The Great Newspaper War

Illustration credit: Hyein Lee

Ken Langdon was sitting in a Tim Hortons in Woodstock, New Brunswick, talking with a friend and drinking a black coffee when his cell phone rang. Debbie Bustard, house proctor of a residence for students from New Brunswick Community College that Langdon owns, was calling. Two forensic accountants were at the residence; they had a court order and had come to search his office. It was the morning of September 27, eight days after Langdon had resigned as publisher of Woodstock’s Bugle-Observer, the newspaper with offices just across the street from the residence.

The court order was on behalf of Brunswick News, the company that owns the Bugle-Observer. Owned by J.D. Irving Ltd., Brunswick owns all but two English language newspapers, and all but four French newspapers, in the province. In addition to media, the Irving family’s business empire covers shipbuilding, forestry, transport, retail and construction. After Langdon quit the Bugle-Observer on September 19, he emailed a resignation letter that outlined his plan to start a paper, the Carleton Free Press, which would become the Bugle-Observer’s only direct competition.

Over the next two days, the pair of court-appointed KPMG accountants would spend almost 13 hours searching Langdon’s office and vehicle, as well as his home office, closets and even his wife’s dresser drawers. Sandra Langdon, a principal at a local elementary school, was not home at the time.

Victor Mlodecki, vice-president and general manager of Brunswick News, alleges that Langdon had “misappropriated” information from his former company, including budgets, sales plans and carrier lists of newspaper deliverers. Langdon says he used the files to work from home, but that starting August 29 he also sent himself files that might support his case for a possible constructive dismissal suit. Once Langdon’s lawyer advised him not to pursue the suit, he says he deleted the emailed files, along with the remainder of his Brunswick files.

Langdon claims he’s being hounded by his former employer because the Carleton Free Press has created competition for Brunswick, something the chain is not used to. Meanwhile, Mlodecki claims his company is not against competition at all. Rather, he claims it is a case of misappropriation, pure and simple: Mlodecki alleges Langdon sent himself information that is proprietary to Brunswick in order to assist him on the business side of his start-up. Although this story appears to be yet another replay of an independent David taking on a corporate Goliath, ultimately this may be for the courts to decide.

Langdon started in the newspaper business in 1994 when he bought the Carleton County Advertiser. Three years later, he sold the Advertiser to the Irving family. Langdon stayed on as manager of the Advertiser until 2003, when he was promoted to the position of publisher of the Bugle-Observer. It was during a regularly scheduled meeting in the Brunswick News offices with Mlodecki and group publisher Kelly Madden in late August when Langdon decided that he had to leave the Bugle-Observer. According to Langdon, Brunswick News owed him a $4,000 bonus from 2006. “I felt that my days were numbered at that point,” he says. (Langdon maintains that Brunswick still owes him this money.) Mlodecki insists that he called the meeting to discuss Langdon’s underperformance that year and had no knowledge of the bonus beforehand.

But it took more than the outstanding bonus to convince Langdon to leave the Bugle-Observer. He remembers one particular meeting with his fellow publishers of the Irving-owned weeklies. According to Langdon, Mlodecki talked about his plan to put Gary Windsor, who runs a flyer distribution network in Bathurst, out of business. Langdon, who didn’t meet Windsor until after his legal issues with Brunswick started, says he was speechless. He remembers thinking to himself, “I can’t believe he just said that.” Mlodecki asserts that Langdon is embellishing. “We discussed, at length, the defensive measures we were putting into place [in Bathurst] to protect our business interests there,” Mlodecki wrote in an email. “It was observed that these measures could cost a lot of money, perhaps as much as a million dollars.”

Langdon says he also felt the Bugle-Observer could serve the community better. “A community newspaper is more than just a profit centre—it reflects the values of the community it serves. I didn’t feel we were doing that,” he says. The Free Press is different, he says, because its owners—he and business partner Dwight Fraser—live in the community they cover.

When Langdon resigned as publisher, he had been working at the Bugle-Observer for four-and-a-half years. The decision to start his own paper did not come easily. Still, he explains, if you’re in the newspaper business in New Brunswick, and you don’t want to work for the Irvings, starting your own paper is the only choice.

In October, a New Brunswick court granted Brunswick News an injunction that prevented Langdon from using confidential information from the company and soliciting the Bugle-Observer’s advertisers. Then, around the end of the month, Justice Peter Glennie of the Court of the Queen’s Bench of New Brunswick upheld the portion of the injunction that prevented Langdon from using confidential information from Brunswick News and recruiting its employees, but ruled that Langdon could access the contact list of 15 advertisers previously included in the injunction. “Anything that has happened subsequent to the search,” says Langdon, “is just an effort to suppress the Carleton Free Press.”

Julian Walker, a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, says the journalism community in New Brunswick has welcomed the Free Press. “The feeling has been that a greater competitive situation would be very healthy for the province,” he says. “If we could have a greater number of independently owned newspapers, that would be healthy as well.” Walker had spent 10 years in the newspaper business before entering provincial politics, and previously served as editor at The St. Croix Courier, one of the province’s two independent English-language newspapers. He has also written for the Irving-owned Telegraph-Journal, based in Saint John. “The situation here isn’t just that there is a concentration in the media,” he says, “but the Irvings are very big and important players in the economy as a whole.”

“It’s not like there are huge bits of white space in their papers,” continues Walker. “What tends not to happen is a real investigative effort by the papers on stories that touch on the Irvings.” Coverage of the Free Presscontroversy in Irving-owned papers, for example, has been minimal.

Mlodecki cautions against oversimplifying the situation. “This isn’t about competition,” he says. “This is about somebody who illegally misappropriated information from a business and tried to take it across the street to start a competitor against the business that he once worked for.” Mlodecki, who has worked in newspapers for 35 years and for Brunswick News since 1998, disagrees with any assessment that Brunswick enjoys a near monopolistic advantage over any newspaper competitor in the province. “Do you get all of your information from newspapers?” he asks. “You’re on the Internet, I suspect. You watch television. I suspect you listen to radio. There’s a number of ways that you can get your information without picking up a piece of newsprint.”

Langdon says the Woodstock community has been supportive. Leading up to the launch, Langdon returned home each night to listen to between 12 and 15 telephone messages from supporters. At the Free Presslaunch party on October 29, the 2,000-square-foot office space, located in a Woodstock strip mall, was completely full. In attendance were community members, Free Press staff, provincial, federal and municipal politicians—including Progressive Conservative opposition leader Jeannot Volpé—and professors and their classes from the journalism program at the community college. CTV and CBC television and radio media covered the event. The support has spilled over to the tabloid-size pages of the Free Press, which now includes 15 to 20 pages of advertising every week.

So what’s it like to take on an Irving-owned newspaper corporation? Langdon laughs and says, “I don’t recommend it.”