Why the Free Press still stands tall

After a recent labour strike and staff layoffs, the independent Winnipeg Free Press still maintains its own movie critic, its own parliamentary reporter in Ottawa and continues to send reporters abroad.  And despite difficulties, writes John Longhurst, the Free Press is still profitable.
Here’s a headline you don’t see much these days:  “New newspaper launched.”

Surprised? You’d be more likely to be shocked, given the flood of bad news about the decline of the newspaper industry in North America today. But that’s what happened in June, when the Winnipeg Free Press launched the Sou’Wester, the city’s newest community newspaper.

The newspaper, which serves the city’s fast-growing southwest quadrant, brings to six the number of community weeklies published by the Free Press.

The launch of the Sou’Wester is just one of the surprising things about the Free Press, which won the Excellence in Journalism Award in the large or national media category from the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) earlier this summer.

“The jury found the Winnipeg Free Press presentation dazzling,” said Michael Benedict, chair of CJF’s Excellence Award jury. “It exceeded all our criteria for excellence. It is gratifying that in a time when so many papers are in survival mode, that the Free Press remains journalistically ambitious and strives to achieve even greater heights.”

Margo GoodhandStaying on the cutting edge of journalism during these trying times is a challenge for the paper, says editor Margo Goodhand. But, she adds, “we are continually pushing forward.”

She attributes the success of the paper — the largest independent newspaper in Canada, with an average weekly circulation of 127,000 — to its “hard-working crew.”

Although the newsroom is one of the smallest in Canada, “we have a very creative culture,” she says. “People keep coming up with new ideas. It’s a very collaborative newsroom, and fun, too.”

But things weren’t that much fun last November, when the paper suffered through a 16-day strike.

“The strike was awful,” says Goodhand, acknowledging that some very hurtful things were said. “There were a lot of hard feelings.”

Add to that the effects of the recession, which has caused the paper to lay off 28 people, including five from the newsroom.

“The layoffs were as hard as the strike,” she says.

But, she maintains, “we are stronger for it [the strike and layoffs].” People are “putting the past behind us and moving forward.”

Stronger, but also slimmer — the Monday paper has been reduced in size by merging sections. So far, there’s no talk about dropping a day, although Goodhand admits the option is always on the table.

“We don’t want to drop a day — we don’t want people to lose the habit,” she says. Down the road, however, “we may have to make a different decision.”

Despite the difficulties, the Free Press is still profitable, although revenues are down. Another plus is that circulation is rising, if only slightly.

Benefits of independence

The paper’s success is also attributable to being independent, Goodhand says.

“The people who live here are writing and reporting about the people who live here — that’s our backbone,” she says, contrasting the Free Press to papers that farm out editing and writing to central offices.

She notes that “no paper west of Winnipeg still has its own movie critic or television critic,” and that no Canwest or Sun paper has its own parliamentary reporter in Ottawa — unlike the Free Press.

Cutting these positions would save the paper money, she admits, but “the spark and personality” of a paper would also disappear.

“I’d rather keep trying to hold on to the editors and writers with their boots in this community, accountable to the guys in the grocery store and the hockey arena,” she says. “I’d rather have my movie writer not forced to write a one-feature-fits-all for 10 papers. I’d rather have a local voice in Ottawa.”

While being independent is a point of pride — “it fosters a fierce sense of who we are, and what we want to accomplish,” she states — it does have some disadvantages for Free Press journalists.

“We could stagnate professionally — that’s a big fear I have,” she says. “There are no opportunities like in a chain to move or go elsewhere.”

To compensate, the Free Press looks for ways to send reporters out on overseas assignments, such as to the Olympics, to Afghanistan, aboard a Canadian warship in the Persian Gulf or to Africa to cover aid efforts or elections.

“As an independent paper, we have to look to each other for resources,” she says, adding that “we’ve been able to do a lot of remarkable things.”

Breaking down barriers, trying new things

Other ways the Free Press is trying to keep reporters sharp and energized is by asking everyone to cover breaking news from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. one week a year — columnists, beat reporters, copy editors and, yes, even editors.

“I took a shift,” says Goodhand of her week on the breaking news beat.

The experience “helps to break down barriers,” she says. “It helps us all be more aware of the roots of who we are and what we do. The bottom line is we’re all journalists.”

There was resistance from a few staff at first, she acknowledges, but overall it’s been a positive step.

“We found that it succeeded rather dramatically in putting everyone on the same footing, as back-to-basics journalists,” she says.

It taught them “about the craft, getting it right, doing it right, getting it up as fast as possible,” she adds. “It gave us — at least, those who hadn’t worked closely with them before — more respect for the city desk team, the photographers and the online operation . . . I think it has radically changed the culture in the newsroom.”

It’s also helps the Free Press in its goal of encouraging reporters to think Web — all breaking news is immediately posted on the paper’s website.

“We’ve been trying to teach all of our writers to get the news up on the web first and then craft a next-day story with context and colour and creativity for the paper,” Goodhand says. “It taught us all a new mantra — web-first, then think paper.”

Other innovations include having reporters Twittering from the courts and the legislature, holding Cover-it-Live forums from city hall, posting vlogs from the Blue Bomber practices on the website, along with slide shows and multimedia presentations.
Another unique feature is making the paper’s archives available on the Web for a fee.

“We’ve been running for 137 years,” she says. “We have an incredible cache of the province’s history.”

Archive users include regular subscribers, schools, genealogists and historical societies, she says.

Looking ahead

Although proud of what the Free Press is doing, Goodhand says it could be better.

“We don’t do a lot of things right, I know, and there’s a whole lot we could do better. But we live in this community and we care about this community.”

Speaking of which, she finds a lot of similarities between the Free Press and the province it serves.

“Our company has been like a reflection of where we live — cautious, prudent, just like the province. We’re not high-fliers. Maybe that’s why the paper is one of the few independent papers still standing.”

(Image by Kaz Ehara.)

John Longhurst is director of marketing for Mennonite Publishing Network. He also contributes columns to the faith page of the Winnipeg Free Press.