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Paper tigers.


IF YOU HAPPEN TO CATCH WINNIPEG Sun publisher Al Davies chuckling to himself these days, there's good reason. With nearly 10 years under its belt and a modest record of success, the Sun is enjoying the last laugh at those doomsayers who steadfastly claimed the paper wouldn't last six months.

From his office at the Sun's 40,000 square foot plant on Church Avenue, Davies, the only one of the original trio of co-founders still with the paper, reflected on the growth and development during the '80s: "Overall, I'd say I'm satisfied with where we've gone with the Sun. People in Winnipeg have embraced the tabloid format and it's reflected in our steady growth in readership. It took the Tribune 85 to 90 years to achieve circulation figures of 50,000; we accomplished that feat in less than 10."

As daily readership has increased, so too has the Sun's annual revenue figures. Five years ago, the paper grossed a meager $6.5 million for one year; in 1989 the paper generated about $13 million in revenue. "Lineage was down last year," he says, "but revenues remained constant."

With an open agate line rate of $1.42 for weekday issues and $1.75 on Sundays (compared with a CNU modular agate line rate of $4.63 Sunday to Friday in the Free Press, and $5.94 on Saturdays), Davies contends that the advertiser is getting good value for his ad dollar. "In the early years, most people did not know how to advertise in a tabloid. But, many have learned, and those that did, have done well."

It was early September, back in 1980 when the news conference was called to announce the launch of a new paper for Winnipeg. Less than a month had passed since Thomson Newspapers of Toronto and Southam News had struck a deal that resulted in the demise of Southam's Winnipeg Tribune. The conference room at the Marlborough Hotel was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Who was behind this new venture? How could they hope to take on the Goliath Winnipeg Free Press when the venerable Tribune had failed? Suddenly, over the sound system came the dulcet tones of none other than the Beatles, harmonizing their '60s rendition of "Here Comes the Sun."

Such was the genesis of Western Canada's third tabloid newspaper, the Winnipeg Sun. Unlike its namesakes in Calgary and Edmonton, the Winnipeg version was not affiliated with the bellwether of Canadian tabloid newspapers, the Toronto Sun. Started from scratch by a triumvirate of independent local businessmen, the Winnipeg Sun began as a tri-weekly and tried to be both livelier and higher brow than the stodgy Free Press.

Within a year, the neophyte Sun became a daily, but the city was slow to warm to this new and somewhat brash style of reporting the news. Screaming 96-point headlines that consumed much of the front page were foreign to stuffy Winnipeggers. Despite low advertising rates ($870 a page for a one time insertion compared with the $6,080 a page weekday rate at the Free Press), frequency discount systems and a razzle-dazzle style, the Sun failed to take a major bite out of local or national advertising budgets. And, with average daily readership of less than 40,000, it had little impact on the figures the Free Press had built up - nearly 167,000 readers on weekdays, and 180,000 on Saturdays!

Clinging to both hope and life, the Sun was eventually sold by the Winnipeg trio in 1983 to Quebecor Inc.'s Pierre Peladeau, described recently in Canadian Business magazine as "the most powerful francophone press lord outside France." Along with some much-needed financial stability, Peladeau brought a new, bolder and daring look to the Sun. Once again, in true fashion, Winnipeggers were slow to react. Circulation and readership numbers rose only marginally. In March 1984, for example, the Sun had just over 39,000 weekday readers, little change from the pre-Peladeau days.

However, with an 18 percent share of the Monday-to-Friday market, the Sun was making an impact. But, the impenetrable armor of the prodigious Free Press was still unscathed. Its weekday numbers were now up to 175,865, a noticeable increase from 1980. People were obviously reading both papers.

While this could hardly be called the battle of the century, it was apparent that the four-year-old "David" had, at the very least garnered the attention of the mighty "Goliath."

It was a harbinger of things to come for the rest of the decade. The Sun's weekday readership would climb slowly, but steadily, reaching a record high of 50,162 last March - a 23 percent market share. The Free Press, meanwhile, would see its numbers decline, dropping under 168,000 in 1988, and to 166,610 last year.

While the gap between the two papers remains wide, it is not an issue says Davies: "We don't have any aspirations of having circulation figures in the 150,000 to 190,000 range. We're a small daily newspaper that can be healthy and profitable with a readership of between 50,000 and 75,000.

"Our paper has become very consistent with the way people garner their news information today. They tend not to turn to one single source of information, rather, they turn to several and blend them all together. Therefore, we don't see ourselves as the journal of record for news seekers; rather, we're a component of the overall news process."

As such, Davies does not feel the Sun is in direct competition with the Free Press, nor does he fear its presence. "We don't sit here and wring our hands every day when the Free Press comes out or every time they make an announcement. Our paper is very committed to the way people get their information today. All of us have become conditioned to half-hour and one hour time segments. Television programs, in particular newscasts, are usually of one, or the other duration. Our readers can go through our paper, comfortably, front to back, in 30 minutes. They can't do that with the Free Press. People's attention spans don't permit an hour-and-a-half or two hour read."

Sun editor Bryan Dunlop, brought in three years ago from the Kitchener-Waterloo daily, says the paper has made a conscious effort to provide its readers with more news, particularly local items, something that the other tabs in Canada have not done. "The Calgary/Edmonton Sun formula of more columns and less local news reporting works well for them, but we have tried to be more of a `news' paper," he says. "We spend more on our news resources than the other tabloids, yet we have maintained the bright, breezy, easy-to-read style introduced by the tabs."

Along with trying to establish it as a community-driven paper, both men take pride in pointing out that the Sun has blazed many new trails in the growth and evolution of newspapers in Winnipeg. "We have a lot of firsts in the industry in this town," beams Dunlop. "We were the first to offer a Sunday paper in Winnipeg; the first to provide morning delivery; the first with color on the front page on a regular basis. One has to wonder what kind of newspaper the Free Press might have been if we weren't around."

"People have embraced the tabloid format," says Davies. "When we first came on the scene, there were very few boxes in the city; single copy buying was not popular, people relied on home delivery. The Sun has changed the way people in Winnipeg buy and read their newspaper."

While it has not responded to the Sun's evolvement with any knee jerk reactionary measures, the Winnipeg Free Press has, nonetheless, initiated a few new wrinkles (new for them, at least) in recent years. For example, it introduced its first Sunday edition in 1986 with resounding success. Initially, the Free Press outpaced the Sun nearly three-to-one in readership, but while its numbers have remained constant at approximately 150,000 Sunday readers, the Sun has surged ahead from 51,775 four years ago to nearly 58,000 today.

In response to the Sun's popular early morning home delivery the Press announced last fall that it would begin an a.m. delivery to homes this April. And, since last fall, the broadsheet has been making subtle, yet significant changes to the overall look of the paper.

"The changes they have been making are mainly in the packaging," says an undaunted Davies. "I haven't seen any changes in their attitude which most often tends to be arrogant. They feel they run Winnipeg from a news standpoint which, they think, gives them the right to tell everyone else how to cover things. Their content may be changing, but there's no philosophical change.

"The amount of advertising revenue available to all of us in the print media is shrinking, so the Free Press will be forced to produce smaller papers in the future. The Sun will remain the same size it has always been."

Perhaps Davies and his band of merry followers at the Sun have found the formula that answers the famous complaint about women uttered by Professor Higgins to Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady, "Why can't a newspaper be more like a friend?" IN HIS FOURTH FLOOR OFFICE OFF AN archaic, drab, outpost newsroom at 300 Carlton Street, Winnipeg Free Press publisher and chief executive officer Arthur Wood points to a picture of his Montreal Star newsroom of the 1950s. "Look at this," he says. All the men are wearing white shirts and ties; no bluejeans, standard dress for many of the newsroom denizens today.

Wood recently ordered the men of Free Press editorial staff to wear ties at work as part of a new sartorial improvement campaign. It's only one of many changes he's introduced since his arrival in 1987.

"Of course, we'll never get it back the way it was (white shirts)," he says. "It's mostly our own fault (the newspaper's) because we've let things slide too far."

The slide includes a 9,000 drop in circulation since 1984 which the Thomson head office in Toronto seemed to ignore.

Wood was parachuted into the FP in 1987 to replace former publisher Donald Nicol and is completing a three year "fix-it" stint; a mission he is adamant about!

"My personal mission is to make the Free Press a better newspaper," he states, "and I'm not about to let anybody take anything out of this (advertising) market before I go. If my successor lets that happen, that will be his problem, but he'll have a road map before then."

When he arrived at the paper he canvassed community opinion, including politicians and businessmen. Then he made some changes. "If your news package isn't sound, you lose readers and subscriptions; a loss of advertising follows," he says. "My main reason for coming and my main interest is in the news package."

The paper's Sports section was the first to feel the waves of changes. A new administrative editor, Mark Stevens, was hired, moving former editor Hal Sigurdson to strictly column work. Coverage of the Winnipeg Jets (the number one beat) was passed from Reyn Davis to Grant McGinnis. The Sport pages, which garner 70 percent of the FP's readership are now brighter and bolder.

Wood then introduced three new columnists: a reader's Ombudsman, a consumer advocate column and a local business news column. And, the paper opened a Washington Bureau with editorial writer and former city editor of the Montreal Star, David MacDonald.

Other changes were defensive responses to Southam Newspapers which bought several weeklies in the Winnipeg area two years ago. Wood created five new area weeklies which piggy back in the Free Press Sunday edition. They have lower advertising rates - $800 for a full page - for small and medium-sized businesses who can't afford even part of the $6,000 per page cost of the main paper. Southam gave up and left the weeklies to another company which has since cut back the editorial content and created almost a pure flyer.

Pleased with the success of this foray, the Free Press, in February, added a sixth weekly for 35,000 rural readers, another spot for small to medium-sized advertisers beyond the Perimeter Highway. Wood's efforts seem to be paying off. In October, for the first time since 1984, the Free Press halted its annual circulation slide. Audit Bureau of Circulation 1989 figures show the paper's circulation increased Monday to Friday by 3,387 over the same ratings period in 1988.

And it comes at a good time, because on the horizon, is a move from the run-down brick building downtown into a new $125-million high-tech plant in the Inkster Industrial Park in 1991. New Goss Colorliners presses will improve the look of the paper with better color reproduction for advertising which means better national ad revenues.

Thomson has money, lots of it. Its 1988 annual report shows the company earned profits of $306 million on gross sales of $981 million for an industry high return on investment of 31.2 percent. Free Press revenue figures aren't available.

One of the last significant changes Wood will see before his retirement on April 30, will be the Free Press morning home delivery. Starting Saturday, April 21, the FP will arrive on doorsteps at 7 a.m. daily going head-to-head with the Winnipeg Sun, which built its circulation as an early morning home delivery paper. Wood says the move is to curtail the Sun's growth.

"We're prepared to keep the Sun (its circulation) where it is," he says. "We respect the competition in the news sense," he adds as an afterthought.

Wood is a stout, big shouldered man, with a stentorian voice. He has a crisp, decisive manner of speaking reflecting his British Royal Navy Lieutenant's rank during World War II. He is a stern, polite Englishman who dominates people with his intense manner. He is annoyed at the Sun, like a bear is annoyed with a gnat. He wouldn't pose with Sun publisher Al Davies for the cover of this issue. He blames Davies for trying to steal some of the 4,200 FP carrier boys and girls by putting recruiting notes in Free Press bundles.

"What they're trying to do isn't right," he says, in a civil but intimidating voice. "And, I don't really consider the Sun as competition."

The Free Press challenge could be a death threat for the Sun if the Quebecor-owned tabloid starts to lose circulation. The Sun's pockets aren't deep enough to get into a circulation war.

The work of improving the paper has been hectic love for Arthur Wood. It caps a 42-year career which has not been without grief. He was publisher of the Montreal Star when it was shutdown in 1979, a victim of a long strike and readership dissatisfaction which shifted to Montreal's Gazette. A year later, as publisher of the Ottawa Journal, he read the requiem when the paper was closed as a money loser.

"I don't want to be known as the undertaker of newspapers," he says. "I've seen what can happen in eight or nine months. You've got to keep reader loyalty."

In 1987, a Thomson executive asked him to go to Winnipeg from a weekly in Cambridge, Ontario, where he was planning his retirement. Free Press Publisher and CEO Donald Nicol, a crusty war horse, was retiring and an experienced publisher was needed. Many felt that although Nicol might have been emasculated by Thomson's tightly controlled Toronto office, he was a do-nothing publisher. The paper needed strong leadership.

Wood says he knows little of the Nicol era and he adds he has found no problem in dealing with the Thomson head office. He couldn't explain why all the changes he has made were not done before.

"I've heard these stories about the Thomson regime, but I think what happens to an individual property within Thomson ultimately comes back, in many cases, to the publisher not fighting hard enough for what he believes he should get," he says.

Thomson purchased the FP in 1980 from Winnipeg's Sifton family, the year after Nicol became publisher. That year several union factions at the paper, including a new one in the newsroom, dovetailed, and a contract was signed in 1981. It changed the paternal atmosphere at the paper under the Sifton family into a battle field of union wills and management authority.

Employees of the Nicol era agree the 1981 unionization of the paper started a discipline campaign by management in a show of "who's the boss."

Newsroom chief, Murray Burt, removed Barry Mullin as city editor. Mullin was too strong for Burt, and staffers say the ebullient Mullin was a political victim of a new coalition between Burt and then assistant city editor Dave Lee (now assistant managing editor). Mullin has since been appointed the paper's reader's Ombudsman by Wood.

When Lee became city editor, reporters faced tough work output ratings and back room chats where they encountered Lee and his new assistant Patrick Flynn, a stone-faced, "Dragnet cop" authoritarian.

There were conflicts. One reporter was told not to laugh in the newsroom. The worst affront was the suspension of reporter Cecil Rosner for a television interview regarding a Free Press issue. A labor board arbitration hearing reversed the suspension.

Reporters left en masse. Between 1981 and 1987, more than 80 reporters had quit their jobs, according to a union list. The losses were inordinate by any standard. With an average of 20 reporters on staff, it meant there had been a 300 percent turnover.

When Wood arrived, they were still leaving. He wanted to know why. He says he interviewed 15 departing journalists and encouraged them to be frank. "I believed 25 to 30 percent of what they told me."

He has had several talks with Murray Burt about newsroom morale. "We don't agree on some things," Wood says, laughing gently.

There has been one change, though: former night city editor Mike Ward was removed and given a consumer advocate column. Ward's life seemed charmed under Burt's wing. A tenacious reporter himself, he occasionally clashed badly with other staff. On one occasion, for example, he angrily berated and threatened to fire a young female reporter one night. He was suspended for a week, but not fired. Ward was eventually removed by Wood.

The "improved" Free Press may never be in serious financial difficulty, but it will take more than white shirts in the newsroom and cosmetic changes for circulation to rise. A marketing manager has been hired to do just that.

As for Arthur Wood, he boldly predicts the newspaper will pick up a further 8,000 subscribers by this time next year. A brave call for a veteran publisher and a prediction that warrants watching with interest as the paper's new publisher will be on board as Wood's magic unfolds.

PHOTO : Winnipeg Sun Publisher Al Davies: No longer an upstart.

PHOTO : Art Wood, Free Press Publisher: Mortician or newspaper doctor?
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Title Annotation:battle for readers between the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun
Author:Gage, Ritchie; Bain, Don
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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