(Not often we get to talk about the heyday of print journalism, not to mention a story about competition. Read it and weep of times lost, friends.)
The Post, picking up on the U.S. journalistic habit of hiring celebrities as writers and editors, was about to unveil Mr. Gretzky as a new sports columnist in their Saturday paper. So the Globe, in an apparent attempt to steal their rival’s thunder, broke the embargo with a front-page story on Tuesday headlined, “MDs fear arthritis has struck Gretzky.”
The Globe set aside a full-page to probe Mr. Gretzky’s aches and pains on Wednesday, and on Thursday it turned nasty, asking pointed questions about how much he was paid to participate in an osteoarthritis public awareness campaign, whether it was part of a commercial deal with the drug company under which he was to shill for the pain reliever Tylenol, and whether he was going to donate any of his earnings to research. By Saturday, when the hockey player’s debut column appeared on the front page of the Post, the Globe was attaching subheadings like “Hero or huckster?” to its Gretzky stories, and implying broadly that the Great One may not even have arthritis.
Two days later, as Mr. Gretzky was defensively fending off the rest of the media pack by insisting “I got caught up in a newspaper war,” the Post struck back. Cam Cole, the former Edmonton Journal sports columnist whose association with Mr. Gretzky dates back to his days with the Edmonton Oilers, produced a scathing condemnation of the Globe’s attacks on the Post’s rookie sportswriter. Mr. Cole did not say whether his old friend actually has arthritis or not, but he championed his right to sell his celebrity to whoever can afford it. Neither paper questioned whether the hockey player is so tied up in corporate endorsements that it might compromise his journalistic integrity.
Even as the Gretzky tug-of-war was playing itself out, the Post was trying to beat the Globe on another front. In an attempt to get the results of the September 16 Saskatchewan election into the next day’s edition, the Post drew its conclusions from early voting returns and went to print reporting an NDP majority. “Three in row for Romanow,” wrote political columnist Paul Wells on the front page “He makes it look so easy.” A full page: of inside coverage observed that the fledgling Saskatchewan Party’s vigorous anti-tax campaign had failed and that it now faced an uncertain future.
The problem with the Post’s election coverage was that it was only slightly less inaccurate than the Chicago Tribune’s notorious “Dewey beats Truman” headline of 1948. In fact, the incumbent NDP had been reduced to a 29-seat minority, just three ahead of the neophyte Saskatchewan Party, and the latter had actually garnered more of the popular vote. In some cities, apparently, the Post had delivery trucks racing around trying to replace the bungled edition with a later, corrected one. The Globe, meanwhile, played it safe and covered the story a day late.
Even though the two combatants have no choice but to go head-to-head on hard news like elections, there is evidence that each is also trying to develop readership niches that tend to be ignored or neglected by the other. “Before the Post came along the Globe had trouble attracting female readers,” observes Prof. Dornan. “Now they have five prominent female columnists, a family section that is, if not exclusively for females, seems targeted to them, and in their content division they are onto the soft stuff–decor, fashion and the like.”
By contrast, there are days when the Post seems to be taking its cue from the so-called “Lads” magazines, which are unabashedly politically incorrect, gender-insensitive and inordinately interested in female celebrities with augmented breasts. From the outset, its editorial pages have expressed hostility towards orthodox feminism.
The Post also displayed an utterly male sensibility the day it ran a small front-page story about a minor research project investigating the putative relationship between ethnicity and penis size. When the story caused telephones in the research lab to ring off the wall, the newspaper responded with voluminous coverage. It was a classic example of news “manufacturing,” a controversy created entirely by the Post.
Last week, the Post covered just about all of its marketing targets with a frontpage story about a new medical procedure involving ovarian grafts that restores fertility to post-menopausal women. The headline “Scientists Reverse Menopause” blared at readers in a type-size normally reserved for declarations of war, and it was accompanied by a huge picture of the first beneficiary of the procedure, a voluptuous 30-year-old belly dancer who bad her ovaries removed several years ago after a cancer scare. The clever juxtaposition of the headline and the picture produced an irresistible story, because it seemed to promise a medical breakthrough that would make middle-aged women look young and ravishing. The Globe played catch-up on the story the next day by underplaying it with the headline: “Delaying menopause: scientists urge caution–questions remain about technique.”
The Post’s fountain-of-female-youth scoop was actually a pick-up from the Daily Telegraph, the influential British newspaper that is also owned by Canadian press baron Conrad Black’s Hollinger International. One of the Post’s key competitive advantages is its access to content from Mr. Black’s far-flung publishing empire, including local news from Southam papers in major cities across Canada. The Globe’s intra-corporate news network is, by comparison, non-existent.
Jim McKenzie, professor of journalism at the University of Regina, notes that the Post is not only importing news content into the domestic market, it is also importing stylistic changes. “What I’m seeing is the end to any attempt to report the news objectively,” Prof. McKenzie says. “There seems to be no dividing line between what is opinion and what is fact. Now the reader has to carefully discern what is being said.”
The co-mingling of news and opinion in the Post is perhaps best exemplified in the work of its star crime reporter, Christie Blatchford. She is a news-breaker of the first order, but she unabashedly expresses a personal point-of-view in every story. Writing about a recent trial in Edmonton, she championed the accused (a young boy who shot another youngster to death during what appeared to be a booze-fuelled game of chicken), and she did it so effectively that she set the tone for virtually all of the local coverage. In the end, even the judge appeared to agree with her.
Rick Salutin, the independent leftist media critic who writes a weekly Globe column, says the Post seems to be making up the rules as it goes along. “When the Post started up last October, their ads seemed to indicate that they were going to compete with the Globe as being the newspaper of record, that they were going to challenge the reader and when you were finished with it you would have the IQ of an Einstein,” Mr. Salutin recalls. “Now they have ads showing someone reading their paper and kicking the newspaper box, basically saying you might not like what you read, but it’ll be lively and entertaining. Now they’ve got the Globe wondering if it’s spunky enough for readers.”
Mr. Salutin sees the war as a battle over who will define the rules of engagement. “Like in life, if you can set the rules for the fight, your odds of winning go up,” he says. “Will the Post be able to bait the Globe into fighting it out in the street? I don’t know. So much of what the Post is doing is in the repressed right-wing sexuality, sort of a ‘young-boy-grab-your-crotch’ attitude.”
If there is such a thing as right-wing sexuality, then there must also be leftwing sexuality, which may describe the Globe’s approach to things procreative or sensuous. The September 23 weekend edition, for example, dedicated two full pages to an exclusive interview with a lesbian RCMP officer in Prince Edward Island who lost her job when she was convicted of sexual interference for seducing a 16-year-old girl. The story accepted the ex-policewoman’s assertion that, in fact, the girl seduced her, and overlooked the fact that the woman’s “the child went after me” response is classic sexual predator self-justification.
The question as to whether stories about lusty lesbians or rejuvenated belly dancers are winning the hearts and minds of Canadian newspaper readers will be at least partly answered at the end of October. That is when the Newspaper Audience Databank Inc. (NADbank), a firm that audits circulation numbers for print media, will release its report showing how many copies the respective papers sell. These numbers are used by advertisers to decide where to place their ads, and by the newspapers to justify how much they charge for the ad space.
Even before the numbers are out they have already become a source of controversy. Initially slated to be released on October 1 so that advertisers could prepare for the Christmas market, the report was delayed because NADbank discovered, contrary to all expectations, and despite all the advertising and hundreds of thousands of free copies given away by the combatants, that overall newspaper readership in the Toronto area actually went down over the last year by 4%.
This dip comes even as the price of newspapers is coming down. A single month of the Post by itself is $14.98, 35% below the Globe subscription price of $22.95. When the Post started up, it offered subscriptions through its local Southam sister papers, such as the Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald, for only an additional $6 a month. Since then, the rate for those taking another Southam paper has only risen to $8.56 per month.
Some believe the tricks like piggybacking of the Post onto affiliated papers, and all the giveaways, have worked, and the dip in readership is an anomaly. Mark Sherman is the president of Media Experts, a media buying group with offices in Toronto and Montreal that purchases space in newspapers on behalf of advertisers. Mr. Sherman says there is no doubt that the new NADbank numbers will reveal that the Post has taken some of the Globe’s readership. The big question is how much.
Mr. Sherman says the vigorous competition has caused the Globe to be more flexible with advertisers in order to keep them. “There has been a dramatic shift in their posture and philosophy,” he says. But he will not say how much the war has affected the price of advertising. “I don’t want to be telling tales out of school, but this has resulted in better deals for clients in added value and the like,” he says.
The real benefit to the Post coming along, says Mr. Sherman, is that Canada now has two truly national newspapers, instead of one pretending to be. “We now have a national newspaper industry. Next year, with some solid numbers, the Post should be getting more advertising dollars. These won’t necessarily come out of the Globe, but from the entire media spectrum. So on the whole it should bring more money into the newspaper industry.”
Phillip Crawley, publisher and CEO of the Globe, says that when the NADbank numbers finally come out his paper expects to be number one nationally, and in the Toronto area. He says that the Globe’s ad revenue through the end of August was actually ahead of target, though he will not say by how much.
With the delay in the NADbank data, Mr. Crawley says, his paper has commissioned its own circulation research and relied on monthly data from the polling company Angus Reid. “What we’ve been doing all this year is talking to agencies with other data. NADbank is certainly not the only data available,” he says. “What we’ve found using their research, and some of our own, is that people actually spend more time [reading newspapers].”
Mr. Crawley wonders why the Post, after nearly a year in business, has yet to produce any definitive numbers. “At one point they said they would be coming out with audited figures at the end of July, but then backed away due–they said–to logistical reasons. Now the NADbank numbers are delayed,” he says. “My guess is that all this is due to the fact that it has been a freakish year with the market being distorted by the huge volumes of free newspapers out there.”
The last numbers available for the Globe come from a KPMG Chartered Accountants audit for one year ending December 31, 1998. Its Monday to Friday circulation was pegged at 317,826 and its weekend sales were 394,953. At the end of April this year, Post publisher Don Babick claimed his paper’s three-week average daily circulation was 287,000.
So there is a lot riding on the NADbank numbers. “When those numbers come out I can tell you that [the war] will really heat up,” says Mr. Crawley. “Even now the temperature is going up. But when the solid numbers start coming in it’s going to make the current competition look like a kids’ party.”
The best fights become personal
There has been minor sniping between writers at the Post and the Globe right from the beginning, but in the last month, the potshots have been coming fast and furious. For instance, in a September10 analysis of the media reaction to the appointment of Adrienne Clarkson as governor-general, Post columnist Andrew Coyne dedicated his entire piece to recording and trashing the approval expressed by a chorus of Globe columnists (though there were a couple of prominent dissenters), labelling them members of an elitist left-wing Toronto subculture. “It is in the Tory Globe and Mail that we see the subculture at its most unself-conscious, as serene in its geocentrism as it is unanimous,” Mr. Coyne wrote.
Five days later, the Globe’s Madelaine Drohan blamed the Post for creating a false hysteria over the so-called brain drain. “The National Post has hammered home its right-wing agenda with a succession of stories on the brain drain and the perceived need for tax cuts,” Ms. Drohan wrote. Taking aim at Post proprietor Conrad Black, she added, “The right-wing agenda his paper is pushing is more in tune with post-Thatcher Britain or the winner-takes-all ideology of the United States than with placid, middle class Canada.”