Monday, March 26, 2007


Back in 1998 I tried to get a job with The Express. It didn't happen for a variety of reasons. Instead I ended up with the Packet. Which was an experience I was deeply grateful for. The Packet's editor, Barbara Dean-Simmons, is a good friend to this day and remains, in my mind, one of the finest journalists/editors in the province. I learned a lot about how to be a journalist at that paper.

But Barb always knew I wanted to go back to St. John's because that's where I'm from. And odds are I was going to work with The Express. During my time with the Packet, the paper's company, Robinson-Blackmore, decided to revamp The Express. After the Sunday Express folded the paper struggled along for several years as just The Express. But those around felt the paper could still be quite good, if not what it once was in its glory days. Rob Antle, now a reporter with The Telegram, was the editor of the new revamped Express.

I remember being quite impressed with the paper when I was still with The Packet. They did a nice job cutting out a new niche for themselves. They were a community newspaper in St. John's. Community newspapers often get a bad rap, and that's too bad. They serve a purpose and are often quite good. I mentioned the Packet earlier and that paper has more journalism awards, regional and national, than it does wall space. So did The Express. It's not all big news stories. Sometimes it's the little news, or the profiles of interesting people trying to make a difference in the community with the stories that others miss.

It's a hard job and people's don't respect you, although it's honest journalism. It's that much harder when you're in the capital city and "in competition" with a bunch of other major news outlets.

Eventually, in September of 2001, I got my shot with The Express. I didn't apply, I was asked to take the position of associate editor. I was very proud of that offer and proud to work with the paper. Hell, I had dreams of one day perhaps being editor of the paper.

That's obviously never going to happen now. The Express is gone, as of last week. It was losing money and anyone with an eye for how the media works could tell that. In the press release on Geoff Meeker's blog, it's said the paper folded because it had been losing money for quite some time, even before Transcon purchased it in 2004. But here's the thing, the paper was profitable in 2002.

Yeah, profitable. One of the bosses with the paper used to like making the reporters and sales staff sit down with him several times a year and show where the paper was doing well and where it wasn't. What need to be done better, what needed to be tightened up and where we were doing well. And in 2001, when I joined, it was close. Everyone was excited by how close they came to making money that year. And they nailed it in 2002. Profitable. Not a lot of money, but enough to finally make people think that the paper had turned the corner and that the big revamp had paid off. There was talk of running the paper twice a week. Spirits were high.

If I recall, things went down a bit in 2003. A dip in advertising due to fewer car ads, but most people felt that it was just a blip. That the paper could get it back the next year.

Then Transcon bought the paper in 2004, along with just about every other community newspaper in the province, with the caveat by the federal competition bureau to keep The Express and the Log printing, as long as it was viable. The Log is gone and three years after it was bought, The Express is gone. Not before it was gutted, humiliated and reduced to a pale shadow. Craig Westcott, one of the finest journalists in the province either bailed or was pushed, depending on your interpretation. I left for reasons that had nothing to do with what was happening at the paper, but scarcely a week goes by that I haven't told Cathy that I was glad that I got out when I did. And, of course, they laid off Donnie Power, probably the best sports reporter in the province, but not before they reduced him to covering stories they I personally consider degrading for a man of his talents and abilities.

And poor Steve Bartlett. I haven't spoken to Steve in months. For all I know he's pissed at some of the things I've written in this blog. All I know is he sweated blood for the paper, did everything he could to keep it going even when I'm sure decisions were being made above him that he must have considered disastrous. The latest being the ill-conceived notion of making The Express a "youth paper". It was never going to work. If I had been there I would have said it wasn't going to work. It was plain to see a year ago that it wasn't going to work. Yes, they spent money on a big revamp. You know what would have been a better use for all that money? Other goddamn reporter, something we all begged for, but never got. Instead, a flashy, useless, ugly and ultimately disastrous revamp. Colour me unimpressed with Transcon's "commitment."

It's conspiracy-minded paranoia to say that Transcon wanted to destroy the paper. However, it's naivete to say that Transcon particularly gave a damn about whether the paper lived or died. The Express, when I left, was a decent paper. A few tweaks editorial, such as another reporter, would have helped (when I left myself and Donnie were the only full-time reporters. Westcott was splitting his time between The Express and editing a mining magazine and an oil and gas mag. Steve was trying to keep the paper going and was often too busy to write). Something new in sales would have been good. And perhaps some fresh thinking to help the perpetual pain in the ass that was distribution would have been good. But that wasn't a paper on life support. Far from it.

How do I feel? I'm relieved that I didn't stay in St. John's and now be facing unemployment. I'm worried for my friends, and not just in editorial, but also those in layout and sales. I'm furious that this was allowed to happen.

I'm also pretty sure I just signed my death warrant for working in St. John's newspaper media. But to hell with it. I just saw a part of my life folded up and blown away. I'm not feeling the particular urge to say diplomatic things right now.


Anonymous said...

I never understood how a paper could make money when , for some unknown reason , it showed up in my mailbox every week. I didn't know why I received it , if I was supposed to pay , or what it was doing in my mailbox ????

towniebastard said...

The paper made money from the advertising alone, which is possible. On a 36-40 page paper (in the old format), the paper needed to make approximately $20,000 in advertising. Which might sound like a lot, but using a 60/40 ratio (60% advertising, 40% copy) it was quite doable. I'm not saying it was easy. It wasn't and it was a balancing act many weeks. But it was possible. The fact that the Muse, The Scope and the Current also work as free papers goes to show it can work.

Anonymous said...

If I remember my Noam Chompsky correctly, even the New York Times is on the 60/40 ratio - yes, 60% advertising. Subscription never kept a paper going.


Anonymous said...

The Muse isn't a good example to compare The Express too- it benefits from a media levy from MUN students. This typically covers most of the salaries of Muse staff, so advertising only really needs to cover printing costs.

There are however, community newspapers all over the world which operate successfully on an advertising model.

In Toronto, the alternative paper Now is a great example.