Bob Rupert saw it coming. In mid-October, the Carleton FreePress editor knew his time with the paper would soon be over when he discovered the company was having trouble paying its printing bills. Sure enough, the next Monday afternoon, owner Dwight Fraser walked into a story meeting and revealed that the New Brunswick weekly would be publishing its last issue on October 28. Unknown to his staff, Rupert had already written an article that discussed the closure as well as economic dilemmas, price slashing and his frustrations with the Competition Bureau. Although Fraser pulled the story at the last minute, the closing of the year-old Maritime weekly still attracted lots of attention in a place where media concentration is controversial.
In the centre of that debate is Brunswick News Inc., a media company owned by J.D. Irving Ltd. Brunswick News owns all three English dailies and eight weekly newspapers in the province. The Irving family is also a prominent proprietor in the forestry, shipbuilding and transportation industries. The folding of the FreePress raised the long-standing issue of media concentration and claims about how this big corporation drove a small paper out of business.
As one of the few publications not owned by the Irving conglomerate, the Carleton FreePress called itself the “independent voice of Carleton County.” According to the 2006 census, the County has a population of 26,632. The FreePress had 3,800 readers, including 1,300 subscribers. Nicknamed by others as the “little paper that could,” it prided itself on running community-oriented stories such as last summer’s assault of a high school teacher that was not widely reported in the Brunswick News-owned papers.
For Rupert, who came out of retirement last year just to become the editor, the FreePress was more than a job. “I believe in newspapers the way a Jehovah’s Witness believes in a bible,” he says. “I think communities need good newspapers.” He put up $20,000 and, determined to collect between $250,000 and $300,000, formed a group called Friends of the FreePress that asked supporters for $1,000 each. But after talking with the advertising department and receiving close to $40,000 in donations, Rupert realized a small paper simply can’t compete with the Irvings and gave up.
He alleges Brunswick News unjustly lowered its subscription and advertising rates at competing newspapers, such as the Woodstock Bugle-Observer. He compares it to a hypothetical situation of a 7-Eleven franchise cutting its prices in half in fear of a newly-opened convenience store. “That’s exactly what happened to us.”
But Fraser blames the fall of his paper to high expenses and a small market. “We were struggling from the day we opened,” he says. “We had a good paper, a strong fair share of advertisers but our costs … we just couldn’t get them where they had to be.”
Meanwhile, Kelly Madden, general manager of weekly newspapers for Brunswick News, says his company played a fair game and that his company’s ad rates are actually higher than those of his former competitor: “As a matter of fact the FreePress was pricing based on the established pricing of the Bugle-Observer.”
Competitors have accused Brunswick News of bullying small papers before. On March 26, 2008, Ken Langdon, former publisher of the Bugle-Observer and founder of the FreePress (See “The Great Newspaper War of Woodstock, New Brunswick”), filed a complaint with the Competition Bureau claiming that Brunswick News wanted to drive Ossekeag Publishing, which distributes four bi-weekly magazines throughout the province, out of business. Owner Mike Hickey alleges that after he bought the company in 2000, Brunswick News unfairly slashed advertising rates at competing magazines. “Their only purpose is to try to take away advertising revenue for us,” he says. The Bureau didn’t pursue the investigation.
Joan Fraser, former editor-in-chief of the Montreal Gazette and now a senator, thinks there should have been an investigation. “The Carleton FreePress believed that it was facing unfair commercial competition, which is seriously the role of the competition authorities to investigate,” she says. “In this case I felt particularly sad because of the unique situation in New Brunswick.”
In a 2006 report on media concentration, Fraser and the committee couldn’t find an example anywhere else in the developed world where a company owns a majority of news publications, as well as a large portion of multiple industries in one area. Fraser acknowledges that the province’s three dailies perhaps wouldn’t survive without the backing of the Irvings, but she also sees a problem. “Nobody should have that much control over media in a given jurisdiction,” she says, citing a lack of diversity in voice, self-censorship and biased coverage as dangers. “It just strikes me as inherently risky.”
While the committee was completing the report, it heard testimony from former Brunswick News employees about the coverage of industries the Irvings are involved in. “We heard one story from a former newsroom executive who said he has been asked to delay a story involving one of the Irving empires’ other interests,” Fraser recalls. But Bugle-Observer editor Devon Judge says he hasn’t experienced such control. And Chuck Brown, a former reporter for the Telegraph-Journal, a Brunswick News daily, expressed similar sentiments. He said through e-mail that he never felt any restraints on his reporting during his seven years with the paper even when his articles related to the Irving’s businesses.
Still, Rupert argues media concentration raises questions about critical coverage. “People always have doubts about the integrity of stories because the owners of the papers are also big, big players in the industry,” he says. But Rupert can’t fight anymore and believes the government must enforce the rules. He is glad, though, that he came out of retirement for what is now a defunct newspaper. “This was a case of a province where there’s virtually no competition and a community really needed a paper,” he explains. “I believed in it … I’m not at all sorry that I tried it.”