It was gallows humor at its blackest. For months, rumors had been swirling in the publishing industry that Southam Inc. planned to take drastic action to stop the continuing financial losses at the Financial Times of Canada. Those rumors led the editorial staff at the weekly business tabloid to set up a pool and begin betting on their fate. The betting options included a transfer from Southam’s business information and communications group to another division, a sale, or its closure. In the end, the mood in the Timed Toronto newsroom was calm last week as Southam business-information group president Ronald Kovas and vice-president Harvey Southam gathered employees together and told them that the paper will be sold. Said Ti mes publisher and editor John Macfarlane: “It didn’t come as a surprise.”
The auction of the Times makes it the first combatant to falter in the fierce three-way battle for business readers among itself, the daily Globe and Mail’s Report On Business and the daily Financial Post. Now, the potential buyers include the Times’ two competitors, as well as investor/author Christopher Ondaatje. The Times jumped into the competitive battle in January, 1988, when it unveiled a redesigned format by art director Derek Ungless, now at Vogue, and managed to beat a new daily edition of the Financial Post onto the street by two weeks. Guided by the stylish Macfarlane, a former publisher of Saturday Night and a former executive editor of Maclean ’s, the newlook Times featured in-depth stories.
But the redesign—supported by a $l-million promotional campaign—failed to generate the necessary circulation. Said Paul Shugart, the weekly’s director of marketing: “Average circulation for 1989 will be 113,000, versus 108,000 in 1988. But this year we were supposed to hit 168,000.”
Last week, Macfarlane blamed the October, 1987, stock market crash for the Timed failure to attract more readers. He added, “A lot of people who had been reading business publications pulled out of the market and had no more need for them.” At the same time, the crash also ravaged the market for investment-related advertising that both the Times and the Post planned to cash in on with their new editions.
While the Timed circulation growth was slow and its advertising market was shrinking, it still spent heavily to hire people from rival publications by offering them higher salaries. Said Globe and Mail managing editor Timothy Pritchard: “I warned our people that those high salaries were, in part, danger pay.”
In the end, the 77-year-old Times lost about $7 million last year and executives expect another $4.5-million loss this year. Kovas said
that Southam executives decided several weeks ago to sell, rather than invest the heavy additional sums needed to rescue the paper.
Both of the Timed major competitors say that they are interested in buying the paper,
estimated to be worth up to $30 million. Pritchard said that a Globe purchase might allow that paper to launch a Sunday edition, “if the price were right.” And Financial Post chairman Douglas Creighton said that the Post might be interested in turning the Times into a magazine, promising, “We wouldn’t buy it just to close it.” And the colorful Ondaatje actually bid unsuccessfully for the paper earlier this year. As the potential buyers queued up, they gave the Times staff new prospects—and new betting options.
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