The little paper that grew

For most Canadian newspapers, 2001 was a year publishers would rather forget.
Total ROP lineage dived almost 7% to 1.175 billion advertising lines - a level not seen since 1996 - and it was no gradual loss. It hit newspapers across the country like a Mack truck, with lineage suddenly plummeting in September to a level 10% lower than the year before, according to the Canadian Newspaper Association.
But in fourth quarter 2001, the Winnipeg Sun enjoyed an ad sales revenue increase of more than 16% over Q4 2000, and that was just one glowing quarter among many since Quebecor's Sun Media took control of the paper three years ago.
So what makes the Sun so special?

For most Canadian newspapers, 2001 was a year publishers would rather forget.

Total ROP lineage dived almost 7% to 1.175 billion advertising lines – a level not seen since 1996 – and it was no gradual loss. It hit newspapers across the country like a Mack truck, with lineage suddenly plummeting in September to a level 10% lower than the year before, according to the Canadian Newspaper Association.

But in fourth quarter 2001, the Winnipeg Sun enjoyed an ad sales revenue increase of more than 16% over Q4 2000, and that was just one glowing quarter among many since Quebecor’s Sun Media took control of the paper three years ago.

So what makes the Sun so special?

A close look at the changes brought into play by publisher and CEO Gordon Norrie since taking the helm in the spring of 1999 show that the answer lies in three separate initiatives: First, a complete refreshing of the editorial content to bring it in line with the other Sun Media papers; second, an increased focus on customer service, marketing and cross-promotions; and third, a move away from subscriber to single-copy sales.

Norrie says that before Sun Media took over, the Winnipeg Sun ‘had been floundering for 17 years’ as a ‘staid and conservative’ clone of its main competitor, the Winnipeg Free Press. When Norrie parachuted in from the Calgary Sun, he brought with him the notorious red logo and attitude of a Sun Media tabloid.

‘We turned it into a typical Sun,’ he says. ‘Made it bright and bold and colourful, delivering the news in a succinct and sometimes controversial way. It’s light and informative and a big departure from anything that was available before in Winnipeg.’

As you might expect, this caused an equally dramatic change in readership. ‘We lost a ton of 50, 55-plus readers,’ says Norrie, ‘but that didn’t cause us a great deal of concern because we picked up that many and more 18- to 49-year-olds, which is our target market.’

Norrie says that because the Sun brand was fairly well known in Winnipeg before the relaunch, people took to it much like they would to a town’s first McDonald’s or Tim Hortons: they already knew what to expect. So the paper had a built-in recognition advantage, on top of the pent-up longing for new fare that wasn’t being served by the existing players.

But Norrie did more than just implement Sun Media’s editorial formula, he also brought in a whole new approach to client service and promotion.

First of all, he drastically lowered the ad rates. ‘The Winnipeg Free Press pretty much had the market to themselves for a long time, and they were priced accordingly,’ he says. ‘When we came into this town, auto dealers were paying five, six, seven or even eight thousand dollars for a full page. Today they can buy a full page for somewhere in the neighbourhood of $2,500 to $3,000.’

This had two effects: First of all, it opened up the market to smaller businesses that couldn’t afford newspaper before. Secondly, existing advertisers found that they could now advertise in both Winnipeg papers for less than they used to pay for one – so they did.

Equally dramatic was the change in approach to marketing and cross-promotion. The new Sun strongly believes in ongoing tie-ins with local advertisers, distributors and sports teams, says director of marketing Lorena Prakash. And it takes full advantage of national promos brokered out of Sun Media’s head office.

For instance, the Sun recently launched a tie-in to promote a World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) event taking place in Winnipeg on May 25.

Prakash set up a deal with local classic rock radio station 92 CITI-FM in which the two media outlets drive readers and listeners back and forth with a contest dangling the chance to work out with a WWF wrestler. In-paper ads and on-air promos rolled out May 6, and the two outlets will complete the circle with a live radio remote from the workout, and post-contest photos in the Sun.

‘The WWF is definitely huge in this market, so anything we do with them works out really well,’ says Prakash. ‘Also, one of our writers, Bob Holiday, is the guy who brings wrestling to town. He’s the promoter.’

The Sun is also a big supporter of the Manitoba Moose hockey team, and its ongoing sponsorships and tie-ins have helped give some weight to the tag currently appearing on billboards and in-paper: ‘First in sports. Like you didn’t know.’

Beyond tying in with events though, the Sun believes in supporting clients and distributors (sometimes one and the same), in promotions that benefit both.

McDonald’s, for instance, acts as both a client (it runs price special banners in the paper) and a distributor (customers can ‘rent’ a Sun in-restaurant for 25 cents, or buy it outright). When the fast-food giant wanted to promote its new breakfast drive thru, it came knocking. The resulting promo saw McDonald’s giving the paper away free to the first 50 drive-thru customers every morning, with in-paper ads promoting the offer.

‘We like to partner with not only our advertisers, but also the retailers who sell our newspaper,’ says Prakash. ‘One of the things that’s helped make us successful is that we really try to work closely with them so that they feel good about working with us.’

Distribution is an important factor in the Sun’s success story. Beyond cozying up to existing distributors, the paper has looked at whole new distribution channels.

‘Lorena and our circulation director, Nigel Wainwright, helped develop new retail opportunities,’ says Norrie, ‘such as the big box retailers like Canadian Tire, Zellers and Safeway, and of course the little red boxes that now litter this town.’

Those little red boxes have been multiplying like rabbits, with over 1,000 new ones introduced over the past three years. Such initiatives have helped boost single-copy sales to the point where they now account for a staggering 60% of the Sun’s current total paid Monday to Friday circulation of 45,990 copies (as reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations). Not only that, but the overall percentage increase in circulation since 1999 tops 10%, making the Winnipeg Sun Canada’s fastest-growing major daily.

‘Single-copy readers to us are king,’ says Norrie. ‘They’re the readers who spend 75 cents on us, so with them, we’re a guaranteed read.’

The overall objective of tying in with advertisers and improving distribution, of course, is to keep the Sun’s advertisers happy, and if Darryl Levy, president of the Midwest region for Rogers AT&T Wireless, is any indication, it’s working.

‘As a client, we’re very impressed with them, and we’ve geared significant resources, both intellectual and financial, towards growing the relationship even further,’ Levy says, adding that Rogers AT&T is one of the Sun’s largest clients. ‘We have some of the best sales results in the country, for Rogers AT&T Wireless, and this is due in some measure to the work that we’re doing with the Sun, in terms of reaching the audience that we want.’

You don’t get accolades like that without some good old-fashioned customer service, and if Norrie had to offer one piece of advice to a struggling paper, improving that service is what he’d focus on.

‘Newspaper owners have to rethink how they sell their newspapers, where they sell them, when they sell them,’ he says. ‘You have to get really close to the customers these days because there’s so much competition out there. For years newspapers have been their own worst enemy in terms of pricing and distribution. They’re basically doing the same things they’ve been doing for the last 100 years.’