Monday, October 27, 2008

Award-winning independent weekly Carleton FreePress forced to close

I received word tonight that one of the few independent papers in New Brunswick has been forced out of business in a cutthroat battle with an Irving-family owned media giant that owns most of the papers in the Canadian province.

The Carleton FreePress in Woodstock, N.B., won the Canadian Association of Journalists' President's Award in May and was nipping at the heels of the competing Bugle-Observer, editor Bob Rupert told me at the CAJ Awards ceremony in Edmonton, Alberta, in May. At the time, he was confident the FreePress would overtake its competitor.

But the Bugle-Observer, part of the Irvings' Brunswick News Inc. chain, slashed advertising and subscription rates as well as its cover price in an apparent bid to bury the scrappy newcomer. The strategy succeeded where other ploys failed.

In November 2007, the province's top court denied a court injunction filed by the Irvings' company to stop the FreePress from publishing, or to block its publisher from speaking to Irving subscribers and advertisers.

It's sad day for journalism in Canada.

Here's the press release I received:

Carleton FreePress suspends publication

Citing the downturn in the economy and inability to compete with a chain that
has cut its advertising and subscription prices to the bone for the next year,
the Carleton FreePress today announced it is suspending publication.

Today’s paper will be the last.

“We have tried everything,” said publisher Ken Langdon. “Our staff has been
heroic, right down to the last person. We’ve got a good paper. We’ve earned a
place in the fabric of Carleton County, but in the end we simply cannot compete
with the Brunswick News financial power.

“They can afford to drop a few million dollars here to get the Bugle-Observer’s
monopoly back and the Irving chain’s manager is willing to do what it takes
here to discourage any others who might take heart from our success to compete
in other New Brunswick markets,”

Langdon said three factors converged in the last few weeks to create
insurmountable problems for the paper. One was the market crash and the fallout
on the local economy. The other was the cost of adding a second paper on
Fridays, which the FreePress felt it had to do to compete. The third was a
Bugle-Observer announcement that it was cutting its ad prices in half for the
next year and it’s per issue price from $1.25 to 25 cents. (This week it
offered a year-long special buy at 29 per cent of its regular ad rate.)

“The last few weeks have been harrowing,” said Langdon. “We have wracked our
brains to find a way to save the paper but we can’t alter the numbers.

“Big bucks have prevailed.”

FreePress editor Bob Rupert said the death of the “little paper that could” is a
bitter pill to swallow.

“We feel badly for our readers, we feel badly for our advertisers and we feel
badly for a community that really needs an honest paper with the courage to
publish all of the news—even if it hurts,” said Rupert.

“Since Day One we have been warned that Brunswick News would stop at nothing to
get back its stranglehold on this market and that’s exactly what has happened.

“So we are going down today, but we can hold our heads high. We tried to bring
an independent voice to Carleton County and for a while we were winning. The
closer we got to victory the more Brunswick News spent to stop us.

“What is really sad here is that our employees lose their jobs. We’ve raised a
family here. The loss is personal.”

Ken Langdon
The Carleton FreePress