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Centre for Investigative Journalism
Annual Convention: Individual Reports

Canadian Journalism-Pension Funds

by Dave Yates

 

"After ten years, I can't point to any innovation as a result of the Davey committee."

Clark Davey

 

PENSION FUNDS MAY BE the answer to the journalist's dream of finally getting some control over the media.

The idea was revealed during a panel discussion on the state of Canadian journalism and it came from Alexander Ross, who wears a number of hats, including that of banjo-strummer and editor of Canadian Business magazine.

He feels that journalists should have their pension funds channelled into the purchase of shares in the companies where they work.

The present economic system, shaky at best these days, is in "for some very rude shocks" in the coming decade, he says.

The Ross proposal would give the economy the added dimension of employee ownership which could act as a stabilizing force.

"It's one way of giving a lot of people a say in the system and it would make companies nicer places to work," he says.

The idea is not far-fetched, says Ross, but would require changes to tax structures to make it easier for employees to buy into their companies.

Pension funds now total $40 billion in Canada—the largest pool of private funds in the country—and the figure is expected to double every four years.

But that money is controlled by the managers of pension funds and invested at their pleasure.

"There is no law which obligates pension fund people to tell you how they invest your money," says Ross.

"But the time is coming when employees and unions will demand to know how that money is used."

According to Ross, there is no better investment than for employees to buy shares in their own companies.

He estimates employees of the FP chain have between $30 million and $40 million invested in pension funds, which would have bought a sizable chunk when the Thomson Organization bought in for $130 million.

Employees acting collectively "might just have the same financial clout as the Conrad Blacks and the Kenneth Thomsons," Ross says.

"I think the use of pension funds will be a big issue in the 1980s and I hope the news business is in the forefront."

Before revealing his pension fund idea, Ross began his assessment of the state of Canadian journalism by strumming a banjo and singing a ditty harking back to his days as a writer of the Davey committee report, published 10 years ago.

But his rundown of the effects of the Davey committee did not make sweet music.

"After 10 years, I can't point to any innovation as a result of the Davey committee," he says.

The special Senate committee found that the media were putting out "pretty lousy products" and "that's still true today."

Ten years ago, 66 per cent of the 116 daily newspapers in Canada belonged to publishing groups and today that figure stands at more than 90 per cent.

Referring to the Thomson takeover of FP, he said: "I bet most of you in the room (about 600 journalists) are working for Thomson now, have worked for Thomson or will at some point in your career.

"If the media in this country is at all independent, it's at the pleasure of Ken Thomson."

As for the quality of the journalists, Ross says: "Never before have so many good reporters being doing so much good work."

He also points to other positive factors developing in the media world, including the fact that there are 10 more newspapers today than 10 years ago and that cable-TV has increased the number and diversity of outlets available to the public.

Clark Davey, publisher of The Vancouver Sun, approached the state of the media from a more aesthetic point of view.

"We still have a considerable credibility gap with the consumers," he says.

The public has become more aware of what the world is really like "and it is different from what is reflected in newspapers."

Davey says newspapers will have to pay more attention to their coverage of religion.

"People pray twice as often as they have intercourse (Davey's word for sex), but we don't spend the equivalent amount of time covering religion."

He also wants to see newspapers creating futurism beats "because people are deciding right now how we are going to live and how our children are going to live."

Allen Frizzell. Carleton University journalism professor, sees marketing philosophies as the biggest danger to journalism.

"If a survey says that readers want more in the lifestyles section, then that's what they get."

He cited the marketing approach as being responsible for the economic rise of The Winnipeg Tribune, which was badly ailing in 1975.

Marketing might be responsible for the rather breezy style and concentration on local news, but he pointed to a Toronto Star survey which shows that readers also want a good diet of international news.

Frizzell termed "frightening" the phenomenon of surveys which show that inoffensive stories and boosterism will sell more newspapers.

He feels that newspapers who go with the market will ultimately find themselves in trouble because markets change.

He wants newspapers to develop their own markets. Gérald LeBlanc, president of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, stuck with a pessimistic tone as he reviewed the past 10 years in Quebec.

He feels that futile wars between journalists and owners were responsible for the deaths of Montréal-Matin and The Montreal Star.

And lengthy strikes at La Presse and Le Soleil have given journalists a great distaste for the places where they work.

He says that journalists who felt they were active in helping to change society 10 years ago have plummetted to being merely observers of the passing scene.

"In Quebec, there is nowhere else to go but up in the 1980s," says LeBlanc.

 

Published in Sources May/June 1980

 



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