Canwest sale to Shaw likely positive for journalists

Kelly ToughillJim Shaw’s purchase of Izzy Asper’s old media empire should mark the start of better things for Canwest journalists, writes Kelly Toughill.

Jim Shaw’s purchase of Izzy Asper’s old media empire should mark the start of better things for Canwest journalists and the Canadians who rely on them for news.

There are four clear upsides and three potential downsides to the transfer of the Global Television network to Shaw Communications Inc., the big cable, Internet and digital company controlled by the Shaw family of Calgary.

The upside

The deal guarantees more diversity of news and opinion across Canada. Izzy’s sons collected most of Canada’s major metro daily newspapers under the same corporate roof, and then pushed their own political and social agenda through news coverage and editorial positions. Pundits have been railing against this concentration of ownership since it went through, pointing out that it is not healthy for any democracy to have one company – or one company CEO – calling the shots at both a major broadcaster and a major newspaper chain.

The deal frees the newspaper chain from a bad management model. The orientation of all broadcast companies is to centralize operations and editorial control. That is anathema to a medium that thrives only to the extent that it can reflect local sensibilities and anticipate local needs.

The deal should end Shaw’s fight against the network cable levy. Shaw will own one of the companies that has demanded cable companies pay for the right to broadcast conventional networks. That means that the cable industry now has a stake in the health of local newsrooms – something it did not have before.

This deal could also speed the transition of television news to the Internet.  That transition is inevitable. (Consider this: next year electronics giant LG will install wifi on every television is produces. Consumers will be able to surf their big screen TVs for shows and movies on the web using a simple remote.)

Some accuse US cable companies of deliberately keeping their Internet networks slow to discourage cable customers from migrating their viewing habits to the web. Shaw seems to recognize the inevitable decline of the cable industry. Recently, Shaw announced plans to test out a new technology that will be the fastest Internet service in Canada. The company sounds committed to progress, even though that progress may erode its cable business.

The downside

Shaw sounds committed to technological progress, but it might not walk the talk. Shaw could prevent Global content from being distributed on the Internet, or it could stymie the quality of Internet networks it owns to prevent cable customers from ditching the old technology.

Shaw might also try to play favorites with other broadcasters by skewing prices or giving Global content preference over other content in cable packages and the Internet.

The final downside is cultural. News was central to the mandate of the Global Television network from the very beginning. Under Shaw, television will not be the central player in the company, and news will be even more remote from the leadership suite.

Shaw Communications Inc. must still leap several hurdles before it begins signing cheques and setting direction at CanWest Communications Corp. It must negotiate a deal with CanWest investor Goldman Sachs and it must get the blessing of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. Neither will be easy.

The CRTC is already under heavy fire for approving the Goldman Sachs deal that was part of CanWest’s demise. And it previously forced Shaw to get rid of a radio network, saying that content delivery and content creation should not be coupled in the same company. Shaw spun the radio stations into Corus Entertainment. The two companies are not formerly affiliated, but the Shaw family controls both.

Kelly Toughill is an associate professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College, Halifax and a contributing editor for the J-Source Business of Journalism J-Topic.