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Under the Weather

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The Toronto Sun was one of the most successful start-up papers in North America. Now—suffering from poor circulation, debilitating layoffs, and a bad case of bleeding red ink—it's become the little paper that grew sick and tired

On an overcast Friday morning last April, Toronto Sun readers discovered something curious on page three of their newspaper-news. Gone was the scantily clad Sunshine Girl, a fixture of the tabloid since it was founded over 30 years ago. Instead, dominating page three that day was an earnest feature report examining a disturbing pattern of disappearing elderly citizens in Huntsville, a quiet cottage community north of Toronto. While “4 Seniors Vanish Up North” was not likely to brighten up the average reader’s morning, to incoming publisher Les Pyette it represented a new bid by Canada’s largest English-language tabloid to regain what he candidly describes as credibility.

Pyette, a 28-year veteran of Sun Media, was pronounced publisher at the chain’s Toronto flagship paper on April 27, 2001, the same day the Sunshine Girl was relegated to the second-last page. He was wasting no time in making some fundamental changes at the tab. Pyette felt that the Sun‘s response to the newspaper war-ignited by the 1998 arrival of the National Post-had been misguided. In a bid to rev up circulation, Pyette says previous regimes chose to “add more sex-bigger boobs and bigger pecs and all that sort of stuff. That’s not the way to grow a newspaper in the new millennium.”

At present, the 56-year-old Pyette is convinced he has the right formula to boost circulation, and thinks theSun may ultimately have a shot at drawing even with its longtime nemesis, The Toronto Star. It’s an audacious goal, given that the Sun has lost 128,000 readers, or 16 percent of its total circulation, since 1997. What’s more, in the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, released in early January 2002, the Sun‘s weekday circulation had fallen by 10,500 copies to 223,426, or 4.5 percent since last year. The weekend numbers were even less encouraging, with sales of the Sun‘s Saturday edition down 5.5 percent and its Sunday paper down three percent.

In the midst of this downward spiral, Pyette has set out to transform the traditionally blue-collar Toronto Suninto a more white-collar, female-friendly, and suburbanized product. His hope is that this strategy will succeed in winning back old readers and gaining new converts.

While such an overhaul would prove to be a formidable achievement for the new Sun management, attempting to grow the paper during a severe advertising drought is a considerable challenge, especially in light of the fresh demands on the Sun for revenue and profit growth from its new owners, Montreal-based Quebecor Media Inc. As early as the first quarter of 2001, revenue at parent company Sun Media had dropped by 0.6 percent-or $1.2 million-while newsprint costs jumped $5 million from the previous year.

Doing battle with Canada’s biggest daily is also a brave ambition, considering the Star‘s three-to-one advantage over the Sun in editorial staff. In addition, Pyette is presiding over a newsroom that is still shell-shocked from two debilitating rounds of layoffs over the last year. “It’s like being at a funeral,” says one formerSun writer. “People go in, punch their time card, do their job, leave, and pray tomorrow that they’ll have a job. It’s the most negative work environment I’ve ever seen.”

Furthermore, in pursuing new readers, the Sun risks alienating its existing readership and undermining its natural monopoly in Toronto’s media theatre. Nevertheless, given the sharp decline in the paper’s fortunes, Pyette feels he must take radical steps. “I think that you have to grow up,” he says. “I came in here to turn the paper around; to get it readable, saleable again.”

But a 30-year-old reputation can be pretty hard to shake. As the proverbial phoenix that rose from the ashes of the venerable Telegram on November 1, 1971, The Toronto Sun has long been both celebrated and maligned for its feisty, irreverent, in-your-face approach to covering Toronto. The Sun‘s proven formula coupled neoconservative editorials with a strong focus on local news; comprehensive sports with glitzy entertainment, all spiced with a generous helping of sexual innuendo and crime reportage.

The debut of the newly redesigned product last April marked the culmination of months of consultation within Sun Media and among readers. When the Sunshine Girl moved away, she left behind an empty slot of prime, up-front space. The Sun filled the void with six more news pages to join the recently introduced 905 Plus page aimed at suburban readers and a Capital Watch section of Ottawa coverage. The move demonstrated the new management’s desire to expand both the Sun‘s focus and its audience outside metro Toronto. Other notable alterations included an enhanced Weekend Living pullout for the Saturday edition and an augmented Showcase entertainment section in the Sunday paper.

These substantive changes were further enhanced by a cosmetic makeover, with a spruced-up front-page flag accompanied by lighter-toned headline and body copy. Sun Media believes the revamp will provide the edge it needs to grow the Sun‘s market. “A new look can provide some excitement in the market; it gets you noticed again,” says Lou Clancy, vice-president of corporate editorial at Sun Media. “The Sun‘s profile went up as a result of the revamp because people talked about it. The idea was to open the door to more readers. It was an issue of improving the credibility of the paper, giving it more depth.”

To that end, management began a campaign to change its image within Toronto’s corporate community in an effort to appeal to advertisers beyond its traditional base. In its pitch package, the Sun points to recent NADbank research findings to prove to prospective clients that its audience is unexpectedly upmarket. TheSun claims that more than 300,000 of its Sunday Sun readers have been to college; one-third of its readers have a household income of $75,000-plus; and that 65 percent of female Sunday readers work full- or part-time.

But whatever objectives management had with the revamp changed on September 11. Seizing the opportunity to boost circulation, the Sun cast aside its renewed commitment to local news-including its expanded 905 and Ottawa focus-and dedicated the vacated up-front news hole to blanket coverage of the “war on terrorism.”

Sun editors and its old-guard columnists showed themselves to be big fans of the American-led campaign that resulted in a sizable spike in circulation at the Sun and competing papers. But whereas the Sunappeared hamstrung by the shift, its better-endowed competitors-the Star in particular-managed to adequately accommodate both local and foreign beats.

Oddly, the Sun would alter its approach yet again when the war tapered off in January. In this variation, the front section of the paper abounded with old school Sun coverage of gruesome car crashes, deadly holdups, sexual malfeasance, and, not surprisingly, overt endorsements of embattled Toronto police chief Julian Fantino. Stranger still, scantily clad girls were now regularly being plastered across the Sun‘s front page on slower news days.

This reversion to gossipy, sensational local coverage-however typical of the former Sun-seemed more like an ad hoc throwback, especially for a paper aiming to increase its readership. “It’s all piecemeal, Velcro-whatever sticks today,” says a former employee. “Revamp is a word that implies strategy. They have no discernible strategy; it seems week to week.” Despite all appearances of a major identity crisis for the Sunlately, Les Pyette seems to have somewhat of an underlying rough plan: to focus the 30-year-old tabloid on its future objectives by restoring it to its former glory.

Pyette arrived at the Sun through the revolving door of the publisher’s office, his appointment being only the latest in a series of executive position shifts over the past five years. Within this relatively short period, theSun has shuffled through five publishers, three editors-in-chief, and a host of other top-level directors.

In December 1998, Quebecor bought Sun Media for $983 million. The purchase thwarted a $900-million hostile takeover bid by arch enemy Torstar Corp., owner of The Toronto Star. Initially, Quebecor was seen as a white knight for the Sun. But in February 2000, Doug Knight resigned as publisher after two and a half years, believing the Sun executives were delusional to think they were still running the operation under the new administration.

Three months later, Sun Media president and CEO Paul Godfrey resigned, explaining that with the new ownership, he was no longer needed for long-term strategic planning at the company. Godfrey’s departure was followed in August by the resignation of John Paton as president of Sun Media’s online property, Canoe Inc. Back at the Sun, Doug Knight was replaced by general manager Mark Stevens, who himself would only hold the position for 13 months, before leaving in April 2001, citing personal reasons. Pierre Francoeur, then Sun Media’s executive vice-president and COO, served as interim publisher until Les Pyette arrived on May 1, aiming to bring stability and new direction to the ailing flagship.

Soon after Pyette took over the publisher’s chair, editor-in-chief Mike Strobel stepped down and became a columnist. In keeping with Sun Media’s favoured method of family succession, Pyette scouted farm teams for replacement candidates before calling on Ottawa Sun editor-in-chief Mike Therien to serve as newsroom boss, effective October 1.

The 35-year-old Ottawa native was recruited to serve as point man and to help implement the new mandate. He seems to have been a kindred spirit for Pyette, sharing his boss’s goals for The Toronto Sun. Therien and Pyette envisioned a refreshed paper that would lead opinion in Toronto but be more tempered than its racier incarnations, with an expanded emphasis on the local beat. “We talked about the type of newspaper I would like to help build here in Toronto,” says Therien, “and Les was in agreement with that type and that’s what we’re going to do. I would agree with Les that maybe it had lost its focus on local news and that’s always something I’ve been a champion of.”

While it has grown difficult to accurately gauge the success of management’s new approach since September 11, the war has been but one of many unanticipated trials over which Pyette has stood in past months. TheSun has remained entrenched in a heated competition against two longtime adversaries in the Star and The Globe and Mail, and an aggressive newcomer, the National Post. Years earlier, the three dailies had begun this battle of attrition, vowing to maintain their respective positions despite a substantial initial onslaught from Conrad Black’s battering ram.

The Post‘s 1998 arrival galvanized a lethargic Toronto newspaper market and ushered in a period of reforms and revamps among competing operations. Nationally, the grizzled Globe was spurred on to liven up its conservative-looking pages with full-colour photos and graphics while struggling to convey a more youthful and hip tone in its coverage.

Following the October 27 debut of the Post, articles cropped up in the Globe about late Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain; the importance of finding a perfect-fitting bra; and home recording techniques for “indie” artists. TheGlobe‘s headlines also strove to be livelier, including, “We’re Gonna Party Like It’s 1799” for a feature on an 18th-century ceramic art exhibit, or a profile of young Russian baritone singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom theGlobe declared was “More Than Just a Barihunk.”

In its bid to take on the Star, the Post was launched with an extensive section on Toronto news. It was an ace in the hole for the Post, but an unwelcome intrusion as far as the incumbents were concerned. Though theGlobe stood to lose less, it nonetheless continued to bolster its business and sports sections and expanded megacity coverage. The Star took measures to protect its turf by modifying its Business and Life pages and launching a new Greater Toronto section months earlier. And while the Sun was not the direct target, it got caught in the crossfire. “The arrival of the Post hugely improved the quality of the other papers,” claimsNational Post managing editor Hugo Gurdon. “We brought innovation to a basically complacent market and forced others to become more imaginative themselves.”

The Post cut out its local Toronto coverage as a cost-saving measure following its acquisition by Winnipeg-based broadcaster CanWest Global Communications Corp. in August 2001. This provided some breathing room for its battle-weary rivals, particularly the Sun. But the relief would be short-lived-by the new year, thePost had begun to reinstate parts of the Toronto section along with a streamlined arts and entertainment section.

Though the Sun credited itself for not being obsessed with the giveaway gambit as other papers were, it indulged in bulk sales of free or heavily discounted copies to boost circulation. However, when Swedish publisher Metro International S.A. announced it was planning to introduce a free transit tabloid in June 2000, the Star responded with a subway paper of its own. Now the Sun could no longer afford to sit back, and Sun Media launched its FYI Toronto tab as a defensive strategy to maintain market share, and by doing so, upped the total number of daily newspapers on Toronto streets to seven.

Ultimately, FYI was unable to gather momentum and was hobbled further when Metro and Torstar’s GTA Today merged into MetroToday last July. In October 2001, FYI Toronto was pulled off the market with relative indifference from Sun Media. “If there had not been a transit paper launched in this city, I doubt The Toronto Sun would have launched one,” says Clancy. “The demise of FYI will not have a great positive effect on theSun nor did its existence have a great negative effect.”

But the faltering economy was taking its toll. Last May, the Sun announced the termination of 86 people, part of the 302 total positions eliminated across the entire chain of Sun tabloids in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, and the company’s broadsheet London Free Press. This represented the second such cost-cutting operation to hit Sun Media since it was bought by Quebecor in 1999. The layoffs at the Sun followed Quebecor’s posting of a $25.7-million loss in the first quarter of 2001 attributable to the consortium’s $7.3-billion debt that had stemmed from its $5.4-billion purchase of Montreal cable company le Groupe Videotron Ltee. in October 2000.

The axe would keep falling at an already weakened Sun. Just when the downsizing storm seemed to have cleared, post-September 11 uncertainty exacerbated an already slowing economy. Sun Media announced more cuts on October 17, 2001, sacking another 40 employees in Toronto and a total of 125 staff throughout the corporation. Most puzzling was the October 24 firing of longtime foreign correspondent Matthew Fisher, who was covering the war from Islamabad, Pakistan. Considering the Sun‘s infatuation with the campaign on terrorism, the substitution of generic wire copy in lieu of first-hand, Sun-tailored reporting appeared both arbitrary and ill advised.

In December 2001, Quebecor reported a third-quarter loss of $26.9 million and faced a combined debt of $8.5 billion, as media and telecom stocks plunged further and the subsequent financial fallout continued to hurt its already exhausted subsidiaries. Quebecor sold the installation division of Videotron to Entourage Technical Solutions in March 2002, a deal which analysts have predicted will result in a loss of over 650 jobs.

“There’s no doubt that when you get into that kind of high finance with a heavy debt load, you get down to the point where you are suffering from bottom-lineness,” says Arnold Amber, director of the Newspaper Guild of Canada, a national labour union that represents over 8,500 media workers. “It’s like a disease where every division must not only make a profit, but must kick back to the central office in Montreal a certain percentage because that is what’s needed by the company to pay down debt.” Lou Clancy acknowledges that with a loss in revenue, which is “needed to run the company and service debt,” there isn’t “as much room to manoeuvre.”

Among rank-and-file Sun employees, there’s no great affection for Quebecor, a corporation that attempted aSun buyout in 1972 and again in 1996 under the late Pierre Péladeau Sr. Many feel that the Sun is in the hands of the wrong owners, and that Quebecor-now run by Péladeau’s volatile 40-year-old son Pierre Karl-has little interest in what happens at the paper, as long as it yields enough money. “Quebecor is a Quebec corporation; they know very little about journalism in English-speaking Canada,” says Peter Desbarats, former dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario and one-time columnist for The London Free Press. “All they’re interested in is having an acceptable level of profit coming in from the Sun. And as long as Pyette provides that to them, I don’t think they particularly care how he does it.”

With profit and revenue as Quebecor’s overarching imperatives, there is concern the company pays less attention to the integrity of the newspaper or the dangers of cost-cutting drives. “They don’t really give a shit about the English-language papers,” says one current Sun writer. “Quebecor is a money maker, they don’t care one iota about people. They could get monkeys to do this as far as they’re concerned, as long as they could type and get the paper out and meet their bottom line.”

But Les Pyette believes the Sun is doing more than meeting a bottom line. He has taken certain steps-including proposing weekday home delivery-to turn the paper around, rebuild circulation, and give it the edge needed to move up in the Toronto market and eventually into enemy territory. “The Star has a lot more people than we have,” says Pyette. “They have a much larger staff than us. But I think that if we hold on to the wheel, one day the Sun will pass the Star; 15 years from now; 20 years from now.”

Not surprisingly, the Star thinks its smaller rival will fail to siphon off its massive readership anytime in the near future. “All I can say is I don’t think the gap between the Star and the Sun editorially has ever been greater than it is today,” says John Honderich, publisher of The Toronto Star. “Whereas at one point in the ’80s I think the crossover between the Star and the Sun was much more, today it’s nowhere similar. With the advent of Quebecor, the emphasis has been much more on a down-market audience, and despite any changes recently, that remains the fundamental drive of the paper.”

In addition, by looking to expand its market outside of its downtown stronghold, the Sun could slowly lose its loyal readership and soon find itself wading into the deeper waters of the competition, operations that are far better equipped with human and financial resources to serve the Greater Toronto market. This is a reality that stings even more in light of the crippling layoffs at the Sun in recent months.

It is worth noting that the Star has yet to lay off a single staff member in response to the downturn in the economy. The Star has an editorial staff of 435 people, with roughly 140 focused on the GTA alone, while theSun has a total of 150 full-time editorial staff. Frankly, it might be myopic of Sun management to believe it can grow the paper at a time when they’re cutting back on resources and whittling away its budget. “There’s an expression they use in New York to describe a tabloid that has pretensions to be more than a tabloid,” says Joe Hall, deputy managing editor at the Star. “They call it a tabloid in a tutu. To some extent the Sun has that problem.”

Lofty aspiration is only a small part of the Sun‘s problem. The morale of the post-layoff survivors is another concern. “Everybody [at the Sun] is in shell shock,” says one employee. “I was there on the day of the layoffs and everybody is demoralized. This last one took everyone by surprise.”

Whether the brass is willing to acknowledge it or not, a new climate of fear and anger brought on by job cuts stands to hurt the Sun. In this regard, it is becoming a shadow of its former self, a paper that was once renowned for the symbiotic relationship among upper management and the newsroom, which precluded the need for any formal organization of staff. “I was publisher for 21 years and during that time we managed to not lay off anybody,” says Sun co-founder J. Douglas Creighton. “I think layoffs are wrong and I think the way they’re carried out is wrong. If I were a union looking to expand my membership in Toronto, I certainly wouldn’t have looked to the Sun first a few years ago. Now I think they’d be at the top of the list.”

Les Pyette, who feels that the Sun was “overstaffed” to begin with, rejects the notion that layoffs could alter his ability to put out a better paper. “The way the business world is today, you have to have a new pair of running shoes almost every week,” says Pyette. “Staffers have to go twice as hard. You take on more responsibility, you take on more work.”

In many ways, Pyette and crew can’t afford not to take steps to increase readership at a time like this. If the newspaper war has achieved anything, it has exposed the weaknesses of all the incumbent papers, particularly in their coverage of Toronto. It was a direct challenge for The Toronto Sun, which had always regarded itself as Toronto’s other voice, its finger on the pulse of the local beat.

Sometimes there is virtue in sticking to what works, but after 30 years, it could be foolish of the Sun to allow the opportunity for growth to pass it by. While expansion could alienate its readership, the Sun risks losing its audience to rival papers that are more broad-based in their local coverage. “We’re living in changing times,” says Mike Therien. “You can’t stand still. So the evolution of course will continue. We already lead the way and we’re going to extend our gap.”

Stressing the difference between evolution and revolution, the Sun‘s new editor believes the growth of the paper’s readership doesn’t have to result from an entirely new game plan. “I don’t think that we want to change fundamental paths,” says Therien. “If we get to where the Star is, it will be because we’ve done what we like to do well. I don’t want to turn us into a paper of record for Toronto. I want to do what we do well, do more of it, do it better, and if more readers come, then of course we’re targeting them.”

Fortunately, Therien’s ideas mesh nicely with those of his boss. Les Pyette too has a strong desire to refocus the tab he helped to build in its formative years, armed with a first-hand knowledge of what propelled the paper to its great early success.

Pyette, who has never sat still for too long within the Sun corporation, has travelled a winding road back to its flagship. Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Pyette began his career in journalism as a sportswriter for his hometown Sault Star without finishing high school. The next decade would see him take positions at both the Belvedere Daily Republican in Illinois and then at The Windsor Star, where he worked as page one editor. Pyette originally joined The Toronto Sun in 1974 as city editor.

In 1978 he was promoted to assistant managing editor, a position he held until 1980, when he was sent to Alberta-as part of Douglas Creighton’s “A -team”-to launch and run The Calgary Sun as editor-in-chief. Pyette would return to Toronto in 1984 to serve as executive editor, and when Creighton was driven from the Sun in 1992, Pyette became executive assistant to corporate president and new CEO Paul Godfrey. In 1994, he moved back out west when he was named publisher of The Calgary Sun.

Pyette was on the road yet again in January 2000, this time to London, Ontario, where he was publisher at the Sun Media-owned Free Press. Despite his joking assertion that he “can’t keep a job,” Pyette at long last reached the top of the Sun mountain by May 2001.

During his years at the Sun, Pyette developed a reputation almost as colourful and feisty as the paper he now runs. Known by some as the “dude from the Sault,” Pyette was regarded by turns as a cowboy and wild man, equipped with the vim and vigour that the Sun‘s founding fathers felt was needed to build the burgeoning tab. Legend has it, Douglas Creighton was fond of using Pyette’s irascible and aggressive nature to his advantage, playing the young firebrand as a foil in meetings in order to foster the exchange of ideas.

In 1974, Pyette attracted attention for “The Amazing Randi” incident in which escape artist Randi Zwinge was locked in the Sun‘s Chubb-Mosler safe, vowing to escape with his hands tied behind him. In the end, Randi failed to free himself, almost ran out of oxygen, and after several desperate pleas, was rescued by a Sunstaffer. Pyette was overjoyed, having just secured the next day’s front page with a story of near tragedy at theSun.

Always pushing the envelope, Pyette would later clash with Paul Godfrey over his headline “What a Boob!”-a reaction to a key 1992 television address made by former Ontario NDP Premier Bob Rae. Godfrey publicly criticized the headline as tasteless and inappropriate, leading to unrest and a sense of betrayal in the newsroom. Pyette expressed concerns that the paper was moving away from its blue-collar roots in an attempt to attract a more affluent clientele. Pyette-who gained further notoriety for his three previous marriages and four kids-perfectly embodied the spirit of the early Sun with his scrappy, restless style.

Pyette drew further outrage in September 2000 when the London Free Press sponsored a local convention of Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s group that advocates “moral, ethical, and sexual purity” as well as the restoration of the father’s role within the family and society. Free Press staffers had great difficulty seeing how a newspaper that aspires to appeal to all segments of the community could publicly ally itself with the organization.

That was then. Now Pyette is once again back in Toronto, married again and with four more children. He appears to have mellowed a bit, but not much else has changed. Pyette is still known as a hands-on leader who takes a strong interest in the functioning of the newsroom, and-perhaps taking a page out of Godfrey’s book-is also adept at public relations and the art of the schmooze.

Some believe, however, that Pyette has found it difficult to escape his roots, and in his attempt to micromanage the Sun, has become more of a threat to the viability of the paper than a saviour. Most notably, Pyette has recently served as a headline craftsman at the Sun, his signature skill from the days of old. His September 12 front-page proclamation, “Bastards”-in reference to the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on the U.S.-received kudos from colleagues and competitors alike. Most lauded it as a fitting reaction to the tragedy that had taken place the day before.

All the same, it is very unusual for a publisher to play a day-to-day role in editorial decisions, even if it is a rich tradition at the Sun. It might simply be that Pyette finds more comfort on the newsroom floor than in the manager’s lair four storeys above. “He’s basically an editor who made it to the sixth floor and he just can’t stop meddling,” says one former employee. “He’s a whirling dervish and you never know what’s going to happen. People had high hopes when he came in, that he would pull things together. But he can’t keep his hands off and let anybody do what they should be doing.”

At a Thursday morning news meeting, the Sun‘s crew assembles around the boardroom table, prepared to share scoops and negotiate page allotments for tomorrow’s edition with their new chief of staff, Mike Therien. It’s only 10:30, but already there’s much to discuss: the city of Mazar-e-Sharif looks set to fall to the Northern Alliance troops in Afghanistan; charter airline Canada 3000 is done for; and the Leafs are poised for a two-game grudge match with the Devils.

Before the meeting begins, Les Pyette drops in to say a quick word to the news crew. Pyette, in his Clintonesque style of management, clearly understands the importance of interaction and good humour. He is tactile and charming, playfully placing his hands on the shoulders of a female staffer while deflecting with an easy smile the ribbing from his colleagues about his new peppery goatee. However casual, his appearance confirms the notion that despite being the top dog, Pyette still enjoys dirtying his hands in the trenches of the daily news.

It has been a meandering journey back to 333 King Street East, but Pyette looks surprisingly invigorated for all the wear and tear and has now come full circle, again. The Toronto Sun once helped him to prosper and he is determined to reciprocate the favour this time around.

Sitting at the head of the boardroom table, Therien calls the meeting to order and focuses the group on the day’s news objectives. Pyette slips back out to cruise the newsroom and guide his paper through present challenges and onto a new trajectory. But as the parade of recent former publishers indicates, this course is neither simple nor certain anymore for a man in his position. Despite his past successes, the brightness of Pyette’s future hinges solely on his ability to see the Sun through its darkest hour.

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