MEDIA WATCH

A challenge to big-city dailies

George Bain June 22 1987
MEDIA WATCH

A challenge to big-city dailies

George Bain June 22 1987

A challenge to big-city dailies

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

The Royal Commission on Newspapers, also known as the Kent commission, reported with dark foreboding on July 1, 1981, that “concentration engulfs Canadian daily newspaper publishing” and that “the years ahead will see more, unless the law is changed.” The law was not changed, any more than it was in response to a similarly sombre report from the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media in 1970. But concentration has not gone on increasing. In fact, a counteracting influence—not overlooked by the Kent commission, but underrated—has been present in Canadian newspapers since shortly after the earlier Senate committee reported. That was when the tabloid The Toronto Sun on Nov. 1, 1971, sprang up to replace the old Telegram, which publisher John Bassett had given up after a long struggle.

Since then, the Sun has become a major player in Canadian newspapers, alongside the likes of Southam, Thomson, Torstar and Armadale. Having first become highly profitable in competition with the Star and The Globe and Mail in Toronto, the Sun launched itself head-on against The Edmonton Journal in 1978 and the even more solid Calgary Herald in 1980. The Edmonton Sun has been profitable since 1983; even more remarkably, given its later start and the slide in the Alberta economy brought about by lower world oil prices, so has The Calgary Sun. The performance of the Suns demonstrated three things: 1) that newspapers make money-some of them lots of it and quite quickly; 2) that recent prices of existing newspapers (a reflection of number 1 above) make it cheaper to start one than buy one; 3) that big-city newspapers are not immune from challenge.

The chains have not gone since the Kent commission studied them in 1980-1981. But neither have they extended their grasp or have many dailies gone under without others coming in to take their place. The number of active daily newspaper titles in the country is within four or five of what it was at the beginning of the 1970s. Since some large and old established newspapers have gone under in the interval—it was the nearly simultaneous shutdown of The Winnipeg Tribune and The Ottawa Journal that caused the Kent commission to be set up—it is evident that a phenomenon more

like orderly forest renewal than irreversible blight has been taking place.

The factors already cited have ensured that some new newspaper-owning groups have developed, to ensure that the few hands the Kent commission feared the country’s newspapers were falling into have become more numerous. In that light, anyone would have to take note of the spread into English Canada of Pierre Péladeau’s Quebecor, which now controls the tabloid The Winnipeg Sun (unrelated to the other Suns) and has plans for a Montreal English-language tabloid; Conrad Black’s reorienting his Hollinger company, once literally a gold mine, into a foreign (London Daily Telegraph) and domestic media company; and, in the Atlantic provinces, the changed focus of Newfoundland Capital Corp. from airlines to radio and, particularly, newspapers.

From the perspective of an intelligently produced new weekly, the prospects for newspapers somehow look less dire

Not the least interesting of these is Newfoundland Capital, whose guiding hand is that of Harry Steele, late lieutenant-commander, Royal Canadian Navy. The former jewel in the Newfoundland Capital crown was Eastern Provincial Airways, which was sold to CP Air, which in turn has become part of Canadian Airlines International. The company’s interests now comprise Robinson-Blackmore, which publishes 12 (or most) of Newfoundland’s main weeklies; a couple of Halifax-area radio stations; and a tabloid, born the Bedford-Sackville Weekly News, now, as The Daily News, established like a flea in a blanket in the Halifax-Dartmouth market. The prospective star in this cast is The Sunday Express in St. John’s, still not a year old, and called by Jeffrey Simpson, the free-ranging Ottawa columnist of The Globe and Mail, the best paper in Newfoundland.

Simpson could have been giving a plug to an old colleague or a couple of old colleagues; Michael Harris, the 39year-old publisher and editor-in-chief of the Express, is a former member of The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau, as is Barbara Yaffe, featured writer. If

so, reading the paper says that the plug is not unwarranted. For a start, the paper—broadsheet in newspaper terms, full-sized in most people’s— looks good: the makeup is clean, pictures well displayed, type eminently readable. (The rival St. John’s Evening Telegram, 109 years old and counting, is grey by comparison.) The Express also has the distinction of appearing to have been been proofread—an essential publisher-editor Harris cannot have picked up from his previous employment. Harris’s desk looks like the desk of a reporter, which is to say like the desk of someone who does not have lunch brought in on a tray. On the desktop, along with a Macintosh computer, there is a paper bag from a coffee shop with a carton of coffee in it and a half-eaten bran muffin and an opened phone book half hidden by miscellaneous newspapers, reports and notes. The letter basket overflows. There is a Sony TV in the room and a VCR and a sports bag containing a towel, a hairbrush and sports shoes. Harris was—is—an energetic, hard-digging reporter; he was the reporter who brought to general notice the story of Donald Marshall, the Nova Scotia Indian convicted of a murder he did not commit. His book Justice Denied has been widely applauded.

So, what is he doing here, running a weekly that looks like a national paper where a community newspaper would seem to be called for? The company’s intention to make the Express into a daily obviously has a lot to do with it. The decision that remains to be taken is when. The paper itself is doing well, with a press run of about 14,000 (although getting carriers to deliver a once-weekly paper with scattered customers is not easy). But St. John’s right now is not flushed with prosperity. Meanwhile, Harris is happy with his staff, which also includes the multitalented Ray Guy; with the number of dug-by-themselves stories his young staff get into the paper compared with the rival Thomson daily; their avoidance of simply recycling press releases; and the benefit he himself has had from having to learn the technical side of turning out a newspaper.

From the perspective of an intelligently produced new weekly looking forward to going daily against the local scion of the biggest chain of them all, the prospects for newspapers somehow look less dire.