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  • How's the Free Press doing?

    03/14/2014 11:51 AM

    It's the question that I get asked virtually every time I am out in public: "How's the Free Press doing?"

    It often comes with a note of concern, given the heavy dose of bad publicity newspapers have been getting in recent years about their future.

    Luckily, I have the facts right at my fingertips on how the Free Press is doing.

    The newspaper is by far the largest part of FP Canadian Newspapers, which is 49 per cent owned by FP Newspapers Inc., a publicly traded company.

    That means that we must report every three months on how we are doing. We released our latest financial results on Thursday. You can find a Free Press story on them and also look at all the numbers in our full report.

    The answer on how we are doing is that last year FP saw a decrease in revenues and earnings, but remains a profitable and stable news media company in Manitoba. We have our readers and advertisers to thank for that, and we are very thankful.

    Year after year, the Free Press remains the most read newspaper in its community in Canada, when you look at large markets with competitive newspapers. Our audience has actually grown in recent years thanks to the powerful combination of both our print and digital content.

    We do not take that loyalty for granted, but work every day to earn it. Being financially accountable is part of what we do as a public company in Manitoba.

    Interestingly, if you ask how other news outlets in Winnipeg are doing, you generally will not be able to find an answer.

    Most are part of large corporations headquartered in Toronto, Montreal or Calgary. Those companies report only aggregated results for their media properties.

    So, Quebecor, owner of the Winnipeg Sun, reported its financial numbers this week, but broke down its figures only to the level of its news media segment, which includes 43 daily newspapers and hundreds of community papers.

    Shaw Communications, owner of Global Winnipeg, breaks down numbers only to the level of Shaw Media, which includes not just all Global stations across Canada, but also 19 specialty channels.

    It's a similar story at broadcast outlets owned by Bell (CTV, TSN), Rogers and Corus (CJOB).

    There really is no financial information publicly available about the Winnipeg operations of any of these companies.

    FP isn't just the Free Press and it does aggregate results. The company also owns the Brandon Sun , the Steinbach Carillon and a half dozen community papers in Winnipeg. But the Free Press is the dominant business unit and it is safe to say that FP results reflect what is happening at the paper.

    As for how we're doing, we're doing fine. The world of news media is changing rapidly and we're working every day to change with it. We're determined to keep the numbers healthy as we adapt to the future.

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  • Welcome debate over political ads in newspapers

    11/22/2013 1:16 PM

    It appears we’ve caused a bit of a stir today by selling advertising to the Liberal Party on the front of the Brandon Sun.

    A full 4-page section purchased by the Liberals is wrapped around the Sun’s Friday edition in advance of the federal byelection in Brandon-Souris on Monday. The first thing readers see is Justin Trudeau’s smiling face.

    I’ve seen the word "controversial" used in a number of tweets and blogs about the advertising. Some are a bit more graphic.

    My own reaction? It’s fantastic that we actually have a controversy over political advertising in a daily newspaper.

    Political parties, federally and provincially, abandoned newspaper advertising almost entirely in the 1960s and 1970s and turned to TV as the primary way to reach large pools of voters.

    I can show political strategists statistics on how our papers attract massive audiences in their markets, larger than TV or radio stations. I can demonstrate the effectiveness of newspaper advertising. I can show that newspaper readers are, in fact, the most likely audience to actually go to the polls on election day.

    And the advice of those strategists to their political parties will remain the same: buy TV.

    So it’s refreshing to see the use of newspapers by political parties.

    During the Nova Scotia election, the NDP bought the front page of the free daily Metro paper in Halifax. During the British Columbia election, the provincial Liberals did the same with the free daily 24 Hours in Vancouver.

    Both instances attracted criticism of the papers by those who said the ads could be confused as editorial content and looked like the papers were simply running favorable stories on the political parties.

    That’s a fair comment and certainly worth debating. Newspapers should have to defend their policies on accepting political advertising.

    At FP Newspapers, publisher of both the Brandon Sun and the Winnipeg Free Press, we accept political advertising on the same terms and in the same positions as we would any advertising.

    We regularly sell wraps around our newspapers with the actual front page covered by what is essentially an advertising flyer. These have been used to promote everything from hospital lotteries to grocery stores. We do not allow advertisers to disguise themselves or make the ad appear like it is editorial content.

    It does not mean the Brandon Sun is making special efforts to try to elect Liberal candidate Rolf Dinsdale. The wrap on the Sun was a product offering that was available to all other candidates as well.

    We have also sold advertising to the Conservative Party during the current byelections in Manitoba. Conservative Ted Falk has a full panel ad on the front page of this week’s edition of the Steinbach Carillon, in the heart of the Provencher riding which also has a byelection on Monday. Liberal candidate Terry Hayward had the same ad position last week. This is a regular ad position that we will sell to other advertisers in the future.

    Incidentally, this ad position is a recent addition to the Carillon. All newspapers are adding new ad positions and offering new ways for advertisers to reach people in what is an increasingly crowded media world where it is more and more difficult to get anyone's attention.

    Many advertisers have found front-page positions to be very effective. Lotteries that have used them report jumps in sales on days when they appear.

    No doubt such effectiveness has aroused new interest in political parties in using newspaper advertising.

    As a newspaper publisher, I’m happy about that, and happy to have any debates about political advertising that it may spur.

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  • Why following the journalism is important

    05/29/2013 3:47 PM

    So Stephen Harper does not follow the news.

    At least that is what you have to think if you also believe his repeated assertions in the House of Commons that he first learned that his chief of staff, Nigel Wright, personally paid back the dubious expenses filed by Senator Mike Duffy on the morning of May 15th.

    Problem is, the story was a major national news story on May 14th.

    And following the trail of journalism in this case shows why there are many more questions to be answered.

    Bob Fife, a veteran, excellent Ottawa reporter, broke the story on the CTV National News the night of May 14th. The show first aired at 10 p.m. Ottawa time. A version of it was on the CTV website a minute later. The newscast was repeated at 11 p.m. local time across the country. More than a million Canadians viewed the report. It spread immediately on social media.

    One of viewers, apparently, was not Stephen Harper, the person whose office was at the centre of the scandal.

    "Until the morning of May 15, when Mr. Wright informed me that he had written a personal cheque to Mr. Duffy so that he could repay his expenses, it had been my understanding that Mr. Duffy had paid from his own personal resources," Harper said.

    With his somber assertions in the Commons, Harper is counting on sending a message to a lot of Canadians who do not know much about how journalists or the prime minister’s office work.

    It’s quite possible that Harper did not watch Fife’s report. But if he was in the dark on subject the next morning, then there was a massive failure in his office, which is staffed by people whose main job is to make sure the boss knows what he needs to know.

    And the prime minister needs to know when a national story is going to break, or is breaking, involving a scandal in his office.

    Fife's report did not come as a surprise to people in Harper’s office. Fife had contacted staff there before the story ran. The PMO had even issued a statement to Fife saying that no taxpayers resources were used in paying back Duffy’s expenses. All on May 14th.

    These kinds of statements are not issued independently by low-level communications staff. A statement on such a hot topic would have to be cleared by the highest levels of the PMO, which would mean the prime minister’s chief of staff, who would know immediately what the story was about because he was at the centre of it. You can bet that top officials were watching to see what Fife aired.

    And you have to ask why Nigel Wright, whose main job was to protect the reputation of the prime minister, would not have already contacted Harper to advise him of the storm about to hit.

    Fife’s piece included reaction from NDP and Liberal spokespeople. The Duffy payment put the PMO squarely in the middle of the Senate expense scandal. The first rule of working in the PMO is never leave your boss exposed, and not knowing about Fife’s story would leave Harper wide open to attack from opponents.

    Of course, maybe Harper has been very careful in his Commons statements. The wiggle room here is that he could say, well, he knew about the Fife story, but had no confirmation until Wright told him directly the next morning what all the details were. Or maybe Harper was deliberately kept in the dark, to make sure he could later honestly deny knowing about the Duffy payment.

    One way or the other, the trail of journalism still leaves many questions to be answered.

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  • Selling government, like Coke or Nike

    05/9/2013 12:13 PM

    Stephen Harper finally conceded something this week that people in the newspaper business have been saying for a long time – federal government advertising is no longer about informing citizens.

    Maybe it’s quaint to think that government advertising should be limited to spending taxpayers’ dollars telling people the details of programs and services. But I still cling to this idea.

    Not so for the Prime Minister.

    He defended more than $100 million in advertising his government has done to promote itself, saying it helps Canadian confidence.

    "Canadians understand and are very proud of the fact that Canada's economy has performed so much better than other developed countries during these challenging times," Harper said in the House of Commons when pressed by Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

    Trudeau was questioning government plans to extend to 2016 the feel-good campaign centred on the "economic action plan" campaign.

    You know the ads – the ones that pop up over and over on ultra-Canadian programming like hockey broadcasts and Murdoch Mysteries. Smiling, happy people don hard hats and march off to work, all thanks to Stephen Harper’s government.

    They point to the "Action Plan" website. It carries a Government of Canada tag, but you would be forgiven for thinking it was put out by the Conservative Party.

    The main headline after the recent federal budget: "Harper Government Focused on Jobs, Growth And Long-Term Prosperity With Economic Action Plan."

    The site introduces us to such such people as "Sandy," who, despite being an animated, fictional character, "is relieved to hear that the Government of Canada wants to help caregivers like her..." By the end of the video on the Family Caregiver Tax Credit, Sandy has saved enough money to buy her animated mother an animated walker. This kind of advertising does not create work for Canadian actors, either.

    There does not seem to be a link to the latest report from the independent Parliamentary Budget Officer, which says that, far from increasing employment, there will be 67,000 fewer jobs in Canada by 2017 than there would have been without the measures in the budget.

    Make no mistake about who makes advertising decisions in the federal government. That is done at the cabinet table, by Stephen Harper and his ministers.

    They’re the ones who have treated us to such federal feel-good advertising as the TV commercials on the War of 1812-14, the equivalent of the British government spending money to commemorate the Napoleonic Wars.

    I’ll state my bias clearly. The government does Economic Action Plan advertising primarily on TV and radio. It has almost eliminated its spending on newspaper advertising in recent years. Government advertising that contains program information and details works well in newspapers. Brand advertising is more often seen on TV.

    But I would not be writing this if the government had simply reduced its advertising spending or was simply shifting money to new ways of reaching people. There are lots of ways of getting information to people.

    I also would not be writing this if the Conservative Party was doing this promotion. Political parties can spend money where they want.

    Taxpayer dollars are different. Taxpayers don’t need the government to make them feel good about being Canadian. They don’t need to be sold on a brand, as if the government were Coke or Nike.

    They often need information about programs and services. That’s what the federal government used to advertise. But that seems to be just an old-fashioned idea, based on Stephen Harper’s comments this week.

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About Bob Cox

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.

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