Mark Richardson

The McPapering of London, Ontario

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How marketing mania put the Free Press in a box

Throughout last summer and fall, reporters and editors at The London Free Press would gather in a corner of the newsroom to examine the redesigned versions of their newspaper posted one after another on the wall of the city editor’s office. These were special editions -printed front-page mock-ups intended to transform the 139-year-old Free Press into a newspaper for the 1990s. Its management had asked for comment on the new look, and one version very similar to the final design drew particular attention. With two stories in boxes above the fold and 13 summaries in boxes below acting as a colorful index to the rest of the newspaper, the mockup was not just a revamped broadsheet IX: but more like a Canadian USA Today. ~ “Looks like a Red Lobster menu,” one ~ reporter scrawled. “Too confusing-a jumbled mess,” wrote another. “Come on now,” asked a third, “is this some kind of joke?”

The changes at the Free Press are certainly not a joke. While London’s population has grown considerably over the last two decades, the newspaper’s circulation has stagnated at about 128,000 during the same period. On average, it reaches fewer area households than. papers in similar markets such as Kitchener or Windsor. And that’s why, in the spring of 1987, the Free Press began a two-year restructuring and redesign project intended to woo some of the readers who have ignored it in favor of television.

The new approach follows a McPaper formula, processing bite-size chunks of easily digestible news that sell well. Its bright clear graphics, shorter stories, “outs” are aimed at the reader in a hurry. “It’ll put us on the cutting edge of new wave journalism,” says editor Philip Mcleod optimistically. Others are more skeptical. “I hope the new wave is an improved wave,” says Mac Haig, an editorial writer at the Free Press with 27 years of reporting experience. “I hope we don’t become so obsessed with graphics and a glitzy front page that we forget what we’re here for.”

The Free Press isn’t alone in its new venture. Many newspapers in the United States, notably those owned by the giant Gannett and Knight-Ridder groups, have adopted a bottom-line attitude to journalism-cash over content, editors over reporters-that scares many working in American newsrooms. Editors are targeting articles at a particular audience and emphasizing soft booster stories which they think customers want to read. Instead of encouraging hard stories that call for change where it’s needed stories that lead readers in “the direction of the common good”-they push “upbeat features about safe subjects such as lottery winners and the weather. In a controversial article for the Columbia Journalism Review last year, former Seattle Times reporter Doug Underwood showed how bottom-line editors are transforming American journalism: “What worries us,” Underwood wrote, “is whether the true values of the business-the craft of writing, the vigor of investigating, the sense of fairness and equity, the gut level impulse to want to right wrongs will survive in the new MBA-run, market-driven newsroom.”

MBA journalism in fact began in Canada with the Thomson belief that editorial fills the space between advertising, and has since been refined in the United States to the point where reporters are little more than the voices of their editors. Now it’s edging back into this country. Mcleod, who became editor at the Free Press in November 1987 after being senior deputy managing editor at The Toronto Star, agrees with the American philosophy: “Sometime in the early 1970s, newspaper reporters started thinking of themselves as writers. But their job is to dig out information that somebody has asked for. We’re in the reporting business. If you want to write, go work for a book!”

For the respectable, traditional Free Press, this shift of emphasis is a radical change. It’s something the paper’s late owner Walter Blackburn would never, ever have considered.

Walter Blackburn inherited the family firm, The London Free Press Holdings Ltd. (now The Blackburn Group Inc.), in 1936 and ruled the corporation as a much-loved benevolent despot until his death nearly half a century later in 1983. He was a family man, respected and trusted by his employees, and a little old-fashioned in a comfortable way: while it was always proper to address him as Mr. Blackburn-never as Walter-he was the kind of man who, after a visit to the press club across the road, would cadge a lift home with Leroy, a Free Press truck driver. He had a deep concern for his employees, once reassuring a tearful staff member in the middle of a family crisis that “we’re people first, professionals second.”

Blackburn was also a shrewd businessman, building a $200-million empire around his newspaper which includes four radio stations and two television stations in London and Wingham, CHCH-TV in Hamilton (pending CRTC approval), a national market research service and a nationwide flyer distribution company. Of all his companies, though, Blackburn loved the newspaper most of all and hoped to leave it in the care of his only son. But after Walter Jr. committed suicide in 1968 it eventually passed on to Walter’s younger daughter, Martha. Walter considered Martha’s husband, Peter White, to be almost a surrogate son and allowed him to assume most of the responsibilities of the business: White, who’d earned his MBA at Western, was named president of the Free Press in 1976 and president of the Blackburn Group in 1983. After Walter died, Martha became chairman of BGI and publisher of the newspaper.

Blackburn had understood his responsibility as publisher and president, and he’d seen that same understanding in White. “There were decisions made at the paper Walter didn’t particularly like,” says Don Gibb, a former city editor, “but he knew the role of the newsroom. He had his own opinions, but he would never impose them.” His news paper could be dry, sometimes even stodgy, but it was always committed to excellence: the Free Press won its fair share of awards, including the prestigious Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism in 1975. Blackburn encouraged his reporters to use their skills and fostered an environment for their personal achievement. Even though the region really didn’t need a medical beat, Blackburn saw that education reporter Neil Morris had talent in the field of medicine and created a column for him. Today Morris is recognized as one of the finest medical writers in the country.

White could have maintained Walter’s high standards but he didn’t remain long enough with the company to continue the tradition. His marriage deteriorated, and in September 1986, BGI executives-under his wife’s direction-asked him to leave. “When he left, there was just a great void,” remembers Morris, who resigned in 1987 after 21 years at the Free Press. “He was a committed guy to the newsroom, like Walter Blackburn had been. Martha knew a lot about horses, but not much about the newspaper.”

Because of the Blackburn family’s misfortunes, care of the Free Press then landed in the lap of Jim Armitage, whom White had hired as president and associate publisher in 1985. A former media consultant with an MBA from Stanford, Armitage realized the need for a new assessment of the paper’s approach to its readers and initiated the changes. Few of the nearly 150 editorial staff members deny that change was needed. Most, though, don’t like the way it was done.

In the fall of 1986, Armitage hired Urban and Associates, Inc., a newspaper market research company from Massachusetts, to find out what Londoners expected from their newspaper. After surveying 1,500 people in London and the seven surrounding counties, Urban reported their opinions: the Free Press was dull, it didn’t understand the community as well as it should and its stories were sometimes irrelevant. But, most importantly, the research showed that many readers thought they could get all the information they would ever need from television news.

The city simply felt it could get along without a newspaper.

Armitage and his management team decided on drastic measures and began to shake down the newsroom. Under Walter Blackburn, the newspaper had a reputation as a good employer largely because Blackburn cared for his employees. But the comfortable working conditions he fostered helped to create a “velvet coffin”-a secure place to work with good pay and benefits where people aren’t pushed hard and can easily grow stale.

Armitage prefers to call the old Free Press a “velvet rut.” On May 12, 1987, he called editor-in-chief Bill Morley into his office and fired him, explaining that the editor’s role was changing and the newspaper needed stronger leadership. Then in August he posted 19 positions on the bulletin board-some new, some redefined-forcing many of the staff to reapply and compete for their existing jobs. Suddenly there was the perception of winners and losers. “They were playing friends against friends,” says Morris. “You didn’t know who you could trust.”

Morris himself was eventually driven out by the shakedown. His medical beat was relegated to part-time status in 1985 after he became assignment editor. He lost that position two years later after the August postings and ended up as a science reporter, but only stayed another five months. On New Year’s Eve, he told his friend Don Gibb that he couldn’t take it anymore and quit.

Gibb realized that he too could no longer stay. After 20 years at the newspaper, he resigned in 1988 to take a lower-paying job in Toronto teaching journalism at his alma mater, Ryerson Poly technical Institute. Gibb hated the new management attitude and accuses it of bottom-line journalism. “I don’t think profit is a dirty word,” he says, “but it does not have a place in the running of the newsroom.”

When a new draft of the editorial mission statement announced that the newsroom would work to enhance the profit of the Free Press, Gibb protested until the word was removed. Later he waved signs during a report to management-one reading “Prophet, Prophet, Prophet”, another “Prophet…ability”-to show there is more than one way to spell Armitage’s buzzword. Some of the newsroom staff, who’d been told they were the “engine” of the newspaper, arrived at the meeting wearing railroaders’ hats and scarves.

After rearranging the personnel, Armitage moved on to the task of redesigning the newspaper. In February 1988, the managing editor, the graphics editor, the assistant news editor and the assistant assignment editor were pulled from their jobs to study the content of the newspaper. Four months later, after considering suggestions from most of the editorial staff, they made 321 separate recommendations for improvement-nearly all of which have been implemented. Most of the newsroom hadn’t anticipated that the suggestions would be so wide-ranging, or that they would be taken so far. Changes varied from switching racetracks for harness racing coverage to increasing regional coverage and devoting the full bottom half of page one to a “thorough user friendly synopsis package”-in other words, adopting a quick-reference layout similar to the style created by USA Today. Many reporters equate that with superficial coverage, a print version of TV news. “It’s just enough to titillate you,” says Steve Green, an eight-year sports reporter. “Readers aren’t getting meat-they’re getting fluff.”

McLeod denies that the content of the Free Press suffers from being over tightened and forced into boxes. “We’ll be asking people to take the extra step, make the extra phone call,” he says. “We’re not simply trying to give pretty information like USA Today. We haven’t said there can be no stories over 20 inches-which is one godawful long piece of type to read, an entire column-but we’ve said that if the story’s going to get over 20 inches, is there something else you can do with it? Maybe write three stories instead of one, or write two stories and give us a list. In some cases, the whole story might be a list.”

Gibb feels such views lower journalistic standards, and he is saddened that the younger reporters hired to replace the staff who have left are accepting it. “Reporters feel more and more obliged to do what the editor thinks the story is,” he says. “They’re resigned to the fact they have so little control left.”

Some staff say it’s a waste of time to follow up on a lead without first checking with the assignment desk since the end result might well be cut from the story if it is over tightened into a McNugget of information. Others write and hope for the best. “I don’t know,” shrugged one young reporter, unwilling to give her name. “You just write your stories and see what happens.”

But there are reporters and editors at the paper who are aware of its reputation for stodgy conservatism and welcome the new approach. After two years on general assignment, Paul Berton accepts the way his work is now edited. “I was disappointed with the way my stories looked,” he says quietly while sitting at his terminal-so quietly that no one else can hear. “People want to be dazzled. It would be nice for me if it was a writer’s newspaper, but then it wouldn’t be read.” At the new Free Press, writing is not a priority. “Good writing,” says Mcleod, “often gets in the way of other things you’re trying to do.”

In a speech last year, Martha Blackburn admitted her father would be appalled if he knew how his staff felt about the changes at the Free Press. But Jim Armitage realized that the changes would take their toll. “I don’t know of anybody who’s ever gone through this exercise as thoroughly as we have,” he says.

The feeling in the newsroom, however, is that the situation must improve-that it can’t get any worse. The new, mostly young editors are learning to deal with the mostly young reporters after enduring two years of mutual misunderstanding and distrust. “For a pro, it’s still a frustrating place to work,” says Tony Hodgkinson, a nine-year reporter who last May started withdrawing his byline from his stories. “It’s a question of the people who’ve been put in supervisory positions learning their ropes, realizing you can’t come in and change people overnight.” Hodgkinson felt encouraged when a series he initiated and co-wrote last fall exposing massive overspending by the London Public Utilities Commission was given front-page treatment-still without his byline-for more than a week. “Maybe they’re starting to get their priorities right at last,” he says-and on December 31, he final] reinstated his byline.

The Free Press management probably didn’t expect that establishing its prior ties would come at the cost of the new: room joining a union. This would hav been the last straw for Walter Blackburn, who hated unions and blamed th stress of a violent strike against the Free Press for his father’s death in 1935. The “velvet coffin” Blackburn had nurtured gave no reason for the staff to unionize but Armitage’s actions provided all the incentive they needed. A short campaign by the Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild ended in a majority decision in January 1989 to accept certification -despite Mcleod sending letters, by taxi, to the entire editorial staff warning of the high personal cost of union dues. “Management has changed the rules of the game to a more corporate attitude,” says Peter Murdoch, an organizer for the Guild. “Journalists have a right to raise concerns about changes in their craft. They’re concerned about their profession and what’s happening to it.”

Acting through a union is now the only way the Free Press newsroom can raise its concerns, which include, most importantly, the sacrifice of professional integrity.

But for many reporters, the most telling sign of change was the assimilation of Alcovia, the newsroom’s mythical nation established in the light of its only window. Founded in the mid-1970s, Alcovia was named for the three surrounding walls that kept it separate from the rest of the newsroom. The tiny nation had its own flag-a red and blue affair with eight stars for its eight reporters. But when management decided last summer that the graphic art department needed the natural light from the window, Alcovia had to go. The “Save Alcovia” sign above the nation’s border was ignored. On its final day of existence, a Thursday, the residents held a wake, distributing black armbands. A tape recorder blasted out “The Last Post” and “Amazing Grace” accompanied by the Alcovians on kazoos. By Monday morning, the flag had gone and the kazoos were tucked away in desk drawers. The new London Free Press was ready for business.



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