The Ethics of Shrinking Newspaper Distribution

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s highest-distribution national newspaper and often regarded as the country’s “newspaper of record,” has announced that it will cease daily delivery to the entire province of Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as to a handful of isolated towns in British Columbia. Shipping costs have apparently meant that the paper has been losing money for years on its distribution to those places, and so the publisher has finally decided that enough is enough.

This is, of course, a bad thing for the small number of dedicated readers that the G&M has in Newfoundland and Labrador. And questions will surely arise about whether the paper is being fair to them. Shouldn’t the “paper of record” be available to all Canadians, “from sea to shining sea?”

On the other hand, it’s not like those parts of the country are being abandoned entirely. The Globe and Mail website is of course still available to anyone, anywhere, with an internet connection. And, the paper suggests, more and more people are enjoying their content on iPads and other tablets anyway. Of course, that’s great for people who can afford tablets and reliable internet connections. Pointing to electronic options still has a classist ring to it. A huge majority of Canadians do have home internet, but not everyone. We are still subject to that notorious ‘digital divide.’ But then again, it’s not like Newfoundland and Labrador is being cut off from communications — or even just print media — entirely; there will still be other sources of news.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a loss, here. Citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador may have access to other sources of news, but in a world of concentrated media, having access to a range of options is no small matter. And the Globe and Mail is a high-quality publication that offers a particular editorial voice, a voice that — whatever your political views — we ought not to dismiss lightly.

So this shrinkage in the G&M’s distribution is a sad thing; but is there anything blameworthy in it?

In the end, access to news, and to a diversity of editorial views, is a social matter, a question of the public good. Indeed, it is a question of access more important than, say, the question of access to a diversity of coffee shop options or footwear options. But do companies like The Globe and Mail Inc. (the private, for-profit company that owns the paper) have any obligation to contribute to solving such problems?

While we want private, for-profit firms to be “good corporate citizens,” it’s not clear that they have an obligation to lose money in pursuit of social aims. Newspapers are often thought of as being in a special category, here, as many of them have aims — missions, if you will — other than profit seeking. But even newspapers with a commitment to the public interest have to keep an eye on the bottom line.

3 comments so far

  1. Mark Willen on

    This is sad to contemplate, but we’re sure to see more and more of these kinds of decisions. More universal Internet service would help, but newspapers have yet to figure out how to bring in enough revenue from that to support the journalism that is so necessary. Too many people feel there is no need to pay for news when there is so much free “information” out there.

  2. Pete Bresnahan on

    As I read this I could hear Milton Friedman rolling over in his grave.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Pete: I’m not sure there’s anything in my blog entry that Friedman would disagree with, so you’ll have to clarify.

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