The National Post scales back to business

The National Post has made a lot of headlines lately, as Conrad Black washed his hands of the paper and left it in the unlikely hands of CanWest Global Communications. But despite the flurry of coverage on the 130 layoffs, the death of Saturday Night and the trimming of the arts, lifestyle, sports and news coverage, the Post has been strangely silent on its own future.

The National Post has made a lot of headlines lately, as Conrad Black washed his hands of the paper and left it in the unlikely hands of CanWest Global Communications. But despite the flurry of coverage on the 130 layoffs, the death of Saturday Night and the trimming of the arts, lifestyle, sports and news coverage, the Post has been strangely silent on its own future.

Even newspaper media buyers have found the Post’s silence deafening, but publisher Gordon Fisher is finally starting to clear up the misconceptions and map out the kind of paper the National Post is becoming.

His main message is that, yes the paper will be smaller, and yes the content is changing, but the overall quality of product and the environment for advertisers won’t change.

‘We’ve scaled back and repositioned in sports and lifestyle coverage, but that doesn’t mean we’ve eliminated it by any means,’ he emphasizes. ‘We still retain the writers who are important and those the readers respond to.’

In a way, the paper is cutting back closer to its core, the Financial Post from which it sprang, but Fisher says it will continue to be more than just a niche business paper: instead, he hopes the paper will become the main source of all news for those with a particular interest in the business section.

‘The key for us is that our new editorial package is a more accurate reflection of our readers’ interests and the time people have to read a daily newspaper,’ says Fisher. ‘And frankly, that’s where advertisers have focused their attention. We expect our reach and demographics, if anything, to not only remain competitive but in some respects, become even more attractive to our advertisers.’

Still, while Fisher says he doesn’t expect the changes to affect the Post’s circulation, he does concede that the paper has cut out the distribution of free copies and greatly reduced its bulk sales effort.

Mariam Hoosen, VP, strategy director at Starcom Worldwide in Toronto, says the Post hasn’t provided buyers with a lot of information about its repositioning, but from what she has seen so far, it looks like the paper is indeed returning to its financial roots.

‘What I think is happening is they’re putting most of their efforts back into the financial and investing areas,’ she says. ‘If they were attracting banks, high-end watches and jewellery before, they’re always going to be there, because the Financial Post section is still going to attract affluent readers.’

For example, Hoosen says the Post is a staple for one of her clients, Aim Trimark, and she doesn’t expect that to change as long as the Financial Post remains a must-read for brokers and financial planners.

Chris Herlihey, research manager at Initiative Media in Toronto, agrees. ‘Their strength really is the Financial Post. That’s what everything seems to hang on in terms of the paper right now. When I pick it up, I glance through most of it and spend my time with the financial section – the rest is a bit of a wrapper.’

Calling the news section ‘a wrapper’ is a bit much for Fisher. He points to the paper’s exhaustive coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks as an example of the high calibre news reporting readers can expect to see continued in the future.

‘We think we’ve led the way in the Sept. 11 coverage and we intend to continue to lead the way. That, in my mind, is what readers value most about the Post – strong opinions, great reporting and considerable resources. We intend to put them against those kinds of coverage areas.’

Fisher adds that, in fact, the Post’s renewed business focus presents a real challenge to the competition, because with the Post ‘you’re buying a true national newspaper’ whereas the Globe and Mail ‘is a newspaper with a strong Ontario base, but one that is not doing so well in the rest of the country.’

But Phillip Crawley, publisher and CEO of the Globe and Mail, counters that he doesn’t feel at all threatened by the fact that the Post is now charging more money for a smaller paper. The paper has already hiked its price from 50 to 70 cents, and Crawley says it has cut the thickness to about 20 pages smaller than the Globe in the Monday through Friday editions.

Crawley adds that the main problem the Post has always had is that it has never been able to achieve advertising rates commensurate with its readership, and he doesn’t see that changing.

‘Their biggest single failure has been to convert readership circulation into advertising dollars. They can get space, they can fill space, but they can’t get decent revenue out of it.’