Press

The start of something small

JULIANNE LABRECHE October 31 1977
Press

The start of something small

JULIANNE LABRECHE October 31 1977

The start of something small

Press

“You no longer have to be a millionaire to start a newspaper,” notes Charles King, editor of the saucy young daily, Ottawa Today. King should know. His desk comes from a distress sale, one third off; the beatup Olympia typewriter, from his old job at the Ottawa Citizen (now Today's arch rival); the black-and-white television, from home. Most everything else is leased. “We don’t own anything, with the exception of our street boxes,” King confesses.

These fiery red street boxes, padlocked to 700 bus stops across Ottawa, are the driving force financially for Today—a lively, sometimes raucous tabloid, gearing itself to Ottawa’s urban transit crowd. Civil servants grabbing early morning buses now can gander through its 40-odd pages of crime, sports, business and politics. It’s a zesty potpourri of the serious and sensational, heavy on columnists. In its second issue Today laid itself on the line as “a loud-lunged baby—at times we’re going to scream like hell.” Though its screaming has yet to reach full blast, president Bill Morrison justifies its existence because “I’d had enough of looking at newspapers founded 100 years ago—and which act like it.”

But Today, on the street since September 6, gives no guarantee of even surviving tomorrow, let alone the next century. Morale among the 72-member staff is depressingly low—Today reporters digging for local news find their stories slashed or dropped entirely to make room for such international wire stories as LOVE KIDNAPPERS

DETAINED and ELEANOR ROOSEVELT FEARED BURIAL ALIVE. The result: reporters at Today were grumbling about editorial decisions after the first week—unlike the gung-ho enthusiasm, right from the start, of the six-year-old Toronto Sun, on which Ottawa Today is clearly modeled.

Externally, troubles also loom. Even though the National Press Club toasted Today's first press run with an all-night champagne party, next day the gloves were .off. Ottawa is now the second Canadian city (after Toronto) to have three general circulation English dailies—and in addition has the French-language paper, Le Droit (circulation 46,000). Today appears when the Ottawa newspaper scene has never been so competitive—or so unsettled. The Journal’s survival (circulation about 80,000) is being threatened by 11 months of bitter labor disputes. “It has been a rough year,” says Journal managing editor David Humphreys. During their protracted legal battle, The Journal lost $1.7 million in just 18 months. The Citizen,

meanwhile, increased its circulation (now about 116,000) even though Today robbed it of 24 staffers. Meanwhile, Le Droit is in turmoil, in the process of being taken over by its own employees for an estimated two million dollars (it was owned by the Oblates, a Roman Catholic Order).

These papers, plus out-of-town dailies such as the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto Globe and Mail, recently escalated a print war by introducing a proliferation of coin-operated street boxes in downtown Ottawa. Such clutter in the formerly pristine Ottawa core has already irritated some municipal aldermen—and vending boxes have already been removed from the Bank Street promenade because of merchants’ complaints.

This intense rivalry is not helping Today become a big money-maker. King claims circulation is leveling off to their target-figure, 30,000. But The Citizen, doing some survey snooping of its own, places Today's circulation at 8,600; The Journal estimates 17,000. Whatever its exact readership, the new tabloid has already been noticed by top-level Ottawa personages, including Opposition Leader Joe Clark who has had a hard time with the press this year.Commenting on two of Today's most obstreperous columnists, Clark suggests in a recent letter to the editor: “I make only one recommendation: that you run Larry Zolf and Peter Worthington on opposite days, lest the shock to your readers be too great.” JULIANNE LABRECHE