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  • Newspaper orphans can do just fine

    08/15/2014 9:11 AM

    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.


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

    08/8/2014 10:54 AM

    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 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.


  • They fought for a country that sent them away

    07/29/2014 12:43 PM

    A century ago, my grandfather did something remarkable.

    He signed up to defend Britain, a country that had found no place for him and banished him as a young child to servitude on a farm in southern Ontario.

    A story in today's Free Press tells of a long overdue commemoration of the contribution and sacrifices of thousands of British Home Children in the First World War, which began 100 years ago this week. Hockey commentator Don Cherry lent his support to the effort, as his own grandfather was a home boy who fought in the war.

    The Home Children were British orphans, or children whose parents could not care for them, who were sent to Canada in the later 1800s and early 1900s to placements primarily as farm hands and domestic servants.

    There are horror stories about the treatment of some of them. I know few details of the experience of my grandfather, Arthur Francis Wilding. He died in 1923, less than a month after my mother was born.

    But I know enough to understand that it was not easy for him. He was, apparently, born out of wedlock in Victorian England around 1883 and sent to Canada a decade later by the Fegan Boys' Home in London.

    He ended up on a farm near Guelph at the age of 10, worked as hard as you can imagine working on a farm in the 1890s, and, as an adult, found work with a railway as a fireman on locomotives.

    He settled down to raise a family in Palmerston, Ontario, and had four children by the early stages of the Great War.

    Nevertheless, he went into the recruiting office in Palmerston in 1915 and signed up for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force, as Canada's field service was known in the First World War.

    Whatever his experience had been -- an outcast child in England, sent to a land he'd never seen -- his sense of duty and partriotism overcame all of that.

    In fact, almost all 10,000 home boys in Canada at the time signed up to fight in the Great War, pulled by the same forces as my grandfather.

    He returned to Canada at the end of the war, had two more children with his wife, Margaret, and then died a young man at age 39 after a life of hardship, duty and sacrifice.

    I'm glad the war contributions by him and thousands of others are being recognized -- it's about time.


  • Pot decriminalized in the heart of the U.S.A.

    07/21/2014 1:56 PM

    Get caught with a small bag of marijuana in the heart of the capital city of the United States and you are in store for an unusual punishment -- a $25 fine.

    On a visit to Washington, D.C., last week I was surprised to read in my morning Washington Post that a law passed by the local council for the district went into effect to decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

    Surprised because the U.S. federal government remains staunchly against decriminalization or legalization of pot, even though it can now be legally purchased in Colorado and Washington state for both medical and non-medical use and a number of other jurisdictions have also loosened rules.

    Washington, D.C., is a microcosm for the debate and the dilemma over marijuana use in the U.S., and an example for Canada where pot is almost certainly going to be a big issue in the next federal election.

    Washington city police will now simply issue tickets that carry a fine less than the one imposed for littering.

    But possession is still illegal under federal law. And many places in Washington are policed by federal authorities.

    So you could, in theory, face nothing but a fine for walking down Pennsylvania Avenue with a bag of pot, then get arrested if you walked across Constitution Avenue to the National Mall, the national park that is home to such iconic sites as the Lincoln Memorial.

    Washington council is not alone. A number of U.S. jurisdictions have opted to change their approach to drug laws, especially in light of evidence showing the most likely people to be charged with minor marijuana offences are young black men, even though use of the drug is much more evenly distributed in the population.

    The district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., recently announced that his office will no longer prosecute minor marijuana offences. And there is proposed legislation in New York that would decriminalize possession across the state, turning it into a violation comparable to a parking ticket.

    So why is this similar to Canada?

    What the U.S. experience shows is that there is popular support for loosening marijuana laws and change is happening regardless of unchanging federal drug laws.

    In Canada, public opinion surveys have shown for some time there is substantial public support for decriminalizing possession of marijuana and majority support for legalizing the sale of the drug.

    Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supports legalizing pot and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government opposes it.

    Here we are going to see the same debate being played out in the U.S. take a central role in the federal election campaign, expected next year. Stay tuned. Just as in Washington, it's going to be interesting.


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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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