Business

A dimming Sun

The newspaper war and a challenge from transit freebies slows down the tabloid group

KATHERINE MACKLEM June 11 2001
Business

A dimming Sun

The newspaper war and a challenge from transit freebies slows down the tabloid group

KATHERINE MACKLEM June 11 2001

A dimming Sun

The newspaper war and a challenge from transit freebies slows down the tabloid group

KATHERINE MACKLEM

For one day last week, movie legend Sophia Loren was caught smiling her dazzling smile from street corners across Toronto. She was in town to start work on her 88th movie, Between Strangers—also her son’s feature directing debut—and her radiant face was the page 1 photo of no less than three daily tabloid newspapers. The famous grin, the eyelashes that go on forever, the jewels and the thick mane of auburn hair were most prominendy displayed by The Toronto Sun, which proclaimed in print heavier than even the star’s mascara: “Bella Sophia charms TO.”

It’s nice to see lots of Sophia Loren in Toronto, even vicariously, but the feverish

focus on her glorious mug is evidence of a newspaper war gone wonky. The batde for readers, triggered by the 1998 launch of the National Post, is taking place everywhere in Canada, but nowhere is the fight as intense as it is in Toronto. At Bloor and Yonge streets, the city’s busiest shopping crossroads, multicoloured jumbles of newspaper boxes are chained together— 90 containers in all, banked in various shapes and sizes along the four corners. Everything is there, from Truck Mart— “WIN $2,500 CASH”—to The Learning Annex—“Meet new friends GUARANTEED”—to the staid Los Angeles-based Investor’s Business Daily. Many are free. The main street fight is between the broadsheet Post and its archrival, The Globe and Mail—both purporting to be Canada’s na-

tional newspaper—but the war and its casualties have extended to other titles. Strangely, perhaps, it is the tabloid Sun, its bold red box sandwiched in one bank between the Post and The Toronto Star, that is really feeling the squeeze.

The Sun, launched out of the ashes of the Toronto Telegram in 1971, laid claim from the start to the city’s commuters. With its screaming headlines, short, punchy stories, a buxom Sunshine Girl on page 3, and an emphasis on crime and sports, the paper originally appealed to the conservative bluecollar crowd that rode the subway and streetcars to work. As it expanded to other cities in Canada, the new kid on the block became known as the little paper that grew. Today, after a series of ownership changes at the Sun and more broadly in the industry, Sun Media Corp., with eight dailies in its stable from Calgary to Quebec City, is now the second-largest newspaper chain in the country (after Southam Publications Inc.).

Pierre Francoeur, sent into Toronto by the Suns parent company, Quebecor Inc., from its Montreal headquarters, is the man who runs this mini empire. Unlike his papers, his style is understated, elegant and quiet. And unlike many newspapermen—those of the disheveled, tweedy sort—he’s dressed in a crisp white shirt, deep navy suit and matching flecked tie. Francoeur, Sun Media’s president and chief executive, has the job of making sure his newspapers are making money. And he means business when he says the newspaper market is overheated: “2001 will be a tough year for everyone.”

Prior to the arrival of the National Post, three news dailies divvied up the readership pie in Toronto—the highbrow Globe, sometimes disparagingly referred to as Toronto’s national newspaper, the Star, a hefty, ever-liberal local paper aimed at a middle-class readership, and the Sun, the feisty, inyour-face city tabloid. Now, including the Post, Toronto readers choose among seven dailies—three of which are tabloids distributed free of charge at transit stops.

With the National Post staking a claim on conservative politics and feisty journalism and the handout transit papers pitching for commuters, the competition has cut into the Suns readership. At the end of March, its paid weekday circulation had slipped by nearly four per cent in a year, to 230,600 from 239,300. Profits at its parent, Sun Media, have also been hit. Earnings fell to $35.2 million in the first three months of 2001, from $42.6 million a year earlier. The decline, while not tagged specifically to the Toronto paper, was blamed on a sharp rise in newsprint costs, lower advertising revenues, discounts by its competitors— and the free commuter dailies. The inevitable result has been layoffs.

A curious thing about the free Toronto commuter papers: two are published by existing newspaper franchises—Sun Media and the Stars owner, Torstar Corp. They were established to take on the third, called Metro, which is the real threat to the Sun. That challenge will become even tougher if Torstar and Metro go ahead with plans to merge their free papers this summer. Metro is owned by the Luxembourg-based media company Metro International S.A., publisher of nearly 20 similar freebies in 13 countries. It has also launched a free Montreal paper to compete against Quebecor’s Journal de Montréal, the Suns sister paper. In both cities, Metro has struck deals that give it exclusive access to subway commuters—access that Francoeur labels an “unfair advan-

tage” and says could hurt his company’s papers in both Montreal and Toronto. Sun Media has launched a legal challenge to the agreement in Montreal and is considering such action in Toronto.

Francoeur gives a journalist’s critique of what’s offered in the commuter paper: no analysis, no debate, no detail on the day’s biggest events—“just flat boring news.” His response to all the competition was, as he says, “to readjust the model.” Improve home delivery, add more news pages, move the Sunshine Girl off page 3 to the back pages and chop five per cent of Sun Media staff. The employee cuts will save the company $ 18 million a year and were made, Francoeur says, “in order not to kill the baby but to protect the product.”

Job cuts play to shareholders’ interests, says media watcher Chris Dornan. “While it may sound harsh, they will barely be noticed by the Sun papers’ readers,” says Dornan, director of the school of journalism and communication at Carleton University in Ottawa and the author of a report on the coverage of the latest federal election by the four Toronto dailies. Shareholders, he says, will likely approve the move.

The changing landscape has affected many media outlets. Torstar, publisher of five southern Ontario newspapers including the Star, aims to slash $20 million from its budget, although it has not yet cut staff, and the Globe recently culled staff through a round of voluntary buyouts. It is, ultimately, a vicious war. “This is not a boy scout club,” says Sun Media’s Francoeur. “I’m in this business to make money.” Sophia may be prominently featured, but the whole picture is not so pretty. ES