THE CARLETON FREE PRESS FOLDS LESS THAN A YEAR AFTER ITS FIRST ISSUE- ARE WE LOSING THE NEWS?
(first published Nov. 11/2008 in the Aquinian)
Jason Wilson was rushing back to the office in a dead heat to meet his deadline. The drive from Florencecille To Woodstock, where he worked for the Carleton Free Press as a reporter, wasn’t long. But it was cut short by sharp ring from his cell.
“Hello?” he said.
“Hey Jason it’s Antony, calling from the paper you used to work for.”
Wilson was speechless for a moment, before he threw the phone on the passenger seat, slumped and sighed a heavy “Fuck.”
“What else could I say?” Wilson sighed again, recalling that fateful day. “It was something I believed in, and it died right in front of me. Even though I saw it coming.”
He said the Free Press gave Woodstock a fresh voice, as the province’s sole alternative to the Irving owned Brunswick News papers. But in the end, he said their little independent paper couldn’t compete, and that their shut down not only reflects media climate in New Brunswick, but struggling newspapers around the world.
“We were going against the grain, starting a paper up when most are shutting down,” he said. “But for almost a year, we proved it could be done.”
Kelly Madden, the general manager of weekly newspapers for Brunswick news, said the relationship between the Free Press and the Bugle became strained as Woodstock proved to be too small a town for both weeklies. He said the Free Press often went on the offensive, including an ad replacing the word “Irving” in its trademark logo with “Greed.”
“At the Bugle we just tried to keep on course with our business plan. Some of the stories and articles were very attacked orientated, and we won’t participate in that kind of thing,” he said. “They were focused on us more than on what they needed to do to capture business.”
Wilson disagreed, saying that the Bugle cut their add prices significantly to keep the Free Press from competing.
“With a corporation backing it, they can afford to loose money for the next year or two. Advertisers would have been stupied to go with us.”
Madden said, in fact, the rate at which the Bugle sold adds increased by 4.5% last year, compared to the year before when there was no competition.
“I’ve been in the newspaper business 25 years,” Madden said. “I’ve seen many things happen, and one thing you don’t do is discount disproportionately. It’s unfortunate the y feel that way, it’s not true.”
Madden said it made little sense to start up an independent newspaper in a town as small as Woodstock, especially given recent economic conditions. “You have a specific sized market, and sharing that is especially hard with a newspaper that’s established, that’s a hundred years old.”
But Wilson said it made perfect sense to open in a smaller town- their weekly could not have competed in Saint John or even Fredericton, because they would be scooped by the dailies, well, daily. He added that he never wished the Bugle ill will while working as a reporter for the Free Press, because he felt both papers thrived off the competition.
“With the existence of the Carleton Free Press the Bugle became a much better paper,” he said, adding their hiring of a new sports writer, and their extended court coverage are perfect examples. “That’s the importance of competition, you’re always trying to one up the other guy, put the best possible product out in the shortest time, and everyone’s going to be working on all cylinders to make that happen. And if that happens, both papers will succeed.”
Wilson said evidence of that competition was apparent, even in the pages of the Bugle’s first issue after the Free Press shut down- or rather, in what those pages lacked.
“There wasn’t a single word in that paper about our closure,” he said. “That’s a huge event in our community, and they don’t report it? That’s disgraceful. They can say anything they did wasn’t connected to the demise of our paper, I’ll give them benefit of the doubt for a second on that. But if that’s the case, than why did they not report our paper died?”
Madden said, for better or worse, competition is there in media, and it can keep reporters on their toes as much as it can be a deterrent. “Really, looking at competition is about finding out what you do well, and not looking at your competitor. It’s like racing cars- if I’m watching you, I’m not watching the road ahead.”
“If you’re just looking at the road ahead, and no one is racing against you, how fast are you going to go” Wilson said. “When you have another guy you can’t focus all your attention on him, that will make you petty, bitter, and angry in everything you do. Don’t put all your focus on that, but let it fuel what you’re doing.”
Charles LeBlanc, a prolific blogger in the Fredericton area, agreed that diversity in the media is a benefit not only to the papers, but also the readers.
“Troubled people are begging to see their issues addressed, and the media can play a big part in that,” he said. “But not if it’s spread too thin to only cover one topical issue at a time, and then the next, because it’s the only voice for the province.”
Philip Lee, head of the journalism department at STU, said the Free Press’ closure is a symbol of the newspaper’s decline around the world, as online media’s roots grow deeper. He also wonders what kind of fruit those roots will bear.
“We may very well loose them entirely. And the difficulty is that print newspapers have been essential for democracies to function,” he said. “Democratic societies require their presence to keep people informed and bound together in some sort of collective enterprise.”
“Newspapers are the backbone of the community,” LeBlanc agreed, due in large part to the forum traditional letters to the editor provide. “But when you have these weasels who leave anonymous posts on news sites, that can’t replace a signed letter to the editor.”
While LeBlanc feels that bloggers like himself have a role to play in the new media, he said that role has its limits.
“At the first whiff of news they’re scrambling to post it first, rather than wait for the headlines the next morning,” he said. “That’s a huge advantage.”
But because of the strong opinions many bloggers have LeBlanc feels most of them could never get the advertising, and in turn resources, they need to compete on the level of a newspaper.
“Can you imagine a corporation supporting an idiot blogger like me, who always rants about the fascist government?” he said with a laugh. “The internet can give stronger voices to opinions, which is great for all kinds of different perspectives. But all that opinion can be a drawback, for reporting the news, and for the news itself.”
Lee added that the media becomes fragmented online, and people in one community won’t necessarily dip into to the same place for their news.
“There’s so many options, because there isn’t a local base in the internet. And I think that’s a problem, because where does that leave small communities?”
Wilson said readers would need a better filtration process for a booming online media, simply because so much is out there. And, he added, that fact might make it harder to build up good word of mouth for new publications.
“Besides, reading off a screen’s the most irritating thing in the world, especially after working at one eight hours a day,” he said. “It’s a nostalgic thing, holding a newspaper, but at the same time I don’t think newspapers need to stay statically the way they are to do what they do.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever loose newspapers,” Wilson said. He took a glance at his fingertips, as if he half hoped to see some of the ink from the Free Press’ last issue still smudged there, before adding, “More and more publications may fold, but I still think the news is going to play the same integral role in our lives anyway, no matter what medium we take in.”
Photo submitted by Jason Wilson