Free Press overhaul rocks the birthplace of ‘convergence’

London's media market isn't exactly volatile, but for this city, any change - such as Qubecor's purchase of the Free Press or the city's burgeoning community paper war - is major change. For almost 150 years, one family controlled all of London's print and broadcast media.

London’s media market isn’t exactly volatile, but for this city, any change – such as Qubecor’s purchase of the Free Press or the city’s burgeoning community paper war – is major change.

For almost 150 years, one family controlled all of London’s print and broadcast media.

Twenty-nine-year-old Josiah Blackburn took over the weekly Canadian Free Press broadsheet by purchasing a $500 mortgage on founder William Sutherland’s property in 1853, then in court facing an expensive libel trial. Blackburn had learned what he knew of the printing business from a brother who ran a press in London, Eng., and later working at the Paris Star in Ontario, then owned by brother John.

In 1855 he re-launched the London Free Press, now one of Canada’s oldest dailies, and the Daily Western Advertiser in a town of 12,000 people. Twenty years later, Blackburn started an evening edition to compete with his rival, the London Evening Advertiser, which folded in 1936.

The Blackburn empire continued to grow under the direction of son Arthur, and later, Walter. Arthur launched a radio station in 1922, which he later sold, and another in 1933. CFPL-AM was followed by CFPL-FM in 1948 and FM 96 in 1979. CFPL-TV appeared in 1953, just one year after the invention of television.

While ‘convergence’ was never the intention of the Blackburns, Walter Blackburn frequently faced off with regulators concerned about the family’s monopoly. Walter consistently defended the rights of newspapers to own broadcasting facilities and he maintained a strict policy that precluded editorial overlap between media entities.

Walter was also instrumental in shaping the face of news today. He was a key instigator in setting up Broadcast News, one of the first teletype news services managed jointly by newspapers and broadcasters. After his death in 1983, Walter was inducted into Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcast Hall of Fame.

The sudden death of Martha Blackburn, the family’s final heir, in 1992 brought the empire to a halt. The paper operated in trust until Sun Media bought it in 1997 along with Netmar, the Blackburn shopper publication division. The Free Press then had a circulation of 105,000 Monday to Friday and 135,000 on Saturdays. A new publisher, John Paton, launched a Sunday edition, boosting circulation for the first time in years. Quebecor took over the paper in 1998, thwarting a $748-million hostile takeover bid by Torstar.

Quebecor then appointed Lester Pyette, from the Toronto Sun chain of papers, to publisher of the Free Press. Changes in editorial were highly noticeable as Pyette worked to align the traditional lefty paper more closely with other, more conservative members of the Sun chain.

The change has not been welcome in a community that’s enjoyed a liberal daily for 140 years. Kathryn Anderson, a media buyer with London’s Cormark Communications, says ‘Free Press circulation has dropped drastically since Quebecor’s purchase.’ Long-term subscribers find the new tabloid style too sensational, and many have dropped their subscriptions.

Ironically, convergence is part of the problem. Staff has been trimmed (the paper presently has 70 union members, down from a high of 160 in 1989) and editors are expected to run news from other Quebecor publications.

In addition to the daily, London supports the bi-weekly Scene arts and entertainment magazine, offering local and regional events listings.

As well, about two months ago, a group of former Free Press employees launched The Londoner, a 32-page tabloid style news and entertainment paper that delivers 100,000 copies to homes every week. But the day before The Londoner hit the streets, the Free Press retaliated with its own weekly, London This Week, launching a full-scale community newspaper war. This latest offering has a circulation of 105,000, with about half distributed in the daily edition. London This Week is offering cut-rate advertising to its clients, posing a direct challenge to The Londoner.

TV and radio: choices for young and old

Like much of southern Ontario, media buyers find they get the best bang for their buck when they look strategically at media spill.

London offers the same television delivery as Ottawa or Kitchener. Buyers targeting a younger demo tend to go to CHUM’s CFPL (The New PL), fashioned after CHUM’s other ‘new-net’ youth-oriented stations, such as the New VR. CFPL, however, is reported to be very expensive and not always flexible for media buyers. CFPL and CBC both spill into Kitchener. Media buyers looking at the older 25-54 demo usually look to Kitchener’s CKCO first, relying on its spill into London.

Another way to reach the older market is through radio, using channels such as Tilsonburg’s CKOT FM signal. One of the few oldies stations in the region, CKOT spills into 100,000 London homes.

Other radio choices include CFPL AM (talk) and FM (rock), both of which are now owned by Corus, along with The Hawk, a classic rock station at 102.9 FM, and Energy at 103.9.

Demographic makeup: London vs. Canada

  London Canada
15-19 6.6% 7%
20-34 21% 21%
35-54 30% 31%
55+ 22% 22%
Average HHI $55,983 $55,709
Taxation income $50,000+ 16% 14%
Management 9% 9%
Business, Finance & Admin. 19% 19%
University degree 16% 13%
Non-university with cert./diploma 19% 18%
Languages spoken at home:
English 91.06% 67.4%
Polish 1.32% 0.42%
Portuguese 0.77% 0.43%
Spanish 0.64% 0.49%

Source: Print Measurement Bureau, Financial Post Demographics Information, 2002

Newspaper Readership

  Read yesterday (M-F) % of total readership Read Saturday % weekend readership
The London Free Press (Quebecor) 162,600 90.7% 173,600 87.7%
The Globe and Mail (Bell Globemedia) 16,200 9.0% 17,800 8.9%
National Post (CanWest Global) 14,600 8.1% 19,700 9.9%
The Toronto Star (Torstar) 11,100 6.1% 32,800 16.6%
The Toronto Sun (Quebecor) 10,700 5.9% 8,300 4.2%

Source: NADbank 2002 Interim Study

Top radio stations by market share

Station Format Mkt. share
CIQM-FM (London) Adult cont. 15%
CFPL-FM (London) Adult rock 11%
CJBX-FM (London) Country 11%
CHST-FM (London) Adult cont. 8%
CBLA-FM (Toronto) News, talk, info 7%
CFHK-FM (London) Cont. hits 6%
CFPL-AM (London) News, talk, sports %
CKDK-FM (Woodstock) rock 5%
CBL-FM (Toronto) Classical 5%
CJBK-AM (London) Talk, sports 4%
CKSL-AM (London) Adult cont. 3%

Source: BBM Radio Central Market Reach Report, Spring 2002