It’s standing room only at the October meeting of the Ottawa Independent Writers. The monthly gathering of local novelists, poets and freelancers awaits the man whom Conrad Black selected a year earlier to transform the Ottawa Citizen into a smart and provacative newspaper worthy of the nation’s capital.
With his scowl and dated clothes, 57-year-old Neil Reynolds is no well-tailored newspaper consultant. In a low, rusty voice that barely reaches the back of the room, he expresses disdain for how most newspapers are managed and says the Citizenneeds to its community. “I think there is very much a sense of priesthood within any newsroom, where, if you’re on staff, you’re privileged, and if you’re not on staff, it’s very tough to get in.”
It’s a well-practised sermon. At three newspapers, Reynolds has made no apologies for editing according to his own idiosyncratic tastes and unconventional dogma. At The Kingston Whig-Standard, the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B., and during his first year at the Citizen, Reynolds has rejected the notion that readers suffering from time poverty must be pandered to with short news items, flashy graphics and bright colours.
Reynolds’s eclectic style of newspapering, unique among major North American dailies marks a startling change for both readers and journalists in what has traditionally been regarded as a staid, liberal, government town. Over the past year, Ottawa has been offered a flagship paper with frankly right-wing opinions, literate though sometimes verbose features, a smattering of quirky news items and the juxtaposition of sober reports and photos of leggy supermodels.
Just as startling, Reynolds’s formula seems to be working.
The “renaissance,” as Reynolds and his new regime call it, began September 30, 1996, when Citizen publisher Russell Mills spent an afternoon with Conrad Black in his suite at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, absorbing his new boss’s views on the direction of the paper. In the four months since Black’s Hollinger bought a controlling interest in Citizenowner Southam, Black had demanded sweeping changes to what he would describe only days later in a Globe and Mailarticle as the “overwhelming avalanche of soft, left, bland, envious pap which has poured like sludge through the centre pages of most of the Southam papers for some time.”
With neither a national newspaper nor a Toronto presence of any kind, the Citizenwas the closest thing to a flagship the Southam empire had. (Black has yet to decide whether to turn his dream of a new national daily into reality.) And the Citizen– known to detractors as the Shitizen-was especially in need of repair: In the four years prior to September 1996, weekday circulation had dropped 24 percent to 134,266, with similar declines in the Saturday and Sunday editions. Its rivals, The Ottawa Sun and the Globe, had made substantial inroads, with circulations of about 54,000and 20,000 respectively.
With the Hollinger takeover, Russell Mills sensed an opportunity to make changes that would have been impossible under the top-down approach of the previous management. Mills requested the Carlyle meeting to pitch his own plan, which called for the Citizento better reflect changes in its readership. No longer solely dependent on government, Ottawa is facing a future that increasingly lies with the telecommunications, technology and tourism industries.
Mills’s plan fell in line with the transformation at all of Southam’s larger newspapers, which has seen less reliance on wire stories in favour of original, authoritative reporting, especially with local stories. The papers also offer a stronger emphasis on business, national and international coverage and boast revitalized weekend editions, including bigger book review sections. The campaign to improve Southam products has required larger news holes and sweeping redesigns. The Southam papers subjected to an overhaul include Montreal’s Gazette,The Vancouver Sun, the CalgaryHerald, The Edmonton Journal, The Hamilton Spectator and The Windsor Star. The redirection of Canada’s largest paper chain follows the example of the Globe’sdramatic redesign in 1990, which enabled it to stay profitable and even boost its circulation during the recession of the early nineties. Following the example of the Globe’s overhaul, the Southam makeovers herald a rejection ofthe 20-minute newspaper read, a made-for-TV-viewers formula that became popular with the introduction of USA Todayin 1982, and a shift of the industry toward exploiting the print medium’s analytical and literary strengths.
The Citizen‘s changes would be extensive. Mills asked for six months to make the transition and received an initial $2-million investment from Black, most of it spent on more newsprint. Further, he and Black agreed that changes would be needed in the newsroom’s managers.
On October 7, editor-in-chief Jim Travers resigned, commenting, “I absolutely endorse [Hollinger’s] viewpoint or position, if you will, that the editors of newspapers should be of like mind with the proprietor.”
At the Carlyle meeting, Black recommended Neil Reynolds to succeed Travers. Then editor-in-chief and publisher at the Saint John, N.B., Telegraph-Journal, Reynolds had built a strong reputation on his ability to cultivate over achieving newspapers. Born near Kingston in 1940, Reynolds was an editor at The Toronto Starbefore joining The Kingston Whig-Standard in 1974, where he became editor-in-chief five years later. For 13 years, Reynolds produced a literary and worldly newspaper for a small-town audience, gaining national attention with articles dispatched by reporters sent to such remote locales as China and Afghanistan. Reynolds resigned from the Whig in 1992, a year and a half after it was acquired by Southam, concerned by the new owners’ lack of financial support for the newsroom. He was hired in 1993 as editor-in-chief of the J.K. Irving-owned Saint John paper. In a still-foggy set of circumstances, Reynolds was fired in August 1994, but then rehired at Irving’s personal direction two months later, becoming publisher as well. During Reynolds’s time, the Telegraph-Journalwas transformed from a thin, innocuous paper dominated by wire copy into a dynamic and controversial news source with strong local coverage. At both the Whigand the Telegraph-Journal, Reynolds created weekend magazines devoted to literary topics.
Black would also find comfort in Reynolds’s brand of Libertarian politics. A right-wing antigovernment movement with origins in leftist anarchism, Libertarianism holds that government ought to be kept out of citizens’ private lives. Reynolds took a year off from the Whigin 1982 to be president of the Libertarian Party of Canada and ran unsuccessfully for the party in a local federal by-election. In the newsroom, where right-wing politics were seen as having pushed Travers and Calamai out, staff felt their jobs were in question. “Everyone was totally terrified,” confides one reporter. “People thought that anyone at all left-wing would be obliterated.”
Reynolds wouldn’t purge the news staff, but he did add conservative voices to the editorial board. Through the hectic redesign period between early December 1996, when Reynolds arrived, and February 20, 1997, when Black approved prototypes (the extent of his involvement), editorialists with ties to the right-wing Fraser Institute (William Watson and John Robson), Donner Foundation (Adrienne DeLong Snow) and the Ontario Tory government (Dan Gardner) were recruited. Watson, a McGill University economist, became editorial page editor in January, and Snow would join David Warren, founder of the right-wing Idlermagazine, as coeditor of the new weekend magazine.
On March 3, Ottawa awoke to an all-new Citizen,in which city, national and international reporting was expanded, supported by a merger of Citizenand Southam parliamentary bureaus. Business coverage had more than doubled and was showcased in a new stand-alone section. The following Sunday saw the introduction of The Citizen’s Weekly, a 16-page “broadsheet magazine” devoted to sprawling articles as long as 12,000 words on the arts, sciences and literature. The Citizen‘s new design by Carl Neustaedter (now with the Globe) and consultant Lucie Lacava was clean and classic with a restrained use of colour and a simple, highly adaptable, layout to cope with the longer and increased quantity of stories. The nameplate now boasted a typeface reflecting the paper’s incarnation a century earlier. Coupled with a detailed etching of the Peace Tower, it proclaimed a new gravitas at the Citizen.
One of the most surprising additions, however, was the six pages of editorials and letters, including two daily pages in the City section run by a separate editorial board. In its editorials, the Citizen unapologetically argues its neo-conservative view of the world. “It has sharper elbows than it used to,” says Chris Dornan, the director of Carleton University’s journalism school. “The new Citizen is not afraid to irritate people. They want an avalanche of letters.”
“Everybody who loves newspapers should be rejoicing,” wrote Globecolumnist Robert Fulford a week after the relaunch. Despite a brashly right-wing editorial slant that was expected to alienate some readers, reaction to the new Citizenhas been favourable. Readership jumped more than five percent Monday to Friday and Sundays, and circulation rose by more than 2,000 copies a day. Circulation would later taper off to a weekday average of 135,724 and 128,092 on Sunday over the next three months, but still didn’t slip below the March 1996-97 average. The steady slide in Citizen readership has been arrested.
The paper’s favourable reception may derive less from its new ideological position than a new spirit of enterprise in its news-gathering practices.
In the final week of April, as flood waters engulfed southern Manitoba, two Citizenreporters went to cover the story: Tom Spears followed the river’s path of destruction, and education reporter Francine Dube filed stories for two weeks on life inside an all-but-deserted town, revealing an intimate and human side to the flood that news wires could not provide.
For Reynolds, the Manitoba disaster was an early opportunity to extend the reach of the Citizenby covering stories outside Ottawa with unusual aggressiveness. The 1997 travel budget, about $200,000 greater than the previous year, was frequently dipped into. If Reynolds could find a reason to send someone, he did. It was also this push for stories that the Citizencould call its own that caused the paper to exceed a freelance budget that had already increased by one-third within eight months of the relaunch.
Ultimately, Reynolds’s goal is to create what he calls a “unique story file” that features Citizen-reported stories, including fun and eccentric items that go beyond the important “news of the day.” One method is to dedicate staff to rewriting international wire stories and, after an additional phone call, use a Citizen byline; another is to take stories that other papers would place in “ghettos” like the Religion and Fashion pages and run them in A-section space, even on the front page.
An early example of Reynolds’s approach was “Mosquito Week,” a series of articles on the increased dangers of malaria-infecting mosquitos that ran the week of the relaunch on the front page and in The Citizen’s Weekly.Written by Reynolds’s wife, freelancer Donna Jacobs, it was a strange story for March, but in August the respected U.S. journal Atlantic Monthlyran the subject on its cover. The Citizenattracted more attention in October when United Church of Canada moderator Bill Phipps told the Citizen editorial board that he doesn’t believe Jesus was God. And stories on the virtues of medicinal marijuana use, a topic that often gets front-page play in the Citizen also show an odd and sometimes compelling sense of story selection. “The joy of a newspaper is its unexpected elements,” says Reynolds. “At the best, it’s a strange mixture of the sacred and the profane.”
It is a strange mixture that doesn’t sit well with some. “I think the paper is quirky as hell,” argues Peter Donolo, head of communication in the Prime Minister’s Office. “Every day there’s a T-and-A shot in there,” he says, referring to the frequent photos of celebrities and fashion models, particularly those of fetching women in immodest clothing.
Despite his successes, Reynolds’s idiosyncratic news judgement has raised eyebrows. Reporters are urged to look for stories in odd places rather than merely react to announcements from Parliament Hill and City Hall. Which explains the appearance of a story in October on the revealing dress worn to a Corel Corp. gala by Marlen Cowpland, wife of Corel chair Michael Cowpland. In some eyes, the prominence of fun and eccentric news injures the authority of the Citizen‘s serious reporting.
The editorials don’t always go down smoothly, either. Donolo, who not surprisingly doesn’t applaud criticism of his boss, calls Citizeneditorials “dilettante.” “[On] Day One of the redesign, the editorial was that the Prime Minister should resign. And through the rest of the week, they went on to say that all the opposition leaders should resign as well. I find them sophomoric.
“Are they becoming the Canadian equivalent of The Washington Post? No. Are they closer to that than they were a year ago? Arguably, but only if you measure in millimetres.”
Reynolds’s preferred comparison would be to Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraphin London. “I find a lot of American content, a lot of Canadian content, too, is very formu-la-istic,” Reynolds declares. In fact, much of his foreign news is scalped from the Telegraph. “It’s got way too many Daily Telegraph bylines on subjects that have nothing to do with Britian,” says Donolo. “It’s just as easily picked up by Knight-Ridder or better yet, by Canadian journalists.”
It is this British-styled “tits-and-analysis” character of the paper that has some in the newsroom cringing, too. According to one reporter, the use of celebrity and model photographs “has troubled virtually everyone who works at the paper, man and woman alike.” Some Citizenjournalists also question the ethics of rewriting wire stories for an in-house byline.
Compounding newsroom anxiety was a drastic change in personality at the top. Gregarious Jim Travers joked and chatted with staff, while Neil Reynolds rarely emerges from his office along the north-west wall of the newsroom, which has earned him the nickname “Bubbleboy.” Reynolds prefers to leave hands-on managing to someone else;in this case, Scott Anderson, a trusted colleague from his days at the Whigand the Telegraph-Journal. “Reynolds has nothing to do with us. He stays in his office all the time,” says one reporter. “Everything is sifted through Scott Anderson. It’s a constant guessing game;things change all the time.”
“If you quote Frank,I’ll sue you,” says Anderson as he marches towards the cafeteria. Dressed in grey slacks and a navy blazer with tie tightly knotted, he marches everywhere, in brisk straight lines, his gait short and stiff. Though he’s only 34 years old, there is no question who holds the authority in the newsroom.
Chatting in his office next to Reynolds’s, Anderson makes it clear that the mood of uncertainty isn’t accidental. He has “cross-polinated,” for instance sending court and police reporters to cover the Quebec bus crash at Thanksgiving that killed 43 people. And he thinks beat reporters should have at least one “off-beat” day a week. When asked if the turmoil has subsided in the newsroom, he responds, “Is there turmoil in the newsroom? If you find none, let me know and I’ll make some. You don’t go through any revolution without some amount of chaos. Chaos isn’t a bad thing. A lot of great ideas come out of the rough and tumble.”
Some Citizen journalists saw the shakeup as an opportunity to try something new and have blossomed, particularly those now writing for The Citizen’s Weekly. On the third day of the relaunch, former city columnist Shelley Page pitched Reynolds an interview that would require a flight to Vancouver. Reynolds sent her, later agreed to a detour through Arizona for another interview and then sent Page to Vienna to complete the story.
Reynolds and Anderson have quietly tested everyone in the Citizennewsroom, even veteran reporters. Those who succeed, like Page, get to do almost anything they want: Page now writes features from home, as does investigative reporter Paul McKay, who works in Kingston. Those who fail, or don’t know how to prove themselves, are marginalized. Former World editor David Evans was shunted to the side after a trip to Europe failed to produce the quality of stories he had pitched. In November, he moved to The Edmonton Journal, and his wife, Citizen assistant arts editor Keri Sweetman, is to join him later. Her only comment is, “It takes a lot to move two journalists with three kids to Edmonton, away from all their friends and family.”
And there have been other defections of accomplished journalists. Ten days after Jim Travers resigned, editorial page editor Peter Calamai resigned under circumstances similar to Travers’s. That led to managing editor Sharon Burnside accepting a buyout that took effect in April and features writer Ken MacQueen, “saddened and disconcerted” by the “removal” of Travers and Calamai, going to The Vancouver Sun in August. In September, Queen’s Park columnist Jim Coyle left for The Toronto Star(now edited by Travers).
Celebrated sports columnist Roy MacGregor, who could draw almost a year’s salary on Southam’s buyout option, has considered leaving the Citizen, too. He has stayed on, though, because he loves Ottawa and finds sanctuary in sports, a section which escapes Reynolds’s feedback. MacGregor is also intrigued by the Citizen’s changes. “It is almost worth the price of admission,” says MacGregor, calling the Sports department the “best seats in the house.” “In terms of the dynamics of journalism, it is an absolutely hypnotic experience to watch.”
That experience will continue in the newsroom and in the Citizen’s pages, challenging journalists and readers alike. According to Mills, the new Citizen,bolstered by a booming ad market, has had one of the most profitable years in its history. Reynolds can afford to take chances.
Not that he has ever shied from risks, nor will he start anytime soon. Reynolds delights in controversy and inducing debate around Ottawa’s water coolers and on his letters pages. For now, at least, he can escape unscathedÛthe extent of the Citizen’s other changes provides some disarming glare for its readers. As Chris Dornan explains about Citizenreaders: “Lots of people are still irritated, but they are probably talking about it and reading it more-simply because there’s more in it.”
And then, there are those Ottawans who actually like the new Citizen.
The Ottawa Independent Writers meeting is dragging out its final questions, when a young woman poses a question on the minds of many in attendance. “How do you justify the increased quality of the Citizen with the fact that I will open the paper every day and see a picture of a woman with a plunging neckline or in a bikini?”
Reynolds requests an example. She offers, “Mrs. Cowpland,” referring to the previous day’s front page photo of Marlen Cowpland in a dress revealing her right buttock.
“I loved seeing that dress,” another woman calls out.
Neil Reynolds’s eyes flash. His scowl becomes a grin.