Carleton Free Press: the little paper that couldn’t

by Ken Thomson
Ken Langdon took on the powerful Irving family with his Carleton Free Press. In the end, a tough economy made the difficult battle impossible.

By Ken Thomson

Woodstock New Brunswick is a small town nestled where the Meduxnekeag River flows into the Saint John River Valley. Farm fields are visible behind the Wal-Mart, the Tim Horton’s parking lot is usually busy and the people are friendly and helpful should you ever lock your keys in your car. This is hardly the place you expect to find the frontline of a war, but tiny Woodstock was recently the site of a newspaper war that captured attention across Canada.

On one side of the battle was the independently owned Carleton Free Press, on the other was the Bugle-Observer, part of J.K Irving’s Brunswick News, the dominant publisher of newspapers in the province. In the end, the Bugle-Observer was the one left standing, but not before the Free Press put up a stubborn fight.

The first issue of the Free Press hit the streets on October 30, 2007. It was born after Ken Langdon quit his job as publisher at the Bugle-Observer because of his dissatisfaction with the corporate direction of Brunswick News and his fear that he was about to be axed. He teamed up with local businessman Dwight Fraser to start the newspaper. It was a rough beginning.

Fighting in court

Brunswick News went to court before he could put out the first issue, alleging he had taken important documents such as budgets, rate cards and carrier lists. The Irvings initially won an injunction that prevented Langdon from contacting Brunswick News employees, advertisers or customers. It also prevented him from using any information belonging to Brunswick News.

Langdon had e-mailed himself files comparing the Bugle-Observer’s financial performance with other Brunswick News papers of the same size. He said he was looking to defend himself in a wrongful dismissal case. He felt he would lose his job because Brunswick News had already replaced 13 publishers in the last four years and he was coming under increasing scrutiny. He said he deleted the files on the advice of his son, who is a lawyer.

As the court battle heated up, a court-appointed forensic accounting firm, KPMG, carried out searches on Langdon’s properties, his house and a rental property. The accountants also took some of Langdon’s computers.

“That was the worst experience of my life,” Langdon said. “Even worse was the damage it did to my wife. It was very hard on her. She didn’t like the fact that they could be so heavy handed. And it felt like they had a carte blanche to invade our house and properties.”

In the end, the court allowed Langdon the right to contact advertisers but not to contact employees. He was not allowed to use the business information he gained from years of working with Brunswick News, but the court said nothing of how he attained the information or about wrongdoing on his part.
Both sides claimed victory.

Victor Mlodecki, vice president of Brunswick News, in an e-mail forwarded through director of community affairs Edith Robb, said, “We stopped him from using the material he illegally removed from our premises. He removed thousands of proprietary documents which included budgets, business plans, rate cards, carrier lists etc. from the Bugle-Observer and tried to hire its entire staff to start his own newspaper. I don’t mind competing but I don’t want to compete with my own newspaper just getting up and moving across the street.”

In fact, six Bugle-Observer employees came to work at the Carleton Free Press and the first issue soon hit the stands. But the struggles just moved from the courtroom to the marketplace.

Fighting for advertisers

Shortly after the paper started, Bob Rupert arrived. He is a retired journalism professor from Carleton University in Ottawa. He was a former teacher of Jamie Irving, publisher of the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John. Irving brought him east to help improve the editorial quality of various Brunswick News papers, but he was let go.

Rupert had done some work at the Bugle-Observer, and that’s how he met Langdon.

Rupert knew he had a big job to do at the Free Press.  “I was pretty appalled at what I saw. There was no way the newspaper was going to succeed with that kind of an editorial package.” Rupert wanted to see the paper succeed so he stayed and officially became the editor last December.

“We’ve put out some really good issues of this paper and we’ve put out some not so great issues of the paper,” Rupert said not long before its demise. “It’s not as good as I want it to be but it’s way better than it was and I think it’s way better than the opposition.” One big story the Free Press broke was a high school teacher accused of assaulting a student, a story the Bugle-Observer failed to report.

“The Bugle was just not interested in exposing the blemishes and problem areas in the community,” Rupert said. “Their paper made it look like a utopia, and the reason they did that (was) because they didn’t want to upset their advertisers and their readers, mainly their advertisers.”

Langdon said the Free Press was different. “This newspaper up here, we’re able to live by the golden rule, that the editorial is editorial and the business is business,” he said before his paper was closed.

Kim Kierans is the director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Her area of expertise includes community newspapers and media concentration. She has written about the Carleton Free Press in her columns in the Sunday Herald in Halifax. “I think it’s attracted a lot of attention because it stood up to the domination of Brunswick News in a very public way. They went up against the Irvings on an editorial basis. Reporting the news, including news about Irvings and the Irvings’ various businesses.”

The unique monopoly

“It’s a cause for me; it’s not a job,” Rupert said in an interview as he struggled to keep it going. “I really want this paper to have the best possible shot. Partially because I think if it can be done here, it can be done other places, and the newspaper business in New Brunswick badly needs competition.”

Langdon agreed. “Media concentration I don’t think is healthy for the newspapers themselves, it’s just not good here in New Brunswick.”

Brunswick News owns all three English language dailies in New Brunswick, many French and English language weeklies and semi-weeklies in the province. According to Langdon the situation in New Brunswick is “replicated nowhere else in the developed world.” The 2006 Senate report on the media was just the most recent official study to raise concerns about the extent of the Irvings’ control of the news media in the province.

“New Brunswick is unique,” said Kierans, “in that … it has this company that owns a substantial part of the media including three daily newspapers and it also has a great influence on the economy and that’s what makes it different from anywhere else in Canada.”

The Free Press’s struggle didn’t go unnoticed.

CBC New Brunswick named Langdon its “Newsmaker of the Year” for 2007, and on May 24, 2008, the Canadian Association of Journalists gave the paper its President’s Award at its annual convention in Edmonton. In a press release, Mary Agnes Welch, CAJ President, said: “The Free Press is at the forefront of the fight against media monopolies like the Irvings’ that threaten the diversity of voices essential to a properly functioning democracy.”

Kierans agrees.

“Any diverse voices, different points of views, variety for readers is a good thing. Competition is good. It makes for better, more lively discussions. Isn’t that what democracy is all about? If you have different media you have different points of views.”

The Free Press continued to grow. In January, 2008 it launched a free shopper, the Penny Pincher, by May it had its website up and running and it unveiled a weekend edition to compete with the Bugle-Observer’s weekend edition.

All the while, the Bugle-Observer made a few changes of its own. It went full colour, and in September offered two-for-one advertising, and the paper for a quarter, saying it was a way to celebrate the paper`s centenary.

“It is not often that a newspaper marks one century of publishing,` Victor Mlodecki, said. “We have long planned to mark this milestone with a major celebration. It is a significant anniversary and we are happy to celebrate it.” He also says that other papers in the chain celebrating big milestones will be getting special treatment.

But in Kieran’s view, “The 100th anniversary was a good hook to try and undermine its competition”

“They’re trying to kill us,” Rupert said.

New Brunswick News’ Robb disagreed. “Subscription inducements are common in the publishing industry. Think about how many magazine offers you receive on a regular basis.”

The Free Press took its concerns to the federal competition bureau, but the Bureau decided not to investigate because the circulation numbers for both Woodstock papers were close, and the two papers had similar ad revenues.

Natalie Greenlaw worked sales for the Bugle-Observer before coming over to help start the Free Press. “A lot of people wanted to stand behind us, back us because we’re working for the local community.”

One reader, Anne Dobbelsteyn agrees.  She said she read the Free Press because, “I know … the people who work there, and it’s interesting.” More interesting than the Bugle-Observer.

Langdon had faith that even with the Bugle-Observer’s price drop readers would stay loyal. “Our paper is worth a buck, people are going to pay a buck for it.” He voted not to “surrender.”

But the bravado didn’t last long.

In the last week of October, the newspaper abruptly announced it was shutting down. In a statement, Langdon cited three reasons for the failure: the market crash and its effect on the local economy, the cost of adding a second paper on Fridays and ad rate cuts by the Bugle-Observer.

In the letter, Langdon wrote “with deep regrets” that the “perfect economic storm” did the paper in. He also thanked his readership for its support.

“I personally am extremely proud of this paper and of my team of professionals who have given it their all in producing a top tier product, with special thanks and my utmost respect to our Editor, Bob Rupert. I am humbled by the overwhelming support that my community has shown, and very grateful to those who have stood by my side during some of the more difficult times.”

He also lashed out at the Irvings. “Brunswick News can afford to drop a few million dollars here to get the Bugle-Observer’s monopoly back ….”

The Irvings issued their own statement a few days later accusing the Free Press of providing misleading information.

“The Woodstock Bugle-Observer was a fair competitor,” said the company’s general manager of weekly newspapers, Kelly Madden. “In the end, the competitive pricing of advertising was never an issue. The Carleton Free Press was simply not able to manage the rising costs of producing a twice weekly newspaper” with the slump in the economy and advertising spending.

“Only so many newspapers fit into markets, no different than only so many Wal-Marts or only so many luggage shops,” Madden was quoted as saying by the CBC. “I think it’s difficult no matter what.”

No one would argue with the difficult part. Least of all Rupert or Langdon, who fought and lost to bring newspaper competition to a small New Brunswick town.