Thursday, 26 February 2009

WestMan Dumpling 5: Pee on the Newspaper

Continuing on my WestMan theme .... there's an interesting battle going on between Brandon's two newspapers. For those not familiar with Brandon's print media here's a primer:
Brandon Daily Sun 1882 scan
The Brandon Sun is the only daily paper and has been around in one form or another since 1882. It's an old Thompson paper, like the Winnipeg Free Press, and the two were bought together in 2001 by the FP Newspapers Income Fund. Circulation (according to FP): 14,000 per day.

It's the broadsheet "newspaper of record" for the region and keeps its content entirely behind a subscription wall - including obits and classifieds.

The Wheat City Journal is a free, weekly community paper that started in 2002. It was bought by Glacier Ventures, publisher of the Western Producer and other western papers, in 2004. Circulation (according to the Journal): 20,000 per week.

It's a tabloid, feel good newspaper focusing most of it's attention on volunteer groups, school sports, interviews with locals and the like.

On Saturday February 21st 2009 The Sun ran an editorial entitled
Local media diversity under threat”. It started off with:

"Several local media organizations now appear to be struggling under the weight of new economic and technological realities. Given their existing business models, it’s unclear whether they will be able to survive"

and outlined events around
CTV's announcement that it's selling off Brandon's CKX TV. As you'd expect in an editorial, it didn't specifically quote people but it paraphrased and attributed statements to the CKX station manager, the CTV GlobeMedia release, and provided numbers and dates where needed.

After a eulogy for its not-quite-yet-dead TV friend, the editorial was used to make an interesting back-door beg at the advertisers of their newsprint rival, the Journal, by writing:

"The latest edition is the thinnest we’ve seen, weighing in at just 16 pages. This is likely a result of the fact that the Journal appears to be rapidly shedding employees.... The Journal is also moving its offices out of The Town Centre at the end of the month and into its distribution centre — another sign of cost-cutting and shrinking business operations."

Youch !

I say "back door" because there are no quotes or paraphrased statements from anyone involved with the Journal. No numbers or dates from media releases or previous stories. Just a lot of "likely", "appears to" etc. Lucky for readers - and potential advertisers - the Sun says though the Journal isn't alone in hitting "hard times", (in fact, papers across the continent are feeling the same thing, don't you know), the "...Brandon Sun, however, remains relatively strong from a business point of view".

Today, the Journal struck back with Wheat City Journal’s demise is in poor taste and clearly misguided and it came up on the eBrandon forums (Newpaper Wars).

The Journal article said that moving their offices into the same building as their distribution centre is
to "better co-ordinate activities" and to "keep our advertising rates low". It part of a move that will, later this year, see a change to new press facilities to allow for four colour printing on each page.

Since the Sun opened the door on parent company matters, the Journal gushed back that 2008 was Glacier's best year ever - though from the chart below it appears that neither parent company should be doing a happy dance.

The Journal was also able to toss back a rumour grenade of it's own by speculating about what happens when the current agreement to print the Globe and Mail ends in 2010. (So far all contracts have been renewed except for the region currently printed by the Brandon Sun).

Speaking of presses, what the Sun doesn't remind us in its editorial is that FP Canadian Newspapers Limited Partnership is expected to close the printing plant in Brandon next year and move all those jobs and benefits to Winnipeg.

It was interesting to see a venerable daily taking the low road by floating a rumour about a free weekly, of all things. Granted, decades back papers did duke it out with each other but usually papers of similar size and based on editorial positions as seen in this Tribune flurry from May 1942:
In modern times, though, reporting and editorials have 'professionalized' at major daily papers. The same standards and responsibilities are expected whether you are reporting on friends or foes - even competing businesses (can you imagine inserting a local car dealer or restaurant in place of "the Journal" ? Theres no way that would make it to print !). In Winnipeg, where both dailies have had their share of woes in recent months, they kept the reporting on each other at a professional level. Will that continue into the future, though ?
Newspaper Boxes
Brandon's battle of the newspapers might be a canary in the coal mine.

As circulation and advertising dollars continue to decline could the desperation for the remaining revenue and readership make things like floating rumours about your competitors in editorials fair game ? Does it stop at other newspapers or websites and other services deemed as competition ? What about advertisers or events that choose to advertise only with a competitor with their limited ad dollars ?

It will be interesting to see if this becomes more the norm and spreads to larger centres. It will also be interesting to see if this backfires on the Brandon Sun.


PolicyFrog said...

You know, borrowing an old trick from FM radio and engaging in a little war of words might actually help to drive sales and web traffic at both the Freep and Sun. Maybe the folks in Brandon have already figured this out? Hmm...

mrchristian said...

Heh. That would be an interesting tactic !

Grant said...

Full disclosure: I work at the Bdn Sun.

That said, I don't think the original editorial was mean at all to the Journal. Seemed to me that it was more commiserating with them -- and whereas the editorial didn't cite sources, it did point at readily-verifiable facts, like the fact that the Journal, once 40 pages or more every week in two sections, is down to just 16 pages in one section.

As well, it's inarguable that the masthead has shrunk dramatically. Neither of those two things auger well for the long-term survival of the paper, though the Journal's obituary has been written many times before and it's still around.

Sure, the original editorial boasted a bit about the Sun's financial position (I'm in no position to know those numbers) but it didn't read like gloating or meanspiritedness to me.

If you're talking about taking potshots in editorials, if anything, it was the Journal's response that was over-the-top, but it sure did kickstart a community discussion!

mrchristian said...

@Grant. Welcome and Thanks for commenting !

Using the facts of the CKX case (talking about the info that appear in the CTV Globemedia press release, a conversation with the (named) station manger etc. in previous stories) then making the leap, through the transitive property of media troubles, that the Journal is going down for the count, too, (gee, we're sorry to hear that),was a bad leap to make. Even if it turns out the Journal is ready to fall (which I have no idea about one way or the other) well, that's the difference between having journalistic standards for printing something in the newspaper versus someone blurting something out at a coffee shop.

The 'verifiable facts' that the Journal is in the same boat as CKX ...if there are less people (staff and customers) at Pizza Express when you've been going lately is it a verifiable fact that they're shutting down? Could it instead be that their take-out business is up significantly or could the books themselves be okay but they're experiencing a drop in sales due to the unusually cold winter or the recession ? I think jumping to a conclusion strong enough to warrant commentary in the daily paper about the impending closure of Pizza Express,(even if in a commiserative tone) simply couldn't be done.

Additionally, if the Brandon Sun owned a pizza restaurant next door to it it would have been seen as little more than using the paper to drive customers away from it's competition. Commenting on direct competition you have to be MORE, not less, careful about what you say. The Bombers' head coach saying Steven Page should lose his job is one thing but saying that the Riders' head coach should lose his job is another. The latter is going to have deeper consequences.

When I first read the article I thought it was a cheap ploy to raise doubt in the minds of potential Journal advertisers by floating a balloon about their impending death. Having read it again for the blog post I still get the same feel.

average city said...

I believe the Portage Daily Graphic (a Sun Media paper) will soon be history. They have cut back from seven to five days for publication, and are no longer be printing in Portage - the paper will be trucked out from Winnipeg every morning. People in Portage expect to see it go under soon.

mrchristian said...

That wouldn't surprise me about the Daily Graphic. It almost should be a weekly paper - most of the daily news is covered by Winnipeg papers now an, man, the paper is wafer thin some days.