which seems like a strange business model,” says Philip Lee, a former Irving editor and now director of the journalism program at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. “If you’re not on Google, you’re not really in the game.”
If it were true that the family owned the newspapers to manipulate public opinion—as critics have long alleged—the paywall was a particularly odd move. The one-time bête noire of media ownership in Canada was marching into the online era in its own way.
It was alleged that K.C. owned the papers, sometimes at a loss, to scare off those who might launch competing papers and then scrutinize his other enterprises.
Long before Canadian media watchers fretted about Bell and Black, New Brunswickers were well acquainted with the notion of concentration of ownership. In 1970, a committee of senators chaired by Keith Davey called K.C. Irving’s control of all of the province’s English daily papers—given his vast industrial holdings in forestry, shipbuilding and oil refining—“about as flagrant an example of abusing the public interest as you’re likely to find in Canada.” It was alleged that K.C. owned the papers, sometimes at a loss, to scare off those who might launch competing papers and then scrutinize his other enterprises. But a prosecution under the Combines Investigation Act—designed to protect the public from monopolies—failed when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1976 that the mere existence of a monopoly was insufficient to convict: the Crown had failed to prove actual detriment.
Despite their victory, the Irvings were shaken by Davey, by the prosecution and then by the Kent Commission, another investigation of media ownership in 1980. “We’re terrified of government interference,” K.C.’s son Arthur told the commission. By then, K.C. had divided the newspapers among his three sons, creating the appearance of autonomy. And “smoking gun” evidence of family interference was elusive: by all accounts, the Irvings left their publishers alone.
The publishers they hired, however, were hardly muckrakers—particularly when it came to the Irvings. “What we need is more industry,” Tom Crowther, the publisher of Fredericton’s Daily Gleaner, said in a 1982 National Film Board documentary. “So if you ask, ‘Do we go out and attack industries?’ frankly, no.” This attitude, though, was easily explained by the same factors that afflict many small-market newspapers: chronic staff turnover, a lack of capacity for enterprise reporting and a tendency to engage in hometown cheerleading.
Eventually the Irvings overcame their fear that perception might prompt regulation. In 1998 they grouped the dailies back under a single company, Brunswick News; it would soon gobble up most of the province’s weekly newspapers. Company officials insisted the goal was not to control the news but to acquire a province-wide vehicle for advertising flyers. “The newspapers are nice,” vice-president Victor Mlodecki told a Senate committee in 2005, “but it is the distribution systems that are important to me.”
The newfound Irving comfort with their monopoly became more apparent in 2005, when Jamie Irving, the great-grandson of K.C. Irving, was named publisher of the Saint John-based flagship Telegraph-Journal. Early in his tenure, the Telegraph published tough, critical reporting on a 25-year tax concession given by the City of Saint John to Irving Oil, run by Jamie’s cousins. But when the stories moved closer to home—with the focus on Jamie’s father, Jim, lobbying the province to cut power rates for his pulp mills—the Telegraph was baldly supportive. The paper saw its role as a champion of business growth, which happened to align with the corporate interests of its owner. Jim Irving didn't like surprises, nor ruffled feathers: Jim Irving had told one editor that he wanted the Telegraph “spicy, but not hot,” and he warned another, “I don’t want any mavericks here. I don’t want a cowboy.”
On the business side, however, Jim and Jamie made a bold move, jettisoning the free Brunswick News website—updated once a day—in favour of a dynamic site residing behind a hard paywall. In one sense, it was hardly a surprise: the Irvings didn’t become billionaires by giving away their products. True, they once tolerated a money-losing Telegraph to deter competition, but now they insisted on profitability—and their monopoly meant online readers had nowhere else to go.
Except the monopoly wasn’t what it had been. Frugal news junkies could turn to the CBC’s New Brunswick website. Bloggers, activists and citizen journalists, some critical of the Irvings, were posting their own coverage of current events. “Technology is going to do what Senate committees couldn’t do,” says David Shipley, a former Telegraph reporter turned digital-content expert at the University of New Brunswick. “It’s going to end that information dominance.”
Not everyone agrees. Sociologist Erin Steuter, one of the Irvings’ fiercest critics, says independent media in New Brunswick are still at the “awkward teenager” stage, not yet skilled enough to provide a credible alternative at a time when Irving interests loom as large as ever over the provincial economy. (Irving Oil’s refinery is the intended terminus for the proposed Energy East pipeline from Alberta.) “I would like to see professional journalism—standard techniques and abilities—in the indie media,” Steuter says. “We need that.”
Still, there is clearly an evolution under way in a province once considered a textbook case of concentration of ownership. “You don’t need to read the Telegraph-Journal,” Jim Irving says. “There’s so many other sources. … It’s a low barrier to entry now. If somebody wants to start a virtual newspaper today, I guess you could do it.”
When a newspaper proprietor himself admits people can do without his product, you know the landscape is shifting. What this acknowledgment—from the heir of the great monopolist himself—means for democratic debate in New Brunswick remains to be seen.
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Jacques Poitras is a CBC journalist and the author of Irving vs. Irving: Canada’s Feuding Billionaires and the Stories They Won’t Tell, on which this article is based. The book will be published in the fall of 2014 by Penguin Canada.