Press

A phoenix rising to the front-page challenge

Warren Gerard October 29 1979
Press

A phoenix rising to the front-page challenge

Warren Gerard October 29 1979

A phoenix rising to the front-page challenge

Press

Warren Gerard

Canada’s third-largest newspaper chain, FP Publications Ltd., wounded and in the red after two long strikes and the recent folding of the 111-year-old Montreal Star (Maclean's, Oct. 8, 1979), is mounting an aggressive comeback. Two ailing newspapers, the Winnipeg Free Press and the Ottawa Journal, have been born again. An ambitious national news service is being created. And FP’s flagship, The Globe and Mail, is about to go into orbit to provide some truth to its slogan of being Canada 's National Newspaper.

What it means, simply, is that the readers of the 882,000* copies of FP newspapers—Victoria’s The Daily Colonist, Victoria Times, The Vancouver Sun, The Lethbridge Herald, Calgary’s Albertan, Winnipeg Free Press, The

* This is a total of seasonally low August circulation figures.

Globe and Mail and Ottawa Journal— will be reading improved products in design, content and availability.

The improvements, for the most part, have been forced on FP by tough competition from Southam Inc., the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain (after Thomson Newspapers Ltd.), and by lengthy strikes and industrial disputes. The Montreal Star folded after losing $17.4 million following an eight-month strike and a seven-month circulation war with Southam’s morning Gazette. Although no figures were available, many more millions were lost as a result of the eight-month strike at The Vancouver Sun. The Ottawa Journal, plagued by a long-standing industrial dispute, lost 30,000 to its current 60,000, while Southam’s Ottawa Citizen picked up about 30,000 to 120,000.

In Winnipeg, Southam pumped millions into the Tribune. That was in 1975 when the circulation was 70,000 and falling, while the Free Press was at a comfortable 135,000. The Tribune underwent a massive face-lift, launched an extensive promotion campaign and printed classified ads free of charge. Meanwhile, FP and the Free Press slept. By this spring, the Tribune's circulation had risen to 106,000, up 36,000, compared with 146,000 for the Free Press, a gain of only 11,000.

But in May FP and the Free Press awakened. Under the guidance of FP Editorial Director Ted Bolwell, a former Globe, New York Times, Time, Toronto

Star and New York Post editor, the stodgy Free Press was redesigned. A promotion campaign proclaimed: “You’re part of us and we’re part of you.” A new managing editor, Murray Burt, former city editor of the Globe, beefed up the paper’s reporting. Among other things, he spent $3,000 testing hamburger from local supermarkets and the story that followed resulted in a federal investigation of the quality of meat.

In June, one month after the relaunch, Free Press circulation hit

153.000, the highest in the paper’s history. The low August figure was

141.000, but the average since the relaunch has been slightly higher, while the Tribune hasn’t increased circulation. “We have really ground them to a halt,” says a jubilant Don Nicol, publisher of the Free Press. “We’re really pushing it.”

FP is attempting a similar comeback with the Ottawa Journal. Late last month the afternoon newspaper switched to a morning publication. Bolwell and his enthusiastic colleagues, including Jim Rennie, a former Toronto Star assistant managing editor, and Keith Branscombe, a former Star designer, have reshaped the ailing paper into an ordered, attractive product. “It’s a little early to know what will happen,” says FP President George Currie, “but it has been a very successful re-launch.”

Meanwhile, Bolwell has hired Kevin Doyle, former managing editor of Maclean ’s, to create and organize a new national news service. Doyle is attracting a highly talented staff, including author and political reporter Walter Stewart; Allan Fotheringham, a former columnist for The Vancouver Sun who also writes a column for Maclean’s', and Doug Small, a Canadian Press Ottawa veteran who is writing an “inside Ottawa” column for the news service. Doyle is still hiring and doesn’t

expect the news service to be at full strength until the end of the year, but in addition to having columnists and four reporters in Ottawa he plans to open bureaus in Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Washington and London.

The news service will feed FP newspapers—all of them are paying for the service but none is obligated to use it—and there have been one or two “feelers” for the service from independent newspapers. The service will likely have little, if any, effect on The Canadian Press, the national news service that almost all daily newspapers subscribe to. “CP

has always covered breaking news,” says Doyle, a CP veteran himself. “I hope we can break stories, but as far as covering day-to-day news stories I don’t think we need to bother. We have neither the manpower nor the inclination.”

The news service has already been diminished by the folding of The Montreal Star and by the Globe’s haughty position that it won’t use it, although Globe Publisher Roy Megarry has left the door ajar. “It’s not quite correct to say we won’t be taking it,” he says. “When there’s something on it that’s important, unique and earth-shattering, we’re going to carry it. We have a bureau in Ottawa, a man in Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec City, Halifax, Vancouver, Washington, London and Peking. We have our own system, our own columnists.”

Megarry is saying that the Globe, if it is truly to be a national newspaper, will have to offer readers something they cannot get in their local paper, and most readers outside Toronto who buy the Globe also buy a local newspaper, in some cases a local FP newspaper. He doesn’t want them to read the same stories and same columnists, those provided by the news service. Yet there are those in FP who say, off the record, that the Globe’s position doesn’t make editorial or economic sense. “We will just have to make the news service so good that the Globe won’t be able to ignore it,” says Doyle. Currie agrees. So does Bolwell.

The Globe, which this year broke through the 300,000 mark (August figures were 276,000), has a circulation of only 150,000 in Metro Toronto, the rest is outside. It appears the newspaper’s futureemdash;especially with the bosomy Toronto Sun producing a thick and saucy morning alternative to the Globe since 1971emdash;is outside the city. Next year the Globe plans to publish eastern and western editions and, because the post office and the airlines haven’t been able to guarantee consistent delivery, it will transmit them by satellite. The western edition will be published in Calgaryemdash; talks are under way with Southam’s Calgary Herald for the printing facilities emdash; and the eastern edition will be published in either Ottawa or Montreal.

Calgary is FP’s next big problem. A decision will be made by the end of the year about what to do with The Albertan (August figures were 43,000), which has suffered press breakdowns and has been printed outside. “We’ve had good advertising gains,” says Currie, “but we have been plagued with terrible press problems. We will make a decision about The Albertan by the end of the year and that may mean a re-launch.” lt;£gt;