We were in the car on our way to cover a story when the photographer looked over at me and grinned. “So, how do you like working at The Ladies Home Journal?”
I didn’t get it at first. Then my eyes widened and I must have seemed a bit flustered because he looked at me disparagingly and refocused on the road. The Ladies Home Journal. In Red monton. It was a nickname I hadn’t yet heard in my short time at The Edmonton Journal. I was a summer intern. This was the first job I had ever loved or valued and I was stunned by his snide reference to the liberal tendencies of the paper. He was right. The Journal loved human-interest stories and made a point of putting a feature on almost every front page. That summer the bleeding-heart topics I had written about included various ethnic festivals, the opening of a women’s health clinic in a low-income area, and the impact of the housing shortage on a single mom. How odd, I mused, that this paper thrived in my home province of Alberta.
I was raised in Calgary and learned to read with the Calgary Herald. As a preschooler, I would scan the inky pages to pick out words I could recognize. Later, as a political science student at the University of Calgary, I would digest the news daily, gritting my teeth when I reached the columns and read the same conservative, pro-Reform opinions my father and his oil field cronies had always so forcibly touted. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t just the columns that were catering to the typical Calgary mind-set.
Not only are the Herald and the Journal both native to Alberta, they are both owned by Southam Inc. Yet the more I thought about it, the less curious it seemed that the papers are so different. Calgary is the antithesis of Edmonton.
A line could be drawn through the middle of the province of Alberta, each half being a unique entity. Historically, the two cities developed quite differently. Southern Alberta was settled by Anglo-Saxon cowboys on big ranches with British money backing them up. The central Albertans were mostly Eastern Europeans with small homesteads. From then on, it seems the cities have grown further and further apart.
These days, Calgary is booming; 2,400 people move to the Stampede city every month and the vacancy rate is the lowest in the country. Oil tycoons, business executives and technology buffs crowd the roads in their $50,000 4x4s. Edmonton’s population and economy are more stagnant, but the city is still a lively mix of politicians, university intellectuals, and blue-collar workers, with world-class music and cultural festivals that draw thousands of tourists every year.
The main Alberta dailies are popular because each is a mirror image of the city that inspires its existence. They differ not in spite of their common owner, but because of him. Conrad Black wants to make money, and in order to do that he must sell papers. Advertisers won’t invest in a publication that isn’t read, and people won’t read a paper they don’t like. Albertans vote with their 50 cents every weekday morning – these papers dominate their respective markets, crushing the competition. The Journal has a circulation of 143,691 from Monday to Thursday and Saturday (The Edmonton Sun 74,173 Monday to Saturday) and the Herald 116,441 on weekdays (The Calgary Sun 69,089 Monday to Saturday).
Journal president and publisher Linda Hughes doesn’t agree that her newspaper is a knee-jerk reflection of the city. The community is reflected only in the broadest sense, she maintains. “We don’t run by consensus. We don’t take a poll and say, ‘this is what Edmontonians think therefore this is what the editorial page will say.'” News is just news, she says, although stories are chosen for their interest and relevance to Edmontonians. Opinions and editorials are composed by individuals with diverse points of view.
Some say that when Hollinger Inc. took over Southam, and thus the Journal, Hughes, the incumbent publisher, was instrumental in keeping the paper liberal. But she says no arguments were necessary. “I don’t think it was something The Edmonton Journal had to worry about,” she says. “Our circulation and our financial results spoke for themselves.” Hughes started in the Journal newsroom in 1976 and worked her way up, reaching the apex in 1992. Her Calgary counterpart, Ken King, has only been the Herald president and publisher for about three years. Southam solicited him away after an eight-year stint at the rival Calgary Sun.His newspaper career has always been on the business side, in advertising and management, but under the leadership of each publisher the papers have seen good financial results.
“Our circulation is up, our readership has achieved all-time record level, and our business base of advertising is much higher than it has ever been before,” King says, maintaining that part of the success comes from format changes seen since his arrival. Headlines are bigger. The city section was separated from the life section to cover about 40 percent more local news. The business section was expanded to accommodate Calgary’s growing financial community. More attention is now paid to sports. “The market seems to have accepted [the changes] wholeheartedly,” he says.
King doesn’t think his paper is ideologically different from the Journal, just as Hughes believes her paper and the Herald are similar. He says the editorial board leans neither right nor left: “I think we take a centrist view of the world.” If the Journal covers more provincial politics, he says it’s because more Edmontonians are directly employed by the government; Calgarians are also provided with a good diet of politics. “We are critical, constructively, hopefully, of the government and I suspect The Edmonton Journal is, too. I don’t think we’re any less or any more critical.” And there is a significant representation of social issues, he says, from investigative work on native reserves to the plight of the homeless.
That’s the publishers’ line. A content analysis of the papers leads me to a different conclusion. Because the papers are so rooted in cities with such distinctive personalities, they necessarily take on those personalities in their coverage. Their readers make the news. Their readers are quoted in the stories. The papers, therefore, have different takes on political and social issues that affect the whole province.
Susan Ruttan is the chief editorial writer at the Journal. The position was a professional challenge for the former Herald columnist, who spent 15 years at the Calgary paper. The Journal covers politics more aggressively than the Herald, she argues, because it is in the capital. But political polarities are also a factor, she adds. They have to be because the cities vote differently. “The MLAs here are generally Liberal. When you cover politics in Calgary, it’s hard to find an opposition member to quote, even, because there are so few of them. And all the local Calgary MLAs, with some exceptions, are Conservative. I think [coverage] does get skewed.”
Edmonton, home to the legislature, houses most of the provincial lobby groups and social service organizations; groups of people more likely to vote for more liberal parties. Deficit slashing takes a backseat to health care and education. Edmontonians don’t hate the Klein government, but they are more likely to be suspicious and critical of it.
Calgary is the birthplace of the Reform party and a bastion of conservatism. Ralph Klein’s Tories can do little wrong in Calgary, and the Herald doesn’t go very far to criticize them. Klein and King are known to be golfing and fishing buddies. In Calgary, the deficit has to be kept under control, taxes must be low and the government should stay out of the way of big business.
There are no federal Liberals from Calgary (the last one was Pat Mahoney, who won a seat in 1968), and only one Liberal MLA, Gary Dickson, is from a Calgary riding. Dickson says the Journal is more pointed and aggressive in its analysis of the government than the Herald. “I’m often in the same story in The Edmonton Journal and the Calgary Herald,” he says. “But the Journal features an opposition comment or criticism and that’s the lead. The same story runs in the Herald and I’m in the last paragraph.”
His observations concur with the results of a 1997 study done after the provincial election in 1997. Shannon Sampert was a journalist for 20 years before going back to school at the University of Calgary, and she was intrigued with how the two Alberta papers presented distinctive accounts of the same news. In June 1997 she publicly revealed a paper that compared election coverage in the Herald and the Journal for the Parkland Institute, a public policy research group. Analyzing all electoral headlines, she found the Herald consistently favouring the Klein regime and minimizing potential scandal, while the Journal was often critical, especially when it came to social issues.
Klein called the election the same day the budget was revealed, trumpeting a huge surplus. The Heraldcriticized Liberal and New Democrat spending plans (“Liberal Promises Come with Price Tag Attached”) and congratulated Klein on his timing, while the Journal was wary (“Too Busy Gloating About Surplus to Consider Outcasts: But Some Canadians Are Noticing the Alberta Disadvantage”).
Health care was the most contentious issue: nurses were threatening to strike, northern doctors stopped working for three days, and doctors had their medicare spending cap lifted. The Journal was sympathetic. Columnist Linda Goyette wrote: “[Nurses] see their employers, the appointed regional health authorities keeping a polite silence about Alberta’s health care troubles so as not to offend Tory masters in the sensitive days before the vote.” The Herald endorsed Klein’s view that nurses shouldn’t be allowed to strike and argued that Albertans wouldn’t support illegal job action.
The differences were duly noted. Four days before the election, Klein scathingly remarked, “For their election coverage this year, I want to thank The Edmonton Journal from the heart of my bottom.”
The pattern of coverage continued the next year when lacklustre Liberal leader Grant Mitchell stepped down and four candidates rose to vie for the vacant position. The winner, Nancy MacBeth, had one less successful high-profile race behind her. The former Conservative MP from Edmonton had faced Calgary’s Ralph Klein for that party’s leadership in 1992, but her supporters in Edmonton weren’t enough to overcome Klein’s stronghold in Calgary and the rural areas. So, she was new not only to Liberal leadership in 1998, she was new to the party and didn’t have a seat in the legislature.
In the two weeks leading up to the April 18 election, the Journal published almost twice as many election stories as the Herald. The race, to the extent it was covered, read like a Shakespearean drama in the Heraldwith headlines denouncing “Lady MacBeth” as a vindictive turncoat against “King Ralph.” The premier, one column joked, was “a damn tough spot [MacBeth] can’t easily get out.” In Edmonton, MacBeth was a viewed as a worthy opponent to Klein. The paper gave her platform good coverage; she was heavily quoted in articles such as one that connected a dwindling number of Alberta doctors to underfunded health care.
Emphasis on social issues is typical of the Journal, while the Herald usually reports with the pragmatic, business-minded perspective of its readers. Calgarians are a friendly sort of people who take great pride and comfort in their perpetual willingness to lend a hand-on an individual level. The government shouldn’t decide, with our money, who is going to receive help and in what manner that help will come. It’s too bad that health care costs so much. But if we’ve gotta cut we’ve gotta cut. You can’t spend more than you make, after all, and something had to be done about that deficit.
Edmontonians, too, are generous-but in a more universal way. So many people are out of work, and health care has eroded to such an appalling extent. Single mothers, the unemployed, the disabled, and the seniors should all have enough food to eat and a warm roof over their heads through the bitter northern winters. We should all have the same access to the same quality of health care. Ruttan says that when it comes to health care and other social issues, the Journal has led the charge in the province and in so doing, represented the community. She has researched the Grey Nuns Hospital closure in Edmonton. “When it was demoted to a community health clinic [it has since been reinstated to hospital status], they had two rallies in Edmonton of 15,000 people. You couldn’t get 1,500 people to a rally on health care in Calgary. The papers reflect that.”
Former Edmontonian Gayle Gilchrist James, now an associate professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Calgary, became vehemently frustrated with the Herald and cancelled her subscription about two years after moving south. She thinks Calgarians would be shocked if they knew the extent of the poverty in their city. “Economic development is so terrific I don’t think people realize that economic development alone, in many cases, does not create jobs,” she lamented. “The lack of social-issue coverage in the Herald, to me, is a major factor in Calgary’s being uninformed, misinformed, and disinformed. This is the Texas North approach: Pull your damn self up by the bootstraps.”
The Health Statutes Amendment Act (Bill 37), introduced with little ado into the Alberta legislature last spring, provides a perfect example of how social issue coverage varies from one city to the other. The bill would give the health minister power to authorize-or reject-private hospitals in Alberta. For-profit hospitals. Lobby groups and opposition parties caught on to the ramifications of the new legislation and were ruthless, drumming up so much horror from the public that Klein has twice had to delay passing the bill.
Major coverage didn’t begin until April 9 in Edmonton, but before long, Bill 37 was being thoroughly dissected, analysed, defended, and castigated. News stories gave brief explanations of the government’s position but emphasis was on groups that lambasted the bill for its dire implications for the health system. While theHerald remained silent, the Journal reported on extravagant sums health companies had been donating to the Conservatives. Columns warned that the government was trying to shove the legislation through before the public had a chance to debate it, and Liberal health critic Gary Dickson was quoted saying, “Any time you see the word, ‘for profit’ you know that profit is the goal, not patient care. And if one private hospital is allowed, they’ll all be in the door.”
On April 21, the Herald finally gave the issue some coverage, with minor reservations about the bill but none of the Journal‘s vigour. A news story appeared and a column questioned the government’s intent, reasoning that since the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons had the power to regulate private clinics, the health minister didn’t need to assume the same function.
The Journal headline on the same day read: “Scrap Bill 37, Lobby Groups Demand; For-profit Hospitals Feared; Pressure Building.” The article quoted the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour as saying, “This is the same government that has privatized everything from liquour stores to birth certificates.”
The following morning, both the Herald and the Journal had editorials about the bill. The Calgary paper wrote that the province should defend the bill more forcefully under a headline that screamed “Bill 37 Hysteria: Private Health Care Is Controlled, Not Created.” The opinion was that “opposition Liberals and New Democrats have begun to obsess on the recently introduced legislation ? and are needlessly exploiting Albertans’ fears with dire predictions of the looming end of medicare.” The story continued, saying Albertans had to find a way to get quality health care while keeping a balanced budget.
The Journal editorial did not go so far as to criticize the bill itself. The bill itself wasn’t the problem; it would indeed give the government the power to safeguard against private hospitals, and if it passed, we would have the chance to see the true Tory agenda; given their record, it’s unlikely public health care would benefit. More importantly, the Journal opined, if the bill didn’t pass, the debate might focus on “the true threat-the underfunding that convinced private operators there was a cash-on-the-operating-table market here in the first place.”
Despite their usual standard of divergent views, the papers don’t always disagree. The people don’t always disagree. Some conflicts divide Albertans uniformly across the province and the newspapers respond accordingly. Take, for example, the recent controversy over video lottery terminals.
VLTs are part of the reason Albertans don’t pay any provincial sales tax. They’re billed as a form of entertainment, so those who choose to play the machines can assuage their consciences with the knowledge that their money is not wasted; a significant portion of VLT revenue goes to charity. Bars make a killing by keeping the terminals: 15 percent of each machine’s revenue. Almost half a billion loonies are fed into 6,000 gambling machines in bars across the province each year.
The chances of winning big are pretty slim but the temptation, for many, is great. Opposition groups listed astonishing statistics about problem gamblers in Alberta and claimed that VLTs were the most addictive form of the vice. Bankruptcies and suicides were blamed on the lure of the electronic cherries.
The debate had been smoldering for at least a year, but the heat intensified in the summer of 1998. Opponents had asked for a province-wide vote to banish the machines; Klein consented only to votes in individual communities where at least 10 percent of the electorate had signed a petition. Calgary and Edmonton, along with several other towns, managed to get the question on the municipal election ballot last October 19. Both cities narrowly voted to keep the machines.
Coverage of the issue in Calgary and Edmonton was almost identical. In the two weeks prior to the civic election, up to four or five VLT stories appeared almost every day in each paper. Heartbreaking tales of homes that had been shattered over VLT addictions. No-nonsense pleas for freedom of choice from those in favour of keeping the machines. Colourful accounts of the team efforts on both sides. When the dust had settled and votes had been counted, both papers agreed the debate wasn’t over; the province would have to do something about the whole gambling problem.
By the end of my summer, I was no longer blown away by the differences between the Herald and theJournal. Of course they are different, how could they be otherwise? A political border might tie Calgary and Edmonton into one province, but culturally, they are each in their own universe. In order for the papers to succeed, they have to become in and of the cities they represent. When the cities agree, so do the papers; when the cities disagree, the papers follow suit. I am not convinced by the publishers’ arguments. News is notjust news. Someone decides what will be in the lead, what quotes will be used, whose voice will be heard, and how the headline will focus on a certain part of the story to draw readers in.
Neither am I surprised that one dominant personality has ultimate control over two such divergent papers. It still disturbs me to think that one man owns 60 percent of the nation’s newspapers. Opinions are often influenced by newspaper stories and commentaries, and Conrad Black does have the power to control what goes into his publications. I’ve come to realize, however, that Conrad Black is not out to manipulate my mind with his self-described libertarian philosophies. He is a businessman, first and foremost, and if he starts telling publishers, editors, and journalists how to write the news in their communities, he will be a miserable financial failure. The Alberta example proves that he does not insist his papers be Black in their politics, as long as they are black where it counts-on the bottom line.