Melissa Hank
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Big Push, Big Worry

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Torstar's latest strategy is to gorge on smaller regional papers like the Stoney Creek News, but nothing's beefed up about its ability to inform the community

Mark Cripps, senior editor of The Stoney Creek News, strides into the Animal Control Centre with a mission. He’s here to take pictures for a regular animal adoption spot in his paper, called Pet Pause, which he started at a local girl’s suggestion.

“Hi Mark. I didn’t get my paper last week,” a woman at the counter greets him.

“Yeah, we’ve been having some problems with distribution lately,” Cripps sighs.

He doesn’t mention that the problems stem from the takeover of the paper by the Canadian newspaper and book-publishing giant, Torstar Corp., in June 2003. And he certainly doesn’t mention that the takeover could possibly mean that local features might become less frequent. He just prowls the room looking for photogenic subjects.

Cripps’s editorial domain is Stoney Creek, Ont. – population 55,000 – located on Lake Ontario’s western shore between Niagara’s wine region and Hamilton. It’s the kind of place travel writers would describe as “quaint” and “picturesque.” But Stoney Creek is more than tree-lined streets and sun-dappled lawns. A proud, outspoken community lives here. Cripps embodies it.

His paper is printed on 38 x 30 centimetre newsprint, folded neatly in half, tabloid-style, and delivered to 24,362 homes and businesses weekly. It’s a professional-looking paper with full-colour pictures, an attractive layout and a black, white and red banner across the top. Last year, it earned three Ontario Community Newspaper Association awards, including one for General Excellence. A quick flip through the pages of a fall 2003 issue reveals community-centred stories such as “Flag day revival underway” and “Hamilton set to welcome Road World Cycling Championships next week.”

The cycling story is important to residents not just because their schools will be closed that week, but because Stoney Creek is part of Hamilton. It has been since 2001 when Hamilton, pressured by the province, amalgamated it and four other surrounding communities into one megacity. At the time, the four communities opposed the plan and the struggle played out in newsprint: The Hamilton Spectator, the region’s dominant daily, also owned by Torstar, supported the policy, while the News and other local weeklies rallied against it. Now that they’re part of Hamilton, Stoney Creek residents want to reverse the decision and the News supports them.

But will it do so in the future? Under Torstar’s ownership, the News has been put under the Spectator’s management. And that’s raised concerns that the new structure could hurt the News’s ability to freely reflect its community – not only on amalgamation, but on other issues as well. “[The News] gives everyone a chance to voice their opinion,” says Dave Cage, executive director of the Stoney Creek Chamber of Commerce. Paul Attallah, associate director of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, says the concern is one that applies not just to the News, but at every small paper that Torstar – and other media conglomerates – have bought up lately in pursuit of a business strategy known as regional convergence. “It could shut out other points of view,” he says. “And if people are unhappy, where can they go to get heard?”

In the Animal Control Centre, the cats gathering around Cripps suggest the answer. Politicians in Hamilton’s new city hall wanted to close the Stoney Creek shelter to cut costs, saying it duplicated the services of the Hamilton SPCA. Cripps wouldn’t have it. He barked about the issue in his columns, keeping it in the news. The centre stayed open.

Once he’s done taking pictures, he chats with the workers. The sun catches his eyeglasses, casting a glow around his head like some rebel saint.

“So Mark, have you heard any tips about what’s going to happen to us?” a worker asks.


“It’s budget time, and we’re not sure what’s going to happen to us.”

“Well,” he says, “We’re just going to put the pressure on again.”

Every week, Cripps finds himself playing out scenes like this and every week he’s convinced that community papers like the News represent more than the impersonal broadsheet and bylines of larger papers. “I take pride in getting as many people’s faces in the paper as I can each week,” says Cripps. These people aren’t just the subjects of the stories; they’re readers, news suppliers and critics as well. And the News’s staff are just as much a part of the community fabric as the people they cover. “The [staff at] that paper are really woven into the city,” agrees Leon Sauers, a Stoney Creek senior who’s been reading the News for as long as he can remember. “It’s not like a newspaper comes out as though it’s an obligation. They’re really part of the community.”

And that’s what’s at stake under Torstar’s new ownership structure: a situation where people in the community are involved in every step of their newspapers’ production from Monday to Friday. A situation where a week in the life of the paper is, in essence, a week in the life of Stoney Creek.

o o o

The News’s office is a two-level concrete slab in Stoney Creek’s industrial area. On the lawn, eraser-pink flowers bloom beside a picnic table. It’s a streamlined operation with one editor and three reporters, two of whom it shares with five other Hamilton-area weeklies that Torstar also bought when it acquired the News in 2003. (These papers are known as the Brabant Group, as they were under their former owner.) Cripps is 36 years old and has been working in the News’s editorial department for five years. Kevin Werner, one of the shared reporters, writes about 10 stories per week. Cripps and another reporter, Abigail Cukier, work alternate weekends just to get the work done.

This late-fall Monday morning, Cukier and Werner are out working on stories in Stoney Creek, while Cripps is attending a day-long editorial meeting with four other Brabant paper editors in the offices of The Dundas Star News, on the other side of Hamilton. The agenda calls for them to discuss this week’s stories, but there’s an air of uncertainty in the room. Five months after the takeover, Torstar has cut eight people from Brabant’s 65 member staff, mostly in the circulation, classified and distribution departments, and routed their responsibilities to the Spectator. The editors don’t know if Torstar will streamline them further, and no one from Torstar, or even the Spectator, has visited to formally tell them what will happen.

They’re not the first group of editors to feel such uncertainty. The deal that made the News and the rest of the Brabant Group part of Torstar was just the latest in a series of acquisitions the company has made in recent years in the name of regional convergence. It started in a big way in 1999, when Torstar nabbed four Southern Ontario dailies, including the Spectator, for $355 million. The next year it snagged Eedy Publications, with its 10 weekly community papers in Southwestern Ontario towns such as Fergus, Elora and Hanover Saugeen. Torstar next aligned itself with Southern Ontario’s Annex Publishing & Printing Inc. in 2000, acquiring two dailies and three weeklies in the Woodstock-Tilsonburg area. In 2003, Torstar swapped papers and paid an additional $30.6 million to Osprey Media Group for a printing company, the nine Brabant and Fairway weeklies and three others in the area. As a result, Torstar now covers Southern Ontario like the Irving newspaper dynasty covers New Brunswick.

Torstar manages most of its more than 70 weeklies through its Metroland community newspaper subsidiary. But in some cases, as with the News and the other Brabant papers, it’s arranged for one of its dailies to manage the weeklies in its region. What has this meant for the News? In addition to the staff cuts at Brabant’s circulation and distribution departments, the News’s production schedule has been shifted, so the paper is now published on Fridays rather than Wednesdays. Torstar also ordered a higher advertisement-to-editorial ratio, up to almost 70 to 30 from 60 to 40. “Really, bottom line, what it’s about is generating maximum efficiency so we can produce the best possible newspapers and other products in our market,” says Jagoda Pike, president of Torstar’s CityMedia Group, publisher of the Spectator and regional go-to for the News and other Brabant papers. “It’s eliminating duplication where we can; it’s eliminating waste.”

Pike may be number one in the Hamilton area, but the ultimate authority for what happens to the News and other local papers resides 70 kilometres to the east – in the Toronto Star building, an office tower located an hour’s drive down the Queen Elizabeth Way, at the foot of Yonge Street. With the looming skyscrapers and permanent rush hour that is downtown Toronto, we’re not in Kansas anymore – or, for that matter, Stoney Creek.

Robert Prichard is the man behind Torstar’s curtain. In 2002, fresh from 10 years as president of the University of Toronto, Prichard replaced David Galloway as Torstar’s chief executive officer – and immediately picked up where his predecessor left off. Prichard declined to be interviewed for this story, but he outlined his intentions in a 2003 National Post article in which he said, “Our shareholders don’t want us to make bet-the-business decisions. We think it’s better to grow through incremental, organic growth within our two core businesses. The modest bet.” More regional convergence, in other words.

As we’ve seen above, Torstar was already well down that path by the time Prichard took over. In replacing Galloway, Prichard inherited a company that, in the late 1990s, had followed a different course than its chief Canadian competitors, BCE, CanWest Global and Quebecor. While those other firms all pursued the late ’90s dream of synergizing cable, computer and print media, Torstar failed in its only major stab at media convergence – a proposed $4 billion merger with Rogers Media that fell flat. As a result, it soon found itself free to embark on the regional convergence trend, unencumbered by the crippling debt that would soon weigh down its rivals.

In opting for regional convergence, Torstar was following a trend that began in the United States a few years earlier. Also known as “clustering,” regional convergence is a financial strategy similar to one you would adopt in a game of Monopoly, but instead of buying houses and hotels, you’d buy weekly newspapers and dailies. Rather than owning properties scattered across the board to earn a few dollars here and there, you’d concentrate them in one area where they are more valuable as a group. When properties are clustered together, it’s easy to reduce the duplication of services in the region and generate profit. Each property’s value then lies in how well it serves its niche audience within the broader ownership area – whether that’s providing a regional or community-based perspective. In some cases, the strategy can extend beyond newspapers to include local and regional broadcasting – a notion that explains Torstar’s rumoured interest in acquiring Craig Media Inc.’s Toronto1 television station, which is already up for sale despite being launched just last fall. Although Prichard denies any current intentions to purchase the station, putting in a bid at a later date hasn’t been ruled out.
Though community papers’ perceived status is more like that of Baltic Avenue than Park Place, this view is misplaced. For many readers, a community paper is often the only available source of purely local news. This translates into a higher readership: A 2003 Canadian Community Newspapers Association survey found that 69 per cent of people had read the last issue of their community paper, while only 47 per cent had read the daily newspaper from the previous day. More readers, coupled with weeklies’ relatively low costs, translates into more profit. Consider Torstar, which owns four dailies in Southern Ontario and more than 70 community papers. In 2002, Torstar’s Metroland subsidiary reported an EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) of $68.2 million, up $16 million from the previous year. (In the third quarter ended September 30, 2003, community papers’ revenues rose $6.4 million from the previous third quarter to $79.5 million.) Torstar’s regional dailies’ EBITDA, on the other hand, reached only $19.1 million in 2002, up a mere half-million from the previous year.

Within Torstar’s large group of community weeklies, there are undoubtedly some winners. But it’s the obvious failures that have staff at its newly acquired papers worried, their readers on edge and critics of regional convergence raising red flags. Take the case of The Canadian Statesman, the community paper in Bowmanville, Ont., a lakeside community about as far east of Toronto as Stoney Creek is west. For four generations, the James family owned the Statesman, before selling it to Metroland in 2000. Now, most locals now regard it as a wrapper for flyers. Metroland closed the office in Bowmanville and moved it to Oshawa – at the prophetic address of Farewell Avenue. People still come in to the James family printing business to complain about what Metroland has done to their community paper.

When this example is brought up to Cripps, he winces. “Do the dailies understand the community paper?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s not about managing assets, it’s about managing a community. People’s emotions are involved.”

Not all editors see it this way. Kirk LaPointe, who edited the Spectator before moving to The Vancouver Sun, argues that convergence doesn’t necessarily jeopardize community papers’ editorial integrity. “There is no centralized [editorial] control anywhere,” he says. “I think that’s one of the great fallacies at the moment.” And when it comes to the News, Jagoda Pike agrees. On regional issues where the Spectator’s stance differs from the News, she says there won’t be any pressure to adopt the daily’s point of view. “They write what they write,” she says. LaPointe adds that regional convergence is logical in the fragmented media environment – it’s just another way to avoid duplication and maximize efficiency. In cases like that of the Statesman, though, regional convergence proves to be a tragic irony: in their attempt to maximize efficiency, major corporations risk alienating their most loyal and lucrative readers – the readers of community papers – whom the company hopes most to reach.

o o o

Tuesday morning. Cripps is at his desk in the News’s office, fielding angry calls and e-mails from advertisers and readers. Thousands of homes didn’t get the paper last Friday because of wrinkles in the new distribution system. Sauers is one of them. He’s upset that the News won’t be delivered to certain areas of Stoney Creek that now aren’t part of the new megacity. “All of a sudden when [the News] changed ownership, they no longer delivered [to our condo]. We had to drive to the News office to pick up a copy, which to me is ridiculous,” he says. “Now they’ve finally started to deliver it to our building, but I understand they’ve discontinued the rural areas.”

In addition to shrinking the paper’s circulation department, Torstar has fired about 650 newspaper carriers, mostly kids, who delivered the News and Brabant papers. Now Ad-Bag, a company that delivers flyers, does it. “Do they care about the paper?” Cripps asks once the calls subside. He silently shrugs his response. But for Pike, refining distribution is a way to increase efficiency and lower costs. “[It’s] another example where we’re trying to have one carrier go to one door.” Back in the fall, Cripps often met people who used to deliver the News. At the time, he felt that the News’s carriers were about more than distribution-they were another way to involve the community in the paper. “I like to see the paper make money,” he said. “[But] it’s sad. We’re saving money, but we’re also losing kids’ involvement.” Now Cripps feels that the loss of the carriers had fewer ramifications in the community than he expected. Readers however, still lament the loss of the local carriers. “It’s unfortunate they got rid of the Stoney Creek carriers,” says Sauers. “Many of them were young people and were doing a great job.”
When he’s not fielding calls about deliveries, Cripps is hearing from readers about other recent changes at the News. Michael Gemmell, a long-time reader and curator of a local museum, is among them. He says he has noticed the News running fewer local stories and more regional items – and he’s not happy about it. “There’s a larger paper, the Spectator, that covers the regional things. If I’m looking to the Stoney Creek News, I would prefer to have more of Stoney Creek specifically.”
If Gemmel’s instincts are accurate, a likely factor would be Torstar’s possible decision to give the News access to and the right to run stories written at other Torstar papers, including the Spectator. That move has yet to happen but if it did, the decision would have positive aspects as well. “It makes a lot of sense to avoid excessive duplication,” says LaPointe. “There were, over the years, a lot of stories and photos that were often taken by two services when one was only needed.” He also argues that writers at the smaller papers should appreciate the fact that this change means their stories are now available to other Torstar papers. “One of the best things about regional convergence is that it permits community papers to bring their work to a wider market.”

Pike agrees. “Essentially, the weeklies will be able to come into that loop which already exists,” she says. “In fact, it will allow them to be able to focus on what their interest is in the community. At the same time they’re able to pick up from a larger news file. So if anything, it will provide for greater variety and greater quality.”

What’s good for the paper’s staff is one thing. Most News readers might argue, on the other hand, that there’s no substitute for local coverage of local stories. One of the News’s most popular features, for example, is the police briefs – concise kernels of crime and punishment in the community. Every Wednesday, Cripps treks to the Community Policing Centre to harvest them. Today is no exception. The officers milling about greet him by name.

Cripps is accustomed to working with the police. About two years ago he drove past a hospital parking lot and saw a security guard chasing a kid who was trying to break into a car. Cripps stopped his car and yelled for the guard to jump in. Once they cornered the kid, Cripps got out of the car, pushed him against the wall and barked, “You’re not going anywhere.”

Now, in the policing centre, Cripps waits for the briefing officer with Marg Marshall the co-ordinator of the centre and the committee chair of a police-sponsored clothing drive.

“Are we going to get the paper on Wednesdays still?” Marshall asks.

“No, they’ve moved the day to Friday.”

“That’s good because when I get the paper, I open it and read it immediately. I end up trying to read it and cook supper at the same time,” says Marshall. “I only can read so much, so the next time I’m able to look at the paper is on the weekend anyway.”

It’s the kind of scenario Torstar and its advertisers imagined when it changed the paper’s distribution day. With Friday delivery, people are more apt to read the paper – and the flyers and ads that come with it – over a leisurely Saturday breakfast, after which they may go shopping. The adjusted workweek is good news for Cripps as well. Under the old schedule the paper would hit the press on Monday, so most of the work fell on Fridays and Mondays. This meant spending the weekend worrying about unfinished stories rather than finding more news.

But Cripps doesn’t drown Marshall in these details. He just says, “It’s good for us too since most news happens in the middle of the week and now we can cover the weekends. Some decisions we don’t agree with, but this one we do.”

o o o

By the time Thursday morning rolls around, most of the week’s stories are written, submitted and edited. There’s more tension in the air at the News office, as writers pound out last-minute items to fill holes and Cripps races to finish laying out the paper for the 1 p.m. deadline. Shrouded by newspapers and notepads, he sits on the edge of his seat, hunched over his keyboard. A Tim Hortons coffee cup sits beside him. He hums commercial jingles while he works. Between bursts of flurried hunt-and-peck style typing, he taps his foot impatiently.

Werner pops his head into Cripps’s office and watches him working with the layout on his computer. Cripps chops an amalgamation story to fit an allotted space and asks Werner to find a story that will fill a spot on the front page.

“Is it a brief?” Werner asks warily.

“Well, I have an open space,” says Cripps. “Eight inches.”

“It’s a brief,” Werner says, feigning annoyance. “I’m going to do all this work for a brief.”

Cripps sighs loudly as if he’s dealing with an errant child.

Briefs are more common now that Torstar has increased the percentage of ads in the paper to almost 70 per cent from 60 per cent. It’s true at the News and it’s true at other Brabant papers. “We can’t run as many stories, and we can’t run really [long] articles,” says Julie Slack, editor of The Hamilton Mountain News.

By 11:55 a.m., Cripps is on his fourth mug of coffee. Forty-five minutes before deadline, Werner finishes the story Cripps asked for – a piece on getting the flu shot.

“You’re the best, Kev,” Cripps says.

“So you’re going to shoehorn it into that little five-inch space, huh?” Werner asks, grinning at Cripps like a mouse taunting a cat.

“I’ll shoehorn you into a little five-inch space if you don’t smarten up.”

At 1:10 p.m. Cripps is done. He rolls his chair away from his desk and raises his arms in victory, grinning like a kid. “You’re 10 minutes late, buddy,” Werner says. Cripps ignores him.

o o o

Early Friday morning. Across Stoney Creek, the latest edition of the News – fresh off the press and 44 pages thick – is hitting readers’ porches. In the News office, a co-worker hands Cripps a copy. He thumbs through it. On page six is a de-amalgamation story and on the next page is Werner’s flu brief (it turns out the text runs three and a half inches). Page 10 houses the police report (they finally found that missing 83-year-old man). And in the corner of page 20 is Pet Pause, with four cats – Mickey, Cupcake, Scarlet and Willow mugging for the camera. Four pages over is the picture Cripps took of Marg Marshall and two police officers on Wednesday. “It’s a good issue,” he says. “It’s got good pictures and good stories.”

The phone rings in Cripps’s office It’s a reader complaining about Cukier’s bad grammar. As editor, he takes the bad with the good. On balance, he says, most readers are willing to overlook small errors.
Museum curator and reader Gemmell, agrees: “We’re all about community identity, and we’re partnering [with the News] in that respect.” He continues, “I certainly would encourage the retention of the News as an independent entity because it’s invaluable to somebody like myself, not only for providing news, but allowing us to get information out as a non-profit place.” Cage, who works at the Stoney Creek Chamber of Commerce, concurs. “It’s very much our community paper. We think of it as ours,” he says. “I can’t see [the Spectator] telling Mark what to do.” Cage laughs. “He’s very much his own person.”

Another issue down, Cripps and his staff turn their attention to next week. Another paper, another test. Not just to get the stories, but to do so while continuing to adapt to the new reality of life under regional convergence – a phenomenon that tests a community paper’s ability to keep producing good issues while turning a hefty profit for their owners. A 17-year-old boy once approached Cripps at a local banquet and told him he was his hero. “Keep sticking it to them,” the boy said. Cripps was humbled and speechless. “I don’t think of myself as anybody’s hero. But that just makes me want to write harder. I know I’m never going to make $77,000 a year [as the editor of a daily], but I believe in the value of community papers.”

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