Press

The weeklies grow stronger

David Folster August 4 1980
Press

The weeklies grow stronger

David Folster August 4 1980

The weeklies grow stronger

Press

David Folster

As debate raged in the New Brunswick legislature in June over cost and work habits at the Point Lepreau nuclear power plant (Maclean's, July 7,1980), Liberal allegations of government malfeasance were buttressed by revelations from an unexpected source: The St. Croix Courier. The small twice-weekly newspaper (combined circulation: 11,200) in St. Stephen, N.B., ; discovered first that a Montreal parent ; company involved in the nuclear project ; and its subsidiary had apparently con-: tributed more money than the law al; lowed to the ruling Progressive Conj servative party; then the paper uncov: ered internal memos that showed top Í

management at New Brunswick Power were unhappy with how some Lepreau contracts were awarded—a matter that soon had the Grits crying political patronage.

The stories were only the Courier's latest examples of journalistic enterprise. The aggressive reporting reflects a determination by Courier editor Julian Walker, 28, formerly at the Ottawa Journal, to improve upon the “stodgy, recording-secretary kind of journalism” he sees in the province’s five English dailies. When N.B. Power Chairman William Cockburn, for whom the Lepreau illuminations have been doubly embarrassing because the Courier is the home-town paper in his own constituency, implied management docu-

ments had been stolen, reporter Ann Breault explained that she got her information merely by visiting the utility’s headquarters in Fredericton. It was an investigative foray any other reporter could have made—but hadn’t.

Such determined news gathering is showing up increasingly in weekly papers across the country as those most venerable of journalistic institutions, once noted primarily for their fustiness and benign appearance, shed the old image and gather economic and editorial strength unto themselves. To be sure,

the essentially one-man operations of yore yet linger, with the publisher-editor regularly metamorphosing into ad salesman-compositor as well. But much more often now the papers, which number about 1,000, many of which prefer the modern designation “community” newspaper, have full-dress advertising and editorial departments—and an energy reminiscent of urban dailies. Says Jim Dills, executive-director of the Canadian Community Newspapers Association (CCNA): “I certainly think the papers are more viable, have more vi-

brance and are more concerned with performance now. And that’s interesting and exciting.”

Technology has wrought a major part of the change. The development of computerized typesetting has let publishers retire the old, clanking Linotype machines (which served them nobly for almost 100 years) and go to faster, more efficient electronic machines; and modern photo-offset printing gives them cleaner, brighter newssheets. The new technology has also meant publishers can spend more time and money developing the news-gathering and adselling sides of their operations. Typically, David Cadogan, publisher of the Miramichi Leader in Newcastle, N.B., says: “Ten years ago this paper didn’t

have any reporters. Now we have six.” The community papers are also attracting better qualified people—from young journalism school grads to space salesmen with big-city merchandising experience. At the same time, ad revenues for Canada’s weeklies have jumped from $50.4 million in 1969 to $142 million in 1979.

More Canadians read weeklies than dailies (6.5 million vs. five million), some relying almost entirely on the community papers for their print news. In Alberta, for example, a CCNA survey found 57 per cent of weekly subscribers didn’t even get a daily paper. In Saskatchewan, two-thirds of farm families get weeklies; fewer than one-third bother with dailies. Across Canada the

papers range in size from the Swan Lake, Alta., Grizzly Gazette, circulation 1,000, to The Mississauga News of Mississauga, Ont,, which has a circulation of 80,000, comes in five sections and runs an average of 10 color photos an issue (the paper recently won a North American newspaper competition for color photo reproduction, besting dailies such as the Boston Globe and Indianapolis Star).

Big or small, however, the editorial philosophy is the same: to concentrate on home-town news and backyard issues. However, it’s a challenge that can present its own special difficulties. It’s one thing, for example, for an editorial writer on a large metropolitan daily to criticize someone he’ll never meet; it’s another for a weekly editor to rap a fellow townsman whom, as one says, “you may meet 20 minutes later in the coffee shop and whose kids play with your kids.” Nevertheless, today’s weekly readers, drawn to small-town life and vitally concerned with local issues, expect just such professional performances.

Testimony that they are getting it lies in the fact that community papers have become such good investments they now attract businessmen and financiers as owners. Still, the character of the business is changing as a result. Where once an editor or reporter could often buy his own paper, it’s far more difficult now for these people to scrape up the required cash. “What’s more likely,” says New Brunswick publisher David Cadogan, “is that a chain will buy it.” Chains of weeklies do, in fact, girdle various sections of the country, from the Robinson-Blackmore group which has 10 community papers in Newfoundland, to Sterling Newspapers Ltd. which has been acquiring British Columbia weeklies since 1969, converting some to dailies. Critics argue the profit-oriented chains tend not to make journalistic waves and produce rather bland fare. Others say the chains have strengthened all the individual links. As an example, the award-winning Mississauga News is only one of 13 suburban papers owned by Inland Publishing Co. Limited, a group headed by Toronto media scion Doug Bassett.

Later this month, when members of the community newspaper association gather in Edmonton for their annual convention, there will be plenty of talk about the paper shortages and technical problems that all papers, including the big dailies, are now facing. But, if preceding regional conferences are any indicator, the prevailing mood will be palpably enthusiastic. For, as Julian Walker of The St. Croix Courier says, “It’s a terrific time for weeklies. There’s a tremendous feeling of pride in what we’re doing.”