Windsor Star moves into new building, invites readers into newsroom

By Tamara Baluja

By Tamara Baluja

The Windsor Star has moved into swanky new digs, made its first foray into outdoor advertising, and opened a news café that executives hope will spark more reader interaction with the newsroom.  These new ventures at the Star are a departure from the recent gloomy headlines coming from the newspaper’s parent company Postmedia Network, from staff buyouts to profits nose diving.

Editor-in-chief Marty Beneteau sat down for a lengthy Q&A over the phone with J-Source. 

J-Source: Why move into this new building?

Marty Beneteau: Postmedia has been trying to get out of the building ownership business for a while now. The Windsor Star was in a 60,000 sq. feet building and realistically we needed maybe half of that space. So when this opportunity came up to move into the heart of downtown, it made sense for us. I’m looking down the main street now from my window and I realized that you’re not really downtown in Windsor unless you’re on Ouellette. Our old building was still in the downtown area, but hidden since it wasn’t on the main street.

We could have moved into the suburbs, but we wanted the Windsor Star to be in the heart of the city and it was a big conscious decision to move downtown. We’ve been going through a lot of archival photographs for this move and I came across this one 1935 image of the old building and everyone was gathered outside the Windsor Star building waiting to get the election results. It was the place to be for the news and it’s a bit of coming back to that idea. And I think as a newspaper for the community, we want to take a lead in the revitalization of the downtown. We want to be the place for news in Windsor.

J-Source: How will you create that atmosphere?

MB: We have two LED video boards outside the Star’s new building and a news ticker that will be displaying all the latest headlines, sports scores and weather. We’re hoping to create that sense of energy you get at Times Square in New York City or at Yonge and Dundas Square in downtown Toronto. And because our building overlooks that main intersection in Windsor, I’d like to see us feed of some of that vibe. There are always lots of events and festivals that go on there all the time, and one of the things I would like to see some of the big televised events like the Detroit Wings and Maple Leafs hockey game next year up on our LED board. That would be one fun block party and put the Star front and centre.

We also have a new news café that we hope will become the gathering place downtown and people will linger around to meet our staff. The idea is modelled on what the Winnipeg Free Press has done with its news cafe with some changes to suit our needs. We want our audience in our newsroom and we’ll host events like debates, wine tastings and meetings in that news café space. We also plan to deploy our social media staff and columnists in the news café. Plus, there will be good local food and coffee there, run by a local brand called Green Bean.

J-Source: But all this costs money and Postmedia has seen its revenue decline quite a bit. How can the company afford to invest in these new ideas?

MB: The big LED boards are expected to pay their own way with the advertising spots we’ll sell. We’ve invested about $500,000 in them and split the cost with our partner Provincial Signs Systems. And I don’t know if we’re looking at a profit with the news café, but our goal is that it will be cost-neutral or at the very least cover some of the costs of using the space.

J-Source: What about the specifics of the deal for this new building?

MB: We’ve signed a 15-year lease as the anchor tenant for the old Palace Theatre. It really needed a lot of work – there were these god-awful pink stucco windows and the paint was just old. The landlord Mady Corporation spent about $4-million renovating the movie theatre and converting it into a state of the art open concept newsroom. Much of the interior was demolished and the floor was levelled, because the floor initially was at an angle for the movie theatre. It also wasn’t set up for IT operations like the kind a newsroom needs, so we invested in that.

J-Source: How did the deal come about?

MB: Back in 2011, The University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman was at an editorial board meeting at the Windsor Star and he said he wanted to move the school’s arts and social work students downtown. It would have been an exciting move for them to establish a satellite campus downtown – something the university had been trying to do for a while now – and as I mentioned before, we weren’t using the space that we had, so I told him after the editorial board meeting that The Star’s 125-year-old building will soon be on the selling block. It was a difficult building to sell because it has these two walls that were on a heritage watch list. But we had our first meeting on a Saturday and we wanted to keep the talks under the radar just because there would be so much interest. And I swear, he ran into the building wearing his parka as a disguise! I normally don’t like using the term ‘win-win,’ but in this case, it really was. He liked the building’s heritage elements and the university got $30 million in funding for downtown revitalization from the federal government. About $15 million was earmarked for two historical buildings, including The Star. And at the same time, we were also talking to the Palace Theatre owners and the deal clicked into place.

J-Source: You were the publisher and the editor-in-chief when this deal was inked. Postmedia has now eliminated that role entirely and you’re now wearing the editor hat. How is that working out?

MB: It’s honestly too early to tell and time will tell how this works out. I’m still here to be the face of the newspaper in the community and to provide leadership. Right now, the goal is to keep everyone focused on this transition.  

This interview has been edited and condensedAll photos courtesy of the Windsor Star.

Check out the gallery of the Windsor Star’s new space: