Day 6

Postmedia wants in on Jason Kenney's 'energy war room.' Here's what that means for journalism

Sponsored content is part of the business model for newspapers across the country, but Postmedia's move crosses into new and uncomfortable territory for journalism, say Paula Simons and Sean Holman.

'The optics of this are beyond belief,' says Senator and former columnist Paula Simons

Premier Jason Kenney said his government will make some tough decisions over the next four years. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Alberta premier Jason Kenney won the provincial election, in part, on a promise to create a well-funded "energy war room," a campaign to target groups and individuals who spread what he calls "myths and lies" about the province's energy sector.

Last week, lobbying records revealed that Postmedia, the country's largest newspaper chain, wants to produce content for Kenney's campaign.

Postmedia says their work for the "energy war room" will be entirely separate from their editorial content.

"Just as sales and advertising departments are completely separate from our editorial division, so is Content Works," said Phyllise Gelfand, Postmedia's vice-president of communications, in an email to Day 6.   

"Commercial content that appears in print and online is clearly labelled as such."

But that's of little comfort for Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman, or for Paula Simons, a senator and former columnist at the Edmonton Journal.

Journalistic independence and credibility

Simons says Postmedia's decision will compromise the credibility of her former colleagues at the Journal even if they will not be creating content for Kenney's campaign.

"It is very difficult for hardworking, really strong journalists to do their work with credibility when in the public mind people say, 'Yeah, but your paper is helping the premier produce propaganda,'" Simons said.

Shaping Alberta's Future advertises UCP leader Jason Kenney before the Alberta provincial election. (Dave Cournoyer/Twitter)

Holman says he worries that Postmedia's relationship with Kenney's campaign might affect their coverage on climate change.

"This is an opportunity to create propaganda that might actually cause journalists working for Postmedia to think twice about doing tough coverage on what is the most pressing and important issue of our time," he said.

Free speech

Holman said Kenney's "energy war room" is akin to punishing the kind of speech the government doesn't like, which is contrary to the societal value of the news media.

"[Kenney has] promised to fund lawsuits against environmentalists and call a public inquiry into basically a conspiracy theory about how these groups are financed," Holman said.

"News media organizations, regardless of whether it's the advertising side or the news side, should not be in the business of getting into bed with this kind of operation."

Financing journalism

Gelfand said Postmedia, like other news organization, has seen declining ad revenue.

"Our industry is deeply disrupted, legacy revenue is evaporating and we must urgently find new revenue to fund our mission of providing world class journalism," she said.

Simons, who worked at the Edmonton Journal for 23 years, says she's seen the need for more money in the newsroom.

We're talking about producing political propaganda, and that is an abrogation of what the news media should be trying to do.- Sean Holman, journalism professor at Mount Royal University

"But ... this is not the kind of money that's going to save the paper," she said.

"You end up selling out your birthright for a mess of pottage. I mean, it's not worth selling your soul for this."

For Holman, being involved in Kenney's "energy war room" isn't just more sponsored content.

"We're not talking about producing propaganda for widgets here. We're not talking about producing propaganda for detergent or soap," he said.

"We're talking about producing political propaganda, and that is an abrogation of what the news media should be trying to do."

To hear the full interview with Paula Simons and Sean Holman, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.


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