From the day the first edition rolled off the presses in 1872, the Winnipeg Free Press has been an integral part of the city and province it serves. It is a position the newspaper is certain to maintain in the new millennium.
Part of the for the Free Press’ success can be attributed to the fact that it is only two years younger than the province of Manitoba, which joined Confederation in 1870, and actually two years older than the City of Winnipeg, which was incorporated in 1874. the result is that the newspaper has been around as long as the community itself, faithfully recording the growth and development of a muddy Prairie settlement at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers into one of Canada’s leading cities and the capital of a thriving province of more than one million people.
Indeed, there is no other major newspaper in Canada that is so closely associated with the hopes, dreams and ambitions of its readers than the Free Press. Over the years, the newspaper has gained a reputation as the province's leading source of news, information and debate about local matters and ideas, as well as Manitoba’s voice on national and international issues.
It is a reputation that can be traced back to the original owner and editor of the Free Press, W.F. Luxton, and his partner John A. Kenny. Together, these men launched a newspaper that was to grow into a formidable journalistic and commercial force and serve as the linchpin for a national chain of newspapers stretching across much of the country.
With a population of 1,467, the Winnipeg of 1872 was the largest of several budding communities in Manitoba at a time when the future was as wide open and bright as the blue Prairie sky. Yet its future was by no means assured. By late 1880, the recently incorporated City of Winnipeg found itself in a competition with the nearby communities of Selkirk and Emerson for the new railroad that was being built across the country. After some debate, Winnipeg was eventually selected as the site, forever assuring the community's place as the province's leading city and providing the Free Press with a source of readers that would help make it one of the most important newspapers in the country.
By the turn of the century, Manitoba had become an important player on the national scene. The railroad had helped bring hundreds of thousands of settlers to the Prairies, making Winnipeg a boomtown and the most important city in the West. And as the city became more important in local and national affairs, so did the Free Press.
In retrospect, it is clear that two developments at this time were crucial to the continued success of the Free Press and its eventual development as one of Canada’s great newspapers. One was the acquisition of the newspaper by Sir Clifford Sifton, a man who distinguished himself as a powerful cabinet minister in the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and would be remembered as one of the patriarchs of Western Canada. The other was Sifton’s decision to hire John W. Dafoe as editor of the newspaper and E.H.. Macklin as its chief business manager. Together, these three men provided the Free Press with the journalistic and commercial leadership required to outlast its competitors and maintain its position as the largest selling newspaper in Manitoba.
It was during these years that the Free Press cemented its reputation as the leading voice of Western Canada, thanks in large measure to the talents of John Dafoe. Writing on the editorial page of the Free Press Dafoe consistently and elegantly put forward the case for Western Canadian interests. He supported the drive to reduce tariffs and the attempt to strike a reciprocity treaty with the United States, launched a campaign to strengthen Canadian autonomy from Britain and was a central figure in drumming up support for conscription and the formation of Sir Robert Borden's union government during the First World War.
But perhaps Dafoe - who turned down both a knighthood from then British prime minister Lloyd George and an offer to represent the government of Canada in Washington - is best known for his early understanding of the forces at work in the 1930s that would eventually lead to the Second World War. His most famous editorial is perhaps one entitled "What's the cheering for?", which was written following the signing of the Munich Pact in 1938. Dafoe stood alone among Canadian editorialists in refusing to praise the deal, even though many subscribers of the Free Press had grown tired of his pessimistic outlook.
Other journalists also contributed to the growing reputation of the Free Press. Cora Hind, who joined the Free Press in 1901 as an agriculture writer, was one of the leading female journalists of her day. Legend has it that she could walk into a grain field in August and predict the size of the crop in the fall.
Over the years, the Free Press has continued to build on the foundation laid down by Sifton, Dafoe and Macklin. As the city and province grew, so did the newspaper’s circulation. By the mid-1980s, the Free Press had outgrown its once–grand downtown quarters at 300 Carlton Street and began developing plans for construction of a $150–million plant on Mountain Avenue, in the city's northwestern corner.
Completed in 1991, the new building and its equipment represented the latest in newspaper technology. The three state–of–the–art computerized presses are capable of world–class colour reproduction and can each print newspapers at a rate of 75,000 per hour.
In December, 2001, a new era began for the Free Press. The newspaper, along with sister paper Brandon Sun, was bought from Thomson Newspapers by FP Canadian Newspapers Limited Partnership, a company founded by Ronald Stern and Bob Silver, two businessmen with strong Winnipeg roots. Stern and Silver, both born and raised in the city, have been partners for 20 years in Western Glove Works and, for lesser amounts of time, in other businesses, including two large newsprint mills in Alberta and Ontario. Stern is also the former publisher of Vancouver Magazine.
The purchase of the Free Press by Stern and Silver bucked the North American trend toward bigger media companies. With the purchase, FP Canadian Newspapers Limited Partnership became the owner of the largest independent newspaper in Canada.
The success of any newspaper depends on more than good journalism. Display and classified advertising are important ingredients in maintaining healthy circulation and a viable business. The evolution of television news, including 24–hour news stations such as Newsworld and CNN, and the steady advancement of direct-mail advertising, specialty publications and Internet online news services pose a serious challenge to newspapers at the beginning of the 21st century.
The Free Press has risen to the challenge, redefining itself as a full-service marketing and communications company and focussing its energy on the things it does best: providing news and information to subscribers along with the marketing reach that comes with the ability to distribute newspapers to an average of 125,000 readers seven days a week, including over 162,000 on Saturday. This has meant redefining the role of the newspaper by creating new sections and overhauling existing ones to ensure the content is focussed on the interests of readers. It has also meant finding better ways to serve advertisers, mostly through the creation of specialty products and supplements tailored to meet the need of the customer.
Today’s Free Press is very different from the one published by Luxton and Kenny more than a century ago. However, one thing remains the same: the Free Press’ commitment to quality journalism and its dedication to promoting the intellectual, social and economic growth of the community it serves.