The term “newspaper war” has been applied to many of the struggles between publications and publishers in the press world. The most prominent use thereof in Canada describes the fallout from the 1998 launch of the National Post and the way it changed the way some news outlets go about presenting themselves. The main battleground for this “war” was Toronto, Canada’s largest and most densely populated city. Though the majority of the “action” took place in Toronto, other major cities across the country were affected by the intense competition between certain newspapers.
The main competition was between the National Post, the Globe and Mail, the many papers of Sun Media and, in Toronto, the Toronto Star. Campaigns that probably should have remained purely matters of marketing eventually became intrinsically personal and have changed the face of the Canadian media. The 1998 newspaper wars have many facets, most of which will attempt to be explained and examined within this writeup. It is important to remember that the effects of such tension and competition are ongoing and its impact is still felt today, several years after Conrad Black renounced his Canadian citizenship and sold the majority of his newspapers (including the National Post).
Publishers, editors, journalists and readers still live with the effects of the Canadian newspaper wars of 1998. The insecurity prompted by the launch of a second Canadian national newspaper forced attitudes and practices upheld by some of the country’s oldest and most successful journalistic institutions to change. The industry as a whole was forced to deal with the concepts of media concentration and ownership as a result of this. The conflict also may have increased public sensibilities to the premise of political and ideological affiliations held by various newspapers and, as such, may have caused readers to be more discerning in their choice of news source.
It should be noted that though the events in question are referred to throughout this writeup as the Canadian newspaper wars of 1998 or some variation thereof, the events and their effects are not limited to this single year. The sequence, in many cases, pre-dates the official launch of the National Post and the overall effects thereof are still felt and experienced well into the twenty-first century.
Through the examination of the conflicts between each of the major newspapers and newspaper chains involved in this “newspaper war,” and its overall effect on the Canadian newspaper industry it is clear that the events in question were of reasonable importance to Canadian history.
Newspapers Against Newspapers
When Conrad Black
launched the National Post
in 1998, his intention was clearly (at least partially) to take a bite out of the Globe and Mail
. Black had long said that the Canadian media was particularly left leaning and that he firmly believed the majority of the population was yearning for a stronger conservative voice
. The Globe
’s political standpoint and editorial leanings
were generally considered to be center-right at its most conservative and centrist at its most liberal, but Black’s definition of “liberal
” may differ from that of others. (A Microsoft
columnist probably said it best when he described Black as “a moderate Republican
by American standards, but by Canadian standards a right-wing maniac.”)
The Post was initially marketed as the “cool” newspaper, partially as an attempt to increase its youth readership. Its overall appearance was characterized by its heavy use of colour and sans serif fonts. Its content included markedly longer features than most of its competitors, especially in terms of its arts and entertainment and lifestyle sections. The Globe, by contrast, had stubbornly refused to publish colour photographs within its pages for years. Coloured ink first appeared in the Globe and Mail in July of 1998, four months before the National Post officially launched. Industry bigwigs knew the Post was on its way and that it was threatening to accentuate a longstanding stereotype associated with the Globe.
The Globe and Mail has, since its inception as the Globe in 1844, become increasingly renowned for its extensive business and political coverage. As such, one of the paper’s main demographic targets is the business community in various metropolitan centers (particularly Toronto, where the national paper is based). This, however, lent itself particularly well to a less flattering stereotype: the Globe and Mail, as a group of university students eloquently said, may have been better off renamed the Old and Male. The Post seemed to be succeeding in creating the impression that it was (or would be) “hipper” than its counterpart on the national newspaper scene. Critics pointed out that “hip” might not be the appropriate word to describe a paper founded and headed by Black, a 54-year-old conservative. The rebuttal, however, was inevitably that the Globe and Mail was owned and operated by Lord Thomson of Fleet, aged 75.
There was intense speculation as to how the Globe would attempt to cope with what looked like a rather fierce competitor. The youth question was raised, and when the paper started printing colour pictures in the summer of 1998, heads really began to turn. It wasn’t just that the Globe’s editorial figures had apparently decided to usher the paper into a new era of imagery; the paper had also done a complete about face from its past policy regarding images. The Globe and Mail had literally refused to publish colour photos until this point. People began to think that if whatever Black was brewing was enough to get Canada’s last “gray lady” newspaper to reach for the hair dye, it was certainly going to revolutionize the Canadian media in general.
Reporters and staff members at the Globe and Mail have said that editorial and management officials were told that in order to prevent losses of epic proportion to the National Post, changes would have to be made. According to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, writers and editors were explicitly told to “dumb down” their content so as to appeal to a wider demographic and to break free of the stereotype that suggested the paper was only of interest to “old, white businessmen.” This, according to these unnamed sources, meant publishing shorter stories, moving towards a less academic-sounding vocabulary, and increasing the number of anecdotal (as opposed to hard news) leads at the beginning of even hard news stories. The paper’s readership did not respond in favour of such changes and reversions occurred. The Globe did eventually give itself a partial “blood transfusion” in terms of its staff and while it maintained its intensive business coverage, it increased arts and sports coverage as well. The paper’s printed version underwent small layout and design changes, making it sleeker and more appealing than its previous incarnations, and globeandmail.com, the paper’s online incarnation, was launched in 2000.
While both papers included regional sections for every major center in which they were distributed, the majority of the papers’ contents were consistent across the country. The Post’s editorial angle was decidedly more right wing than that of the Globe. The Globe had long been considered a generally centrist paper, having been the product of a liberal paper and a conservative paper that merged during the early century. The introduction of the Post’s unapologetically conservative editorial positions, however, made the Globe seem more liberal by contrast. This influenced the Canadian political landscape, as will be discussed later.
The Globe and Mail has generally been more financially successful (as well as in terms of distribution) than the National Post from the get go. The Globe’s long history and established reputation meant that it was able to secure more advertising contracts than the Post, a paper that had stemmed from the Financial Post (which was obviously devoted almost entirely to business and businesspeople). The Globe, despite new editorials questioning the journalistic integrity of its new competitor, also came across as a more “objective” paper due to its long-held centrist view; the Post, on the other hand, was more openly critical of the Liberal government and its leader, Jean Chrétien. Its editorials often came out in support of the right wing Canadian Alliance and its often-controversial leader, Stockwell Day. This too may have made advertisers wary of purchasing ad space. In an attempt to outdo the other, both the Post and the Globe offered reduced advertising rates.
The sales of the Post to CanWest Global and of the Globe and Mail to Bell Globemedia (both in 2001) introduced a new element into this faction of the newspaper wars: convergence. CanWest owned a string of nationwide television stations and Bell Globemedia owns CTV, one of the nation’s largest broadcasters (which also has its own 24/7 news network). Marketing was suddenly more readily available across different media; CanWest didn’t have to pay to advertise the National Post on Global Television stations or vice-versa (and if and when they did, they didn’t have to pay very much). The same is true of the Globe and Mail and CTV.
The National Post vs. The Toronto Star
The Toronto Star
has long been considered one of the country’s most liberal papers, to the point of having been described as “union rag
” by its critics. The paper’s circulation, however, is the highest of any in the city. Despite the fact that it is not a national paper and not part of a national chain of similar papers (as the Toronto Sun
is), the Star has been able to maintain a readership roughly 500,000 strong. Despite its reputation for being left leaning, it also boasts a higher number of upper-class subscribers than either the Globe and Mail
or the National Post
. This is precisely why both national newspapers began to see it as a threat when the newspaper war “paranoia” began to set in.
If the Star had anything going for it, as aforementioned, it was its extremely high circulation and its reasonably good reputation among readers in the Toronto area. It was also a paper exclusively published for Toronto and its surrounding area and therefore was prone to fewer attacks from other parts of the country that claimed they were being slighted in favour of the “center of the universe.” The Post and the Globe, on the other hand, despite both being based in Toronto were accused of being too Toronto-centric and of not providing enough local coverage for smaller areas and other cities. On the other hand, the Star was not and had never been a national newspaper. People read it across the country but its main mandate was not to provide the entire country with news. This had always worked against it during its longtime competition with the Globe; Globe readers who relocated to Toronto could just as easily resume reading the paper once in Toronto. This became especially true once the Post launched, and the Star was now faced with two Toronto-based competitors that attempted to cover the entire country on a daily basis.
Wary of the attention being handed to the newly created National Post (a newspaper launch is generally always a huge PR-fest) by virtue of its launch and the feared-dejected Globe and Mail by virtue of its supposed impending doom, the Star’s editorial and management boards decided to step up advertising. As with all the other papers, the Star’s telemarketing and phone campaigns increased in number. It stuck to its budget, however, and avoided the huge debt accrued by the Post in its first year.
The entire issue was at least partially a turf war; Black had been a powerful presence in the Canadian newspaper industry for some time but had lacked a strong presence in Toronto. It had always seemed somewhat ironic that the most powerful press lord in the country didn’t own a newspaper in the country’s largest and most economically powerful city, but the creation and launch of the Post changed this. This apparently plagued Black and was at least part of the reason why he based the Post in Toronto. The city, however, and in particular its largest newspaper, was already forced to deal with one national newspaper in its backyard. The arrival of a second indicated that the national dailies were aware that the Toronto market was fertile and were attempting to edge in on the metropolitan market. This heightened tensions between the papers (including the Globe and Mail) and forced the Star to step up its marketing campaign.
The Star eventually tweaked its printed layout, opting for a sleeker look in order to maintain as wide of a target audience as possible. They modified their fonts slightly in 2002 and, in response to the Post’s continuing emphasis on features and soft news, launched a “newspaper-magazine” in 2005. The Star’s Sunday edition (what they now call their “magapaper”) is printed entirely in colour using a different printing technique and special inks. It consists of almost entirely feature content.
The National Post vs. Sun Media
The Sun Media
chain is responsible for the production of “Sun” papers in various major cities across Canada. The majority of these are in tabloid format
and are often criticized by some as “trashy.” In any case, the Sun demographic is generally not thought to overlap the National Post
’s demographic. There were, therefore, no real grounds for serious conflict between the two papers (there are Suns in several cities but since they are all published by the same company and contain much of the same content they will be referred to as one paper for the sake of simplicity). This did not mean, however, that the Sun chain did not feel pressure from the newly created National Post
. The Sun papers have always been considered to be moderately conservative
, though not as conservative as the National Post
. There was concern, however, that readers in areas serviced by Sun Media (particularly in Canada’s western regions) would become interested in the conservative National Post
and begin to support it in addition to the Sun chain, if not abandoning it entirely.
Changes were made to the Sun Media landscape around the time of the National Post’s launch, particularly in Toronto. The company fired the Toronto Sun’s editor-in-chief in 1999. This was of particular interest to analysts and media experts because the Sun’s distribution had remained relatively unchanged from the pre-Post days. The paper’s (as well as the chain’s, in general) success has also been measured by the relatively few editorial and content changes made since the Post’s launch. The paper’s format is almost entirely the same and it continues to enjoy a healthy distribution in Toronto and Canada’s other major urban centers, including Calgary. It should be noted, however, that not all newspapers using the "Sun" name are products of Sun Media. As RPGeek notes, the Vancouver Sun is actually owned by CanWest Global and is a broadsheet. Further to that, it has thus escaped the "trashy" label that is often attached to Sun Media publications.
Though explicit endorsement is rarely ever a reality, Canadian newspapers have rarely ever made secrets of their (implicit) political affiliation
s and leanings. The introduction of a new national newspaper to the Canadian media
, particularly one so unabashedly conservative as the National Post
, put other papers on the spot and forced them to be somewhat more obvious about where their editorial board
stood. This in turn caused Canadians everywhere to take stock of their own political beliefs and think about whether or not they would be willing to read certain papers if they disagreed with their editorial standpoints. While many were interested in the National Post
and the alternative it provided to such Canadian staples such as the Globe and Mail
, the undeniably pro-Canadian Alliance
standpoints expressed by many of the opinion pieces within the paper (and, some might argue, within what should have been hard news stories as well) gave many would-be readers pause. Similarly, the Post
’s conservative standpoint (particularly during the 2000 Canadian federal election
) prompted other papers, including the Globe
and the Star
, to be perhaps more critical of the Alliance and its leader than they otherwise might have been.
The Post’s political standpoint also seemed to represent a first in Canadian media history; though editorials and opinion pieces regularly commented on the current state of affairs and often took politicians and political parties to task for their gaffes, the National Post was one of the first newspapers in the country to regularly and continuously attack a particular party and politician. Political figures develop thick skins throughout their careers and are usually entirely capable of either using media coverage to enhance themselves and their work or ignoring it entirely. The Post’s repeated badgering of Jean Chrétien (along with Black’s well known distaste for the man and his politics) almost cost Black his peerage in 2001. Most people knew that when Chrétien invoked the Nickle Resolution of 1919 (a rarely used statute that prevents Canadians from taking foreign honours that carry titles) to prevent Black from accepting a British lordship, he wasn’t doing it entirely out of concern for some law of which few had ever heard. The existence of a personal vendetta was evident; Black was not amused and attempted to take the government to court twice. When he failed to have the ruling overturned, he renounced his Canadian citizenship, sold his newspapers, and took his seat in the House of Lords. This impacted the newspaper industry as well, as the majority of his papers and paper chains were sold to the Asper family, who thus became the owners of another large media empire.
The tensions between the editorial staff and boards of each paper also increased, and things became increasingly personal as time progressed. The Post was often attacked from all sides, usually by the Globe, and publishers and presidents often debated each other on current affairs TV shows. The Post has performed worse than initially expected, particularly after being sold to CanWest Global, but it caused its competitors to make several changes to their formats and styles.
Think of the students!
The allure of a new national newspaper also caused many reputed journalist
s (including editors, reporters, copy editors, and so on) to leave other publications – even those not directly affected by the 1998 newspaper wars
– in favour of the National Post
. This eventually met that other papers in the Toronto
area, including the Star
but also smaller papers owned by the larger chains, became increasingly short staffed. The result was a move towards not only hiring recent journalism graduates but also many who were still pursuing journalistic educations in the area. Vince Carlin, the former chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism
, once estimated that more publications were hiring students in the middle of the 1998-99 school year for this reason than any other. This in turn resulted in a change in attitude towards journalism education
in Toronto for the time: such hiring sent the message that it was important for interested individuals to get into journalism school but not necessarily important for them to finish. To be fair, many students maintained part-time employment with reputable daily and weekly newspaper
s while continuing and eventually finishing their education. Much has been made of the fact that such behavior may be discrediting the importance of a formal journalism education, though overall applications to institutions such as the Ryerson School of Journalism and Carleton University
’s journalism programme are increasing steadily.
The so-called newspaper war of 1998 indicated that all was likely not right in the world of Canadian journalism
. Rather than solely focusing their attention on combating apathy and ignorance in the country and world for the greater good, they were also battling each other. It is fairly common for papers to exist almost in their own “bubble,” as it were, without making many references to their competitors. Some exceptions to this including citing a story or a report that may have exclusively appeared in another paper, or reporting on the business end of the newspaper industry (including quarterly gains and losses
, major changes to masthead structure, lawsuits, and so forth). An event like the launch of the National Post
(or the announcement thereof, earlier in 1998) undoubtedly merited news coverage. The Globe and Mail
eventually started reporting on the paper’s unexpected “startup losses” on a fairly regular basis, particularly after they were not recouped in the expected amount of time. This helped to escalate the rivalry.
The emergence of such hostility between the country’s largest newspapers in its own pages was tame compared to the personal attacks that they eventually sparked. Black became a relatively easy target, particularly since he had developed a reputation throughout his career for acquiring large newspaper chains, drastically reducing its staff and increasing the remaining staff’s workload by as much as 40%. It became widely speculated that he, already having control of 40% of the country’s newspapers and more than half of its English dailies, might even attempt to buy the Globe and Mail from Thomson. The Globe had been in the Thomson family for years, however, and Ken Thomson (also known as Lord Thomson of Fleet) maintained that he had absolutely no intention of giving it up, and certainly not giving it up to Conrad Black. This is believed to have influenced his decision to sell the paper to Bell when he did indeed sell it, indicating that the newspaper conflict did impact the increasing amount of convergence in the Canadian newspaper industry.
The Canadian newspaper industry has not been the same since the launch of the National Post
in 1998 and the “newspaper wars” that resulted from it. Some of its ripple effects, such as the apparent desire among established newspapers to enhance their physical appearances, are still felt on a continuing basis in the early twenty-first century
. The editorial content and approach of the National Post
may have changed moderately since its purchase by CanWest Global but this has not diminished the impacts of its creation and launch.
People also began to consider the role of political and editorial biases and standpoints when choosing news sources. The Post has a solid readership base, though it is generally thought that the Globe and the Star did not suffer as much as initially anticipated. This indicates that the Post’s editorial content (particularly under Black, as the anti-Chrétien sentiments were drastically reduced under the Aspers) was not necessarily what many Canadians were seeking in a newspaper. It is also thought that readers were too accustomed to the newspapers that were around before the Post’s launch and were willing to give it a shot during its “free trial” stage but didn’t see fit to switch or bring themselves to subscribe to more than one newspaper simultaneously. Incidentally, a number of those who currently subscribe to the Post also subscribe to the Globe and Mail and, in several cases, an exclusively local newspaper (like the Star, in Toronto). Its quest to become a “standalone” paper may not have been entirely successful in this sense, though this may be considered part of its success in terms of providing another editorial standpoint.
In general, the Canadian newspaper wars are of continuing importance on the country’s journalistic industry. The launch and introduction of the National Post into the public realm changed the way some of Canada’s oldest and most traditional newspapers perceived themselves but also prompted a change in the approach to editorial and political leanings within other papers. The editorial impact of decisions made during this period is still felt today, even as newspapers frequently change owners and editorial staff. The main papers involved have undergone various changes since 1998 but the industry is still fiercely competitive and newspapers maintain a high degree of communication amongst themselves so as to monitor their competitors and improve their own coverage.
Columbia Journalism Review: Toronto’s Bloody Newspaper Wars http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3613/is_199907/ai_n8869403 15 May 2005
Newspaper Wars – CANOE Money
15 May 2005
National Post Boycott – News (Satire) http://www.nationalpost.8m.com/news908.htm 15 May 2005
“What a Mess” Varsity Feature http://varsity.utoronto.ca:16080/archives/121/sept19/feature/what.html 15 May 2005
eye – The Big Story and the Little Story http://www.eye.net/eye/issue/issue_09.27.01/news/media.html 15 May 2005
The estimate from one Vince Carlin came from a conversation I had with him.
And, in the event that you're wondering, I am a journalism student but I did not write this for school. That doesn't mean I didn't research it like it was going out of style, though.