The Ottawa Journal Closes

27 August 1980

Headline, Ottawa Journal, 27 August 1980

Rumours had been circulating that the Ottawa Journal was living on borrowed time. Staff were worried. But Jim Rennie, the executive editor, met with the newspaper’s editorial staff to provide some reassurance. They were doing good work, and circulation was on the rise. After falling to a low of only 52,000 copies per day the previous year, readership had risen to 77,000. The goal of 80,000 by mid-September 1980 was in sight.  But on the very evening of that staff pep talk, Rennie received an unexpected and unwanted telephone call; the newspaper was folding.

The next morning, under the headline “Ottawa Journal closed,” Arthur E. Wood, the publisher, wrote: “It is with deepest regret that I am obliged to announce the cessation of publication and closure of The Ottawa Journal effective with this morning’s edition, Wednesday, August 27, 1980.”

Less than a year earlier, Wood, then the publisher of the Montreal Star, delivered the same bad news to that newspaper’s staff.  A few months after a ruinous and lengthy pressmen’s strike that saw the newspaper lose circulation and advertisers to its rival, the Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Star collapsed.

Wood explained to Journal staff that over the past five years, the paper’s financial losses had grown from $112,000 in 1975 to $3,400,000 in the first eight months of 1980. Such losses were simply not sustainable. Although circulation has risen significantly in recent months, more newspaper sales ironically increased the red ink as advertising revenue didn’t rise commensurately, and the cost of producing the additional newspapers outweighed the higher circulation revenue. Advertisers stuck with the Ottawa Citizen despite its higher advertising rate per column inch. Even The Bay, then owned by the Thomson group, the proprietors of the Journal, cut back its advertising in the Journal. Among the reasons cited for the inability of the Journal to attract advertisers was that both newspapers were going after the same demographic group. One observer also suggested that the newspaper’s failure to switch to offset printing from hot lead typesetting when the Ottawa Citizen did in 1973 was an important factor as advertisers had to prepare two different types of advertisements, one for the Citizen and one for the Journal. The additional expense was not worth the effort.

With the closure of the newspaper, 375 people lost their jobs. Only Wood was assured of a new position within the Thomson newspaper empire, the owner of the Ottawa Journal since the beginning of 1980.

The Journal had a long history in Ottawa. It had been founded almost 95 years earlier in 1885 by Alexander Smith Woodburn. In its first edition, which came out on 10 December of that year, Woodburn stated that the reason for a new daily newspaper in Ottawa was obvious. But to ensure there was no doubt, he added that Ottawa needed a newspaper that was “able and independent,” ready to express the opinions of, and advocate for, the interests of the city’s citizens. He opined that there was a “pressing need” for a daily newspaper of “high moral form, free from political partisanship and party prejudices,” and “loyal to the Empire and zealous in the promotion of the best interest of its noblest member—the Dominion of Canada.” As the Ottawa Citizen was the leading English-language newspaper in Ottawa, Woodburn’s words were a not so veiled attack on that newspaper.

Woodburn added that the new Ottawa Evening Journal would not be the mouthpiece of any clique, political party or religious denomination, and would cover the news without favour to friend or foe. While the newspaper would provide news of the world, it would, of necessity do so in a condensed fashion. Its principal focus would be on matters pertaining to Ottawa, especially civic affairs.

The Journal’s office was located at 36 Elgin St. The cost of the daily newspaper was two cents. The newspaper’s first editor was John Wesley Defoe. He held the position for only six months before he headed out to Winnipeg to work for the Manitoba Free Press. He was later to become that newspaper’s editor, a position he held from 1901 to 1944. Defoe was succeeded at the Journal by Mr. A. H. U. Colquhoun. 

P. D. Ross, Ottawa Citizen, 18 January 1910.

In 1886, Philip Dansken Ross bought a 50 per cent interest in the financially shaky Journal from Woodburn. Four years later, he bought out his partner, and became president of the company. He was to remain at the head of the newspaper until his death in 1949. In 1917, Ross organized the merger of the Journal with the Ottawa Free Press. An eminent pressman, he was also a founder of the Canadian Press newspaper association. Four months before his death, he sold his shares in the Ottawa Journal to his colleagues working for the newspaper.

Ross was a man of many parts. In his early years, he was an outstanding athlete both at McGill University and later as a player for the Ottawa Senators. In 1892, he was named as one of the original trustees of the Stanley Cup. He later became chairman of Ottawa Hydro-Electric Commission. Politically, he was a conservative, and was active in Ottawa politics at all levels of government. Reflecting his political affinity, the Ottawa Journal was broadly seen as a Conservative newspaper.

In July 1959, ten years after Ross’s death, the newspaper, never financially strong, was acquired by the newly-formed FP Publications Ltd. The company, based in Winnipeg, was owned by Colonel Victor Sifton of Winnipeg and G. Max Bell of Calgary. Other newspapers owned by the group at that time included the Winnipeg Free Press, the Victoria Daily Times and the Daily Colonist as well as several Albertan newspapers. In January 1980, the Ottawa Journal was purchased by the Thomson Corporation, established by the Canadian Roy Thomson, 1st Baron of Fleet. The Thomson group owned roughly 200 Canadian and British newspapers, including London’s prestigious Times and Sunday Times.

The closure of the Journal, just months after it was acquired by the Thompson group, came as a shock to Ottawa citizens as well as its employees. When woken at 3:00 am by a journalist with the news, Mayor Marion Dewer thought she was having a bad dream. Jean Pigot, president of the Morrison-Lemothe Bakery and the Progressive-Conservative MP for Ottawa-Carleton from 1976 to 1980, and later Chair of the National Capital Commission, is reported to have exclaimed: “Good Lord, I don’t believe it.”

Shock changed to anger when it was revealed that on the same day the Thomson group closed the Ottawa Journal, it’s arch rival the Southam group of newspapers closed the Winnipeg Tribune. The dual closures left the Southam-owned Ottawa Citizen the sole English-language newspaper in Ottawa, and the Thomson-owned Winnipeg Tribune the sole English-language newspaper in Winnipeg. Southam’s also sold the fixed assets of the Tribune to the Thomson group for $2.5 million.

The chairman of Southam’s, St. Clair Balfour, claimed that there had been no deal between the two newspaper groups, though there had been discussions about the losses each had been suffering. Balfour said the both groups believed that confusion and uncertainty among employees and shareholders would have been heightened had the decisions to close the two newspapers been separated by weeks or months. The situations at the Tribune and the Journal were mirror images of each other.

Outrage over the closure of the two newspapers that left the Southam and Thomson newspaper chains with monopolies in Ottawa and Winnipeg, respectively, led to the creation of the Royal Commission on Newspapers, commonly referred to as the “Kent Commission” in 1980. Among other things the Commission recommended that the government block further cross-media concentration, and that newspapers put on public record reports on their editorial purpose and policy, and establish advisory committees composed of journalists and outsiders. The Commission also advised the establishment of a Press Rights Council within the government’s Human Rights Commission to review the annual reports of newspapers’ advisory committees.

Following widespread outrage within the newspaper industry, and fears of “Big Brother,” the recommendations of the Kent Commission were set aside. At a time when the government of Pierre Trudeau faced more pressing issues, such as a deep economic recession, and Quebec separation, it was unwilling to take on the wrath of the newspaper industry. However, the upshot of this was further concentration in the industry. By the year 2000, three chains (Hollinger/Southam, Quebecor/Sun Media and Torstar) reportedly controlled 72% of daily newspaper circulation in Canada.

Today, concerns about concentration of ownership in the newspaper industry are overshadowed by broader issues. The rise of digital media has led to a major shift away from print media. Newspapers are closing around the globe, leading to the loss of thousands of journalist positions, as readers and advertisers gravitate towards on-line content. In the process, the likes of Google and Facebook have scooped up the lion’s share of advertising revenue. According to Canadian Media Concentration Report, there has been a breakdown of the three-way beneficial relationship between advertisers, journalists and the public.

Not all are concerned about this, with some arguing that media fragmentation rather than media concentration is more relevant. However, the democratization of news provision—everybody can be a “journalist” and upload material to the web—and the algorithms used by search engines to disseminate content has led to “echo chambers” where readers only see material that support their world view. This phenomenon, combined with “fake news,” pushed by those with a particular agenda, have contributed to widening social divisions.

Sources:

Creely, Tim. 1984. “Out of Commission,” Ryerson Review of Journalism, http://rrj.ca/m3557/, Spring.

Keshen, Richard & MacAskill, Kent, 2000. I Told You So: The Kent Commission,”

New York Times, 1949. “P.R. Ross, Headed Ottawa Journal; President of newspaper since 1886 Is Dead at 91 – Acquired Publication for $8,000, 6 July 1949.

Ottawa Citizen, 1980. “Ottawa Journal folds,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Citizen to fill the void,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Without advertising increases, circulation hike actually hurt,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Shutdown confirms rumors,” 27 August.

——————, 1980. “Massive changes revealed,” 27 August.

Ottawa Journal, 1885. “Prospectus,” 10 December.

——————-, 1949. “P.D. Ross, Journal President, Dies At 91,” 5 July.

——————-, 1980. “Ottawa Journal Closed,” 27 August.

Royal Commission on Newspapers, The Kent Commission, 1980.

Victoria Daily Times, 1959, “Victoria Newspapers Join National Group,” 16 July.

Winseck, Swayne, 2017. Canadian Media Concentration Research Report, http://www.cmcrp.org/.

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