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'It would have been so easy if the Journal had played dead'


Whether or not Thomson Newspapers Ltd. and Southam Inc. are guilty of collusion in the simultaneous closings of two of their newspapers this summer, the man who was the executive editor of the Ottawa Journal for less than a year is sure of one thing. The Journal's biggest fault was that it simply didn't fit into the Thomson scheme of things, despite starting circulation gains, Jim Rennie says.

The Journal's circulation had gone from 59,000 in September, 1979, just before the paper was redesigned, reorganized and moved to morning publication, to 77,000 last July. But Rennie says his total contact with his new employers since FP was swallowed by Thomson last January, consisted of a less-than-10 minute visit last April by Thomson vice-president Brian Slaight and Richard Malone, a former Globe and Mail publisher who supported Thomson in the takeover bid of FP.

"They had no intention of ever dealing with the Ottawa Journal," Rennie says. "What they were really trying to avoid, in my mind, were the astonishing circulation gains the Journal was making."

When Thomson shut down the Journal Aug. 27, improved circulation was acknowledged. But the new owners said the advertising wasn't there. In fact, Ken Thomson described the paper as a "licence to lose money," a play on the famous quote of his father when he bought Scottish Television, calling it "a licence to print money." Thomson said he had been looking for a buyer for the Journal since the time FP was sold. There were no takers.

Rennie points to a standard newspaper theory that circulation will usually lead the advertising share of the market. But no matter, Thomson just didn't want to see the Journal's gains, he says.

"We were flabbergasted by them (circulation gains) and we kept pounding this at them. The circulation comes into line and the advertising dollars follow...there's no other newspaper anywhere on God's earth....that does it any other way.

"And Thomson was becoming aware of these things and it had to be that they didn't want to know about them. They weren't interested in coming in and saying: Hey, we got the circulation going. Now what can we do to bring this advertising along a little faster. They never did that and anybody with any interest would have.

"If they didn't do that, and recognize the circulation gains, it had to mean one thing. They had the deal in their pocket all along."

It would have all been so easy, Rennie says, if the Journal had played dead. Thomson could have simply cited the economics and shut the paper down. "Quite frankly, we screwed up the whole goddamn operation."

Now a circulation growth of more than 25 per cent will have to be explained away. And no doubt the Kent commission, and possibly federal anti-combines investigators, will be curious for the answer, says the man FP hired to save the Journal.

At the time of the paper's switch to morning publication, it had been given three years by the former owners to hit 90,000-circulation, the magic number for its survival. It was projected to lose $5 million this year.

"The deal would have been absolutely sound as a dollar if the Journal had gone (under by itself). But they couldn't do it....The Journal, despite itself and despite its ownership, was damn well making it. There wasn't one month when circulation went down."

While the anti-combines investigators have talked to several ex-Journal staffers, they had yet, at time of writing, to talk to Rennie. He said he had plenty to tell them.

"I'm satisfied that in a generation the Thomsons and the Southams will have bought nothing because sooner or later—if we are a free enterprise country—some people will come along and start small and they'll compete against the Thomsons of this world. They're not doing themselves any big favor.

"Even in their own cities with one newspaper, they're not as successful as they could be. They're just plain crummy newspapers and they're giving away market gains to the radio and television stations

Published in Sources Winter 1980/81 

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