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Bob Cox

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Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

  • Broadcasters want to force you to pay for news

    Imagine being forced to subscribe to, and pay for, the Winnipeg Free Press, if you want to look at any other newspapers or magazines.

    Ridiculous? Of course. But it is exactly like what Canadian TV providers are asking the federal broadcast regulator to put in place.

    The CRTC is holding hearings that will help determine what rule changes it makes for how TV signals are distributed -- and how you pay for them.

    Both the CBC and CTV networks have told the CRTC that the business model for local TV stations is broken and that the way to fix it is to force cable and satellite companies to pay for their signals -- and, by extension, have consumers pay for those signals. The situation is outlined well in this Globe and Mail article.

    The broadcasters want over-the-air transmission ended, so the only way you will get their signals is through cable or satellite. And they want carriage of these signals to be mandatory.

    So if you watch TV, you will pay for local channels. There will be no other way of receiving them and you won't be able to get a TV service without them. No more free TV.

    This means forced payment for all the programming on networks like CBC and CTV, and in effect forced payment for local news programming. Local TV stations in Canada do almost nothing except news and current events programming. Otherwise they are transmitter stations for nationally programmed shows.

    A local TV broadcast licence used to be called a "licence to print money." An owner had a spot on the limited airwaves and few competitors, if any. Advertising dollars rolled in to pay for everything. That's no longer the case as audiences have fragmented in the universe of unlimited TV channels.

    The situation is not unlike what has happened to newspapers, where new digital media have taken away traditional revenue streams like classified ads.

    Some newspapers are now asking readers to pay for digital access as well as print copies. But none would ever dream of asking a regulatory body to force consumers to sign up.

    But's that the solution proposed by broadcasters. Force every TV viewer to pay. The CRTC should see the argument for what it is -- a way of broadcasters getting back into a comfortable position of having a lucrative stream of revenues, guaranteed.

    Taxpayers might expect that the CBC, at least, would continue to be free. But the CBC sees no problem asking for both its public subsidy and these viewer payments. A CBC executive likened it to VIA Rail, which gets a federal subsidy and still charges for tickets.

    It's not the same, for the simple reason that people can choose to take VIA Rail, or not, and they do not have to take the railway if they want transportation.

    TV viewers have already had experience with forced funding of local programming. The CRTC established the local programming improvement fund that collected money from cable companies to fund local programming in markets of fewer than one million people. All Winnipeg TV stations got money from the fund, which took in more than $100 million a year from cable subscribers.

    That program ended as of August 31 this year. The CRTC should leave it that way, and require broadcasters to adapt to changes in markets in ways that don't include forced payments by all TV viewers.

     

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  • Banana peels and other organic material overlooked in recycling

    I'm waiting for the day when I see a sticker on a mailbox saying: "No Bananas, Please. Save Our Planet."

    You see, organic material is one of the biggest contributors to residential waste that goes to landfills in Manitoba. Yet it is often overlooked while people focus on other things that are not going to the dump.

    Like newspapers. The most recent statistics show newspapers are recycled at a higher rate than any other material in Manitoba -- 97.5 per cent of newsprint that enters the market is recycled. That's an amazing success story.

    Paper overall has a recycling rate of 92.5 per cent. The next most successful substance is glass, at 70.8 per cent.

    Yet there persists among some the preception that paper is an environmental problem.

    It's visible, high profile, and people generally don't know what happens to it.

    Plastic bags are in a similar situation. They make up a minuscule part of the waste stream yet often are targetted by well-meaning authorities. Plastic bag use has fallen by 46.7 per cent since 2007 in Manitoba and half of the remaining retail plastic bags that go into homes are re-used for tasks such as collecting other garbage and picking up after your dog.

    Why is any of this important? As Free Press writer Bruce Owen reported last week, the provincial government is developing an ambitious plan to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. Serious discussion of this initiative requires some knowledge about what is really contributing to waste.

    Manitobans send more garbage to dumps per capita than almost anywhere else in Canada. And a lot of it is stuff you don't think about.

    Between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of waste material sent to landfills is organic material -- all those banana peels, carrot tops, corn husks, grass clippings, dead leaves, etc.

    Most places in the province don't collect organics. The City of Winnipeg has taken some steps, such as regular collection of yard waste, but does not yet have a comprehensive plan.

    Then there are all the other contributors to waste. About half comes from the industrial, commercial and institutional sector. About 20 per cent comes from construction, renovation and demolition.

    I have to provide full disclosure here. I sit on the board of Multi-Material Stewardship Manitoba, the industry-funded agency that operates a province-wide recycling program for packaging and printed paper. Business that put packaging, including bottles and cans, and printed paper into the consumer market have paid for 80 per cent of municipal recycling programs since 2010.

    MMSM has done a great deal of work to improve recycling programs. As we take the next step towards reducing our waste, it's important to know what's already being recycled and where we should be looking next.

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  • Newspaper orphans can do just fine

    This week has brought another spate of items in the news predicting the death of daily newspapers.

    I’ve gotten used to these over the years. Such predictions have long been a favourite of online commentators, who gleefully predict people will be reading only them in the future.

    The main thing such writers have in common – apart from massive use of self-serving arguments -- is that they have little knowledge of the complex nature of newspaper business models or of how these models are being transformed. Attend a newspaper conference these days and you will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of new ideas being developed around the globe.

    Admittedly, I was a bit alarmed to see David Carr, the respected media columnist for the New York Times, write a piece headlined: "Print Is Down, and Now Out."

    Carr and others were commenting on a recent series of moves by large American media firms to spin off their newspapers into independent companies, separate from their more lucrative TV and digital properties.

    Thus orphaned, so the thinking goes, these newspaper companies will wither and die.

    Well, I have a message for the spun off newspaper firms: "Welcome to the orphans’ club!"

    The Winnipeg Free Press was an orphan in 2001 when it was sold by the Thomson Corp., which was divesting itself of its newspapers to focus on electronic information services.

    Ron Stern and Bob Silver had confidence in the newspaper’s future and purchased the Free Press and sister paper the Brandon Sun. In 2002, 49 per cent of the company was made into a publicly traded entity, which is now known as FP Newspapers Inc. Ron Stern remains the majority owner of the company.

    Over almost 13 years, FP has performed steadily as it has adapted to what are undeniably challenging and changing times for newspapers.

    We’ve grown to encompass two daily and eight community newspapers and many related digital businesses. We help advertisers reach customers in print, certainly, but also through many other means such as online ads and social media. Our digital developers produce websites, mobile apps and much more for customers. We print the daily Metro newspaper for Torstar as well as many community and ethnic newspapers owned by others. Our carriers now deliver not just the Free Press and Brandon Sun, but other publications as well.

    You may recall that in 2001 the big media company in Winnipeg, owner of multiple Canadian daily newspapers, was Canwest. It went bankrupt and has disappeared.

    Our most recent quarterly financial results were released today. They show us holding up better than most public newspaper companies. Revenue for the second quarter was down 5.6 per cent on a year over year basis, but expenses were also down – by 3.5 per cent before restructuring costs are considered – the result of careful management and prudent responses to drops in revenue. A bright spot was a 4.7 per cent increase in internet revenue, a continuing growth area as we develop how we serve our growing digital audience.

    At our board meeting, I presented facts on the Free Press and how its audience has changed over the past five years. It went something like this: "In 2008, our readership was 391,000 adults, in 2009 it was 412,000, in 2010 it was 419,000, in 2011 it was 410,000 and in 2013 it was 405,000 adults."

    In other words, our audience size is stable.

    Those figures alone contradict anyone predicting the imminent demise of the newspaper.

    Are times challenging for conventional newspaper companies? You bet.

    We have to adapt to the shifting reading habits of our audience – about 10 per cent of them look at our content only digitally, for example. But we are adapting, we will continue to adapt and we’ll await the day when people start commenting on the rebirth of newspapers.

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  • "Stop the Presses!" for a memorable front page

    The last time I ever heard an editor say "stop the presses" was on a cold January morning in 1986 in the old Carlton Street offices of the Free Press.

    The paper still had an afternoon edition at that time. It was mid-morning and the vibrations in the newsroom floor told us that the presses were already churning out that day's paper.

    A few reporters and editors were watching a TV as the space shuttle Challenger launched in Florida -- and then spectacularly blew up in the sky.

    We looked on, stunned for a moment. Then an editor at the city desk -- I can't remember who -- said: "I guess we better stop the presses."

    It may not have been as dramatic a statement as some from the movies, but it worked. The newsroom quickly threw together a memorable January 28th front page.

    A copy of the "Shuttle Explodes" page hangs in our current building on Mountain Avenue, and is now among a select group of front pages that are part of a Newspapers Canada effort to have Canadians choose their favourite front pages from the past 150 years.

    At frontpages.ca you can browse over these memorable pages, taken from papers across the country, and vote for your favourites in several categories.

    In the "Canada at War" section, you'll find such pages as the front of The Globe, from Oct. 4, 1917, reporting: "Canadians Lead in Triumph," an account of the capture of Vimy Ridge by Canadian troops in the First World War.

    You'll also find the Free Press front page from "If Day" in 1942, when the city simulated what life might be like if Hitler took over Winnipeg, complete with Nazi-uniformed troops marching in the streets.

    Under the "Canadian communities" section, you'll find a Manitoba Free Press front page from 1919 on Bloody Saturday, the riot during the Winnipeg General Strike when one striker was killed.

    And under "Canadian Arts, Culture and Entertainment," you'll find the front-page treatment the Free Press gave in 1964 to the Beatles the day they landed briefly at Winnipeg airport. "Winnipeg's wig flips, Girls kiss the tarmac where Beatle plane was," the headline reads.

    It's a mix of the serious and fun, the important and the merely entertaining. Check it out, and vote for your favourites.

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