MEDIA WATCH

Cutting the papers down to size

Much editorial matter in weekend papers is to news what popcorn is to nutrition; some of the rest may be ‘adenhancing material’

GEORGE BAIN July 23 1990
MEDIA WATCH

Cutting the papers down to size

Much editorial matter in weekend papers is to news what popcorn is to nutrition; some of the rest may be ‘adenhancing material’

GEORGE BAIN July 23 1990

Cutting the papers down to size

MEDIA WATCH

Much editorial matter in weekend papers is to news what popcorn is to nutrition; some of the rest may be ‘adenhancing material’

GEORGE BAIN

On the parcel scales at the local post office, the July 7 issue of The Saturday Star, the older and bigger of The Toronto Star's prosperous weekend pair, weighed 904 grams, 96 short of a kilogram, which is 2.2 lb. in the old measure. The Audit Bureau of Circulations’ average sales figure for The Saturday Star, as it appeared in that day’s issue, was 762,082 copies. That many copies of a paper that size—186 pages—represents 689 metric tons of newsprint. The companion Sunday Star for July 8, at only 100 pages, weighed 515 grams, which, given a circulation figure of 532,666 copies, indicated 274 metric tons of newsprint consumed. Together, that made 963 metric tons. (All these figures, and others that follow, are for issues stripped of advertising supplements for which the newspaper serves only as a delivery vehicle.)

Measuring the thickness of a newspaper is less precise than weighing it on the post office scales, mainly because thickness will vary depending on how much or little the paper is compressed. But a 100-page copy of The Sunday Star, folded in the ordinary way, picked from near the top of the stack on the newsstand counter, runs just over one centimetre thick. The fatter Saturday paper is about two. Apply the respective Sunday and Saturday circulation figures of 532,666 and 762,082 to those measurements and what you have are two teetering stacks of newspapers, the shorter 5,327 m tall and the taller, 15,241 m. That means for The Sunday Star a stack nearly as tall as Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (5,895 m), and, for The Saturday Star, a stack nearly twice as tall as Mount Everest in Nepal (8,848 m).

The Saturday Star is unique, the biggest newspaper physically and in circulation in the country. But The Sunday Star, although its smaller circulation is enough to make the publishers of most other newspapers weep with envy, is not in size unusual. Giantism has become the weekend norm. Following the two Stars onto the scales at the same weigh-in were the Winnipeg Free Press, 539 grams; the

Montreal Gazette, 545 grams; The Ottawa Citizen, 631 grams; and the Calgary Herald, 555 grams. All four were Saturday issues, although the same newspapers also publish smaller, but not small, Sunday editions. The theory that underlies the development of inflated weekend issues is that the weekend is when people have time to settle down to a good read. The circulation figures say that newspaper buyers accept the theory. The question is whether there is as much in those fat newspapers as meets the eye, and whether most of what there is need keep anyone long from the ball game or PGA golf.

For a start, what a small survey of some weekend newspapers discloses is that their claim to be carriers primarily of news—or even of any form of editorial matter, which takes in pictures, stock tables, weather charts, cartoons—is misleading. Again, not to appear to pillory The Toronto Star, with its combined Saturday-Sunday circulation of just under 1.3 million, the paper is not alone in being fat more as a sales medium than a news medium. For example, the first, and prime, news section of the July 7 Ottawa Citizen showed a 66:34 percentage split in advertising to editorial matter, significantly above the 60:40 balance the

industry usually offers, when it mentions the subject at all, as the boundary line of editorial virtue. There was one page, the front page, clear of advertisements, and one full-page ad. The rest in the 16-page section ran between 27.4 per cent and 84 per cent ads. Still, the first, and again prime, news section of the July 8 Sunday Star improved on that. With four clear pages, and a balancing four pages carrying full-page ads, a remaining 16 pages presented a roughly 75:25 percent ratio of ads to editorial material.

What is worse about our obese weekend papers is that much of the editorial matter they do contain is to news what popcorn is to nutrition, and that some of the rest is what might be called advertisement-enhancing material. The ostensible news content of any section of a newspaper that has the word “home” in its title can be counted upon to have a high proportion of material gratifying to the real estate industry whose advertising fills most of the pages. (A heading in the July 7 Saturday Star proclaimed, “Minto claims hottest-selling condominiums in town.” Minto is a large Toronto-area developer.) Travel sections exist largely to wrap a few stories about distant romantic places around advertisements designed to stir a lust for distant romantic places in susceptible readers. Entertainment sections in varying degrees are primarily vehicles for movie ads. A section indexed “Careers” will be a section of job ads.

It is unfair to compare Canadian weekend papers with, say, the Sunday New York Times, or with such London papers as The Sunday Times, the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the new Sunday issue of The Independent—but not because those others have so much larger circulations to support them. For example, The Toronto Star, with its nearly 1.3 million combined weekend circulation, is not at a disadvantage in that respect against The Sunday Times (1,251,721 for the July 8 issue) and the Observer (541,000 for the same date), both of which publish only on Sundays. And although the Sunday issue of The New York Times is perhaps even fatter than The Saturday Star, its Saturday edition has always been positively anorexic. But all those others are in markets where more people exist among whom to scrape up a sufficient following for a quality newspaper.

That, though, does not alter the fact that our weekend papers, puffy in both size and content, are vulnerable on two points. The first is that if they do not improve quality, first by ceasing to be simply run-ons of the weekday paper, and develop a perspective that is deeper than from yesterday to today, readers will decide that what they are getting is junk-food journalism, and give them up. The second is that if they don’t slim down, the environment movement will get them. Consumers of mountains of newsprint, which is then left to public authority (i.e., the taxpayer) to dispose of, are not in a good position these days to editorialize without severe challenge on such popular topics as the rape of the forests, and the need to find less wasteful ways of living. It may be a case of slim down and firm up or die.