Advice for Mr. Black

What advertisers hope for if Hollinger’s boss greenlights a national daily.

Marketing Magazine, November 10, 1997 

The “Daily Black” has been the talk of the chattering classes across the country for months. It’s one more symptom of further concentration of media power and a bully pulpit for its owner. Conversely, it’s being characterized as a blast of much-needed competition to the established market leaders. It will fragment the market into shards too tiny to turn a profit for anybody.

‍     On the other hand, it could be a rising tide that lifts all the boats. Eager journalists — both grizzled veterans and freshly-minted J-school greenhorns — have been flooding its human resources people with résumés. It will appear five days a week. Or seven. It will be a tabloid. Or a broadsheet. It will be a truly mass-appeal product. Unless it’s aimed solely at the élite. It will be launching early in 1998. But don’t look for it until a year after that.

‍     In truth, only a handful of people have even the slightest idea what the Southam/Hollinger national daily will look like, what its mandate will be or when its launch is scheduled for. And they’re not very forthcoming.

‍     If Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. does decide to launch a new national newspaper, it will be the fifth daily based in Toronto. The ad industry is rife with rumors on what niche the paper would fill.

‍     That hasn’t stopped everyone and his dog from offering an opinion on what the paper should look like. And it hasn’t stopped the more brazen pundits from fearlessly predicting what the paper will look like or when it will appear. The fact that Hollinger Inc.’s chair, Conrad Black, has yet to decide whether to launch a paper — never mind when — seems a detail too small to consider.

‍     All this amuses Gordon Fisher, Southam Inc.’s editorial vice-president.

‍     “There’s been a lot of speculation in the marketplace, and frankly, I don’t know where a lot of it comes from,” he says, chuckling. “Our timetables are dependent on Conrad Black’s timing of his announcement of this project. I expect him to announce some time before the end of this year whether it’s going ahead. And at some time concurrent with that I expect him to announce a launch date. But that’s another one of those things that even if I knew it I couldn’t tell you.”

‍     A month ago, Hollinger was unable to buy out Sun Media Inc.’s Financial Post, which would have made any plans for a new national daily easier. Even if the two papers had continued as separate entities, the Post could have served as business news source, marketing mule and talent bank. But that won’t happen.

‍     In all the eager anticipation surrounding the new daily, there are also varying scenarios about how the paper could work and what another daily would mean.

‍     Ann Boden, president of McKim Media Group of Toronto, says the paper would further fragment the Toronto newspaper landscape, adding a fifth contender to a city that already has two dailies — The Globe and Mail and The Financial Post — fighting for business leaders, while the Toronto Sun aims for the tabloid proletariat and the Star sets its sights on the suburban bourgeoisie.

‍     Fisher says Southam people have visited marketers and agencies to discuss the prospective publication, but for obvious reasons he’s remaining quiet about who’s been visited and what was said there. Through the preparation for a possible launch, the various uninformed pronouncements of all and sundry haven’t helped, especially when they’re way ahead of what anybody at Southam is doing and wide of the mark on what the paper will look like.

‍     “The reality is that we’re still at the testing phase with a lot of this stuff,” says Fisher. “Some of it we don’t even know ourselves yet. Some of it we just prefer to keep to ourselves, frankly.”

‍     Anticipation is running high. The day before this interview, Fisher said the new paper had received its first subscriber: “We got a letter from a man wanting to take out a subscription,” despite the fact that Black has yet to decide whether to go ahead with the paper.

‍     Media directors know the paper is coming, too, and they have an idea of what they’d like to see in it.

‍     “We don’t need another business paper,” says Terry Sheehy, vice-president at Leo Burnett. “We need something that doesn’t exist in the market; anything like that would be better than fragmenting the market further.”

‍     David Harrison, president of Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell in Toronto, is almost as tired of the speculation as Southam’s Fisher: “We’ve been talking about this for six months. I haven’t got an opinion about it anymore.”

‍     More seriously, though, Harrison admits he’s not sure what will emerge from Southam. “Personally, I’d prefer The Daily Telegraph (one of Hollinger’s British papers), but that’s unlikely. You’ve got a lot of papers going after the same relatively small group of professionals. How many times can you slice that one piece of the pie? They might take the Ottawa Citizen and expand it nationally; they could change it to The Citizen.

‍     That scenario has a definite appeal for media directors, who seem to agree with aiming at a broader audience than that sought by the Globe and Financial Post. Hollinger’s Ottawa Citizen has been doing well as a result of its redesign and editorial initiatives. And many observers saw that remake as a dry run for launching a national paper.

‍     It’s also interesting to note in all of this that Conrad Black has yet to launch a paper from scratch. He’s revitalized existing titles, but starting a brand new publication is one challenge he has yet to take on. It’s also important to remember that he’s never closed a paper either, and is apparently willing to wait for a publication to become profitable.

‍     “Whatever happens, I’d like to see a paper that can deliver a rich mass — and I don’t mean individually rich readers,” Terry Sheehy says. “I mean a large, diverse readership; something aimed broadly; lots of sports coverage, lots of lifestyle news — like a national version of the Toronto Star or USA Today.”

‍     “Unless market research shows us we’re nuts, this will be a high-quality newspaper,” Fisher says. “It will be a national newspaper, and it will be representative of all the regions of Canada. My sense is that Mr. Black is very close to making a decision. I honestly believe it will be within the next few weeks at the outside. That’s about all I want to say about this newspaper. If I could tell you more, I would.”

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