“Little paper that could” folds

Kim Kierans

The “little paper that could” is out of business.

Last week the Carleton FreePress in Woodstock, NB published its last issue.

For the past year the FreePress went head to head against the Irving-owned Bugle-Observer.

No one thought this venture was going to be easy. But until September, prospects looked good. Competition was fierce. Some say given the deep pockets of Brunswick News Inc. (BNI), the media division of the Irving family, it was unfair from the start.

Even before Carleton FreePress published a line, BNI threatened court action and went after the publisher Ken Langdon, a former BNI employee. Brunswick News claimed Langdon had information that would allow him to complete unfairly. A judge didn’t buy that.

On Oct 30, 2007 the Carleton FreePress hit the newsstands.

The Bugle-Observer responded by offering subscribers and advertisers deals too good to be true, including full colour ads at no extra cost.

In March 2008, Langdon lodged a formal complaint with the federal Competition Bureau against BNI for predatory pricing, deceptive marketing practices and other activities involving distribution of advertising fliers.

He noted the obvious: the Irving family-owned newspapers hold a dominant position over the print media in NB. They own the three dailies and most English and French language community newspapers.

Langdon asked the Competition Bureau to investigate documented cases of exceptional subscription deals and cut rate ads that allowed his rival to compete unfairly and illegally.

The Competition Bureau responded four months later. It would make no investigation.

At that time the two papers had a difference of only a few hundred subscribers and a few thousand dollars in advertising revenues.

That for the Competition Bureau was success. But it was an unfair comparison. The Bureau’s assessment put the small independent weekly and its limited resources in the same category as giant Brunswick News with its stable of dailies, weeklies and presses.

The Bureau ruling concluded the “…need to focus our investigative efforts where they can be most effective in contributing to the prosperity of Canadians, requires us to discontinue our investigation of this matter.”

The Carleton FreePress was just too small potatoes for our Competition Bureau.

It’s this type of decision that the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications blames for endangering independent media in Canada.

Its 2006 report into media noted “…rules to prevent high levels of concentration of ownership of media properties, either in particular regions or within the country as a whole, do not exist.”

The Senators blamed both the Competition Bureau and CRTC for not using their power “to limit concentration.”

It appears in the case of the Carleton FreePress, the Competition Bureau was looking for a corpse. It took three more months, but now it has one.

The Bureau’s decision left the FreePress on its own. In August it decided to gamble everything it had to publish twice a week like its competition. The Bugle-Observer responded with more discounts to subscription and advertising rates “to celebrate” the paper’s 100th anniversary.

It’s a birthday party like none other in the community paper world. Advertisers with the Bugle-Observer are enjoying two ads in full colour for the price of one. Readers get the Bugle-Observer at the bargain price of 25 cents instead of $1.25.

Fair competition? You be the judge.

Editor Bob Rupert lamented it looks as if the FreePress was a victim of its initial success in a one-sided fight.

The Carleton FreePress is gone and we are all poorer for it.

Kim Kierans is director of the school of journalism at University of King’s College.

(This article was originaly published in the Sunday edition of the Halifax Chronicle Herald.)