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The London Free Press lobby is airy and, like the rest of the building, created out of warm autumn-brown bricks imported from Pennsylvania. There is a winding staircase leading to what used to be the publisher’s office and radio rooms. Behind the long front desk, the receptionist sits and answers the phone. After finishing a call, she tries to readjust herself in her seat but almost ends up on the floor. Clinging to the other arm of her chair, she lifts a chunk of black plastic into the air. “Oops, I think I just broke my chair,” she says, making sure the woman at another desk across the lobby can see the broken arm. And then, shaking it off as though it was an everyday occurrence, she goes back to work.

Missing the chair excitement, Chip Martin walks through a door off to the side of the staircase, signs me in and takes me to the newsroom. The large open space is painted a beige colour that blends with the mounds of papers, books and research piled on desks. The computers are vintage iMacs, with the exception of a few newer G5 computers at the graphics desk. Martin, a political reporter and former opinion and political columnist, has been with the paper since 1973. It’s noon and the view from his desk shows nothing but empty workstations from wall to wall. There are just three men clustered in the corner of the newsroom they call “Sardinia.” Everywhere but the printing press room is empty: sports, the city desk, even the editors’ offices.

Located on York Street in downtown London, the Free Press building is larger than the nearby used car lot and firehouse put together. But in terms of floor space and bodies, the first-floor newsroom is significantly smaller than what it used to be. Back in the mid-1990s, more than 400 employees occupied the building, but now the shrunken staff needs only half of the industrial-sized space. Outside businesses rent the rest.

Aside from the job cuts, the paper has gone through a string of different owners and various editorial styles over the past decade. Now it features fewer local bylines and more wire stories—which haven’t exactly improved the editorial content—but many residents of this university city located midway between Toronto and Detroit have stuck with the daily. And their loyalty may be rewarded. Last year, Quebecor purchased Osprey Media, and made Michael Sifton the president and CEO of the company’s chain of newspapers, including the Free Press. He and his newly minted team claim they’re going to bring the local news back. It could mean a good year for the paper.

In 1853, Josiah Blackburn bought the CanadianFree Press for $500 from its founder William Sutherland and renamed it the London Free Press. It stayed in the Blackburn family for over 140 years. Arthur Blackburn, the youngest son among Josiah’s eight children, took over after his father died in 1900. With the addition of radio broadcast units in 1922, the Free Press had emerged as a primary news source for London and the surrounding southwestern Ontario communities.

In 1936, Arthur Blackburn died and his only son, Walter, took over the business. Taking pride in his community and striving to publish a paper that reflected his family’s values (his ancestors have ties to the Church of England), he ran the Free Press in a paternalistic manner. He set a policy of a five-day workweek and brought in pension and health plans. Workers from that time remember Blackburn as a man who cared about his readers and knew many employees by name, and the staff came to expect personalized Christmas cards and turkeys every year as a holiday bonus. Still, he remained an arm’s-length publisher, interfering only when he felt the newspaper’s integrity or professionalism was threatened.

Martin remembers Blackburn dealing with editorial conflicts with a calm but firm hand. In 1973, the Free Press published stories about every aspect of the Queen’s visit to London: who was invited to lunch (and who wasn’t), who was in charge of décor and how the city would pick the school that would present the monarch with flowers. Pat Currie, a former night editor and reporter who worked at the paper for more than 25 years, wrote the headline for a story about how the Queen’s meals had to be inspected twice to make sure they were safe. After the headline in the morning edition read “Team Screens Queen’s Beans,” Blackburn came down from his corner office and stood beside the news editor. “I think we’ve had enough stories about the Queen’s meals,” he said as quietly as his trademark baritone voice would allow. The story didn’t make the evening edition.

Blackburn was diagnosed with cancer in 1982 and his daughter Martha ran the company until her death in 1992. But Phil McLeod, who took over as editor, had a new vision for the paper and it began to take on a USA Today approach to news. “Stories were to be very short: lots of graphics, lots of fact boxes,” says Hank Daniszewski, a business reporter who has worked at the paper since the late 1980s. “The idea being that the reader had about a 30 second attention span—and this was going to be the future of newspapers.”

This redesign, rumoured around the newsroom to have cost the paper around a million dollars, may have been what cast the Free Press adrift in the early 1990s, says Daniszewski. The layout change and shorter stories were different from the longer and more comprehensive local journalism readers had become accustomed to in Walter Blackburn’s day.

In 1997, Sun Media bought the paper for $168 million. The company owned a number of sensationalist tabloids so, as a broadsheet, the Free Press became the chain’s proverbial fish out of water. It was an arrangement that seemed to work, but only after the paper downsized by about 120 employees.

Julie Carl was one of the 300 workers who were able to keep their jobs after the buyout. She worked at the paper from 1990 to 2003 and says the Sun Media days were a golden age. “We went back to spending money, there was travel, we were doing really interesting things and we started winning awards.” Indeed, in 1998, the Free Press earned two National Newspaper Award nominations. A series on London’s accomplishments in the medical profession was illustrated with the life-size photo of a premature baby. This strong and brash approach to visuals won the paper its first NNA in 15 years.

Chasing breaking news, writing more in-depth stories and returning the paper to its old Blackburn standards were priorities for John Paton, who left the Ottawa Sun to become publisher at the Free Press. He brought in Rob Paynter as editor-in-chief and moved Richard Hoffman into the job of managing editor to revamp the editorial. The paper’s circulation was increasing again, and so was profit—up 135 per cent from the Martha Blackburn days by the end of 1999.

As a part of these efforts, Sun Media even purchased a printing press from Argentina. The second-hand press was in better shape than the previous one and fit in nicely with the new computers, laptops and phones that replaced the run-down equipment that dated from Walter Blackburn’s era. “I bounded out of bed and couldn’t wait to get to work those days,” says Carl. “It was a paper you could be proud to work for—and then Quebecor bought us and that’s where it gets foggy.”

About 18 months after Sun Media bought the Free Press, another conglomerate stepped in to purchase the entire chain. In December of 1998, Torstar, a book and newspaper publisher and owner of the Toronto Star, made an unsolicited bid but lost out to Quebecor Media. The Montreal-based multinational also has interests in commercial printing, cable and telecommunications, new media and entertainment businesses.

In March of 1999, the new owners began their rule by eliminating 180 positions across the Sun Media chain. This reduced the Free Press’s newsroom to about 100 employees. New publisher Les Pyette, formerly with the Calgary Sun, had a reputation for running papers in a “tight and bright” true tabloid fashion, and it wasn’t long before his influence was felt. According to “Family vs. Corporate Ownership: The London Free Press During and After the Blackburns,” a study done by Romayne Smith Fullerton and Mary Doyle, journalism professors at the University of Western Ontario: “In 1995, the editorial space in the average paper constituted 1782.36 square inches; in 2000, the editorial space had shrunk to 1288.02 square inches.” The Saturday Forum section, which ran analytical pieces, book excerpts, editorials, letters and opinion columns (some written by members of the community), was one of the first local sections to go, although it enjoyed a brief revival under editor Larry Cornies.

Unlike Walter Blackburn, Pyette had his hands deep in the paper’s editorial content. Shortly after arriving, he called Paynter and Hoffman into his office. Using a copy of the paper to demonstrate, the new boss laid out the new mandate. “Nobody reads that shit anyway,” he said as he ripped out pages, one after another.

And when Promise Keepers, a men’s-only Evangelical Christian ministry, made a stop in London in 2000, Pyette, a supporter of the group, sponsored the convention with two small ads and a couple of editorial pieces—at the expense of other local content. Carl remembers getting calls from organizers of a local Take Back the Night rally, which raises awareness about violence against women, wondering why their normally free ad wasn’t in the paper.

After several months of working under the new regime, Carl also remembers sitting in her car in the Free Press parking lot one morning. She knew she had to get out of the vehicle and go in to work, but she felt glued to her seat. Carl looked at the cars around her and realized she wasn’t the only one. Others were also sitting and waiting. “It was unspoken,” she says, “but everybody knew it was just soul-sucking to walk into the building and wonder what was going to wallop you that day.”

In 2000, Carl was working as the city columnist, a position she enjoyed. Rob Paynter offered her the job of city editor instead, a role she didn’t want, but she finally caved and accepted. Carl bristled when Pyette replaced her with Ian Gillespie without informing her, but Paynter wanted her to be the city editor, not the city columnist.

By the end of 2001, a number of key staff, including Paynter and Hoffman, were gone. Those who remained had to pick up the tasks of those who’d left: the managing editor took over passing out mail and office supplies, and everyone had to work harder to cover the breaking local stories.

Paul Berton is the now editor-in-chief of the Free Press. He is the son of famed Canadian writer and newspaperman Pierre Berton, and has been with the paper since 1987. A broad and tall man, Berton sits with one arm on his desk, resting his chin on his open hand to give me all of his attention. Leaning off the front edge of the chair, he picks through a wire cubby-shelf stacked with old Free Press newspapers.

Acknowledging that many writers and editors have been eliminated in the succession of corporate takeovers since the Blackburn family days, Berton feels the paper is essentially what it always was—just with a smaller staff. “If someone thinks writing movie reviews is local news, then yes, we have less local news,” he says while holding a yellowing copy of the Free Press. “If someone thinks less reporters is less local news, then yes, we have less local news.”

The downsizing may be over though, and more help may be on the way. Last August, Quebecor purchased Osprey Media, which owned 20 dailies and 38 other community publications, solidifying its position as the country’s largest newspaper chain. By the end of September, Michael Sifton, who had been CEO of Osprey, was in place as president and CEO of the revamped Sun chain, which now includes the Osprey papers. Upon his arrival, Quebecor’s newsletter announced the company’s papers were going to rebuild their local coverage. “They have allowed us a tremendous degree of latitude in the changes we’ve made so far,” says Sifton. “And certainly part of it is to spend more on local content.”

It was no empty promise. Across the Sun Media chain, more general assignment reporters and other newsroom employees have been hired, including several at the Free Press. The chain is also restructuring local websites to make breaking news possible and is training the reporters to use cameras. And there’s talk of new equipment and supplies (and, maybe, one day, a new chair for the receptionist). “I am excited,” says Sifton. “I think our products are looking better and we’re doing all kinds of fun stuff.”

Berton has already begun to take part in Sifton’s plan to up the local news content by enhancing the Free Press’s website. But he doesn’t agree the paper ever really lost its local approach. In his office, he spreads out five copies, with dates ranging from the 1960s to the present, on the floor in front of him. While it’s clear that over the years, the paper has shrunk, it’s hard to tell which one had the most local news, especially given the many redesigns using various fonts, layouts and paper sizes. The Forum section is gone, but its local content has merely moved into the front section and the Sunday paper. “There is not as much opinion and analysis as there was. That’s certainly true, and perhaps we will change,” says Berton, staring at the editions on the floor. “But I think the newspaper speaks for itself. Some will see a great newspaper and some will see a paper that is not what they grew up with.”

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About the author

Miranda Voth was the Special Reports Editor for the Summer 2008 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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