Wednesday, 8 August 2007

London Free Press

When Sun Media Corporation purchased the broadsheet London Free Press in 1997, readers feared it would become a tabloid to mirror sister Suns in Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary.

That didn't happen.

Sun Media respected the wishes of Free Press readers, advertisers and the Blackburn family, owners of the independent newspaper since Josiah Blackburn purchased it in 1853.

The paper was first called Canadian Free Press when founded in 1849 by William Sutherland. The Blackburns changed the name and made it a daily in 1855.

John Paton, a London-born former Toronto Sun copy boy who worked his way up the Sun ladder, became publisher in 1997 and quickly introduced a Sunday paper.

Readers, advertisers and the Blackburn family were content.

But two years later, Quebecor bought Sun Media.

Today, the London Free Press is 158 years old and a shadow of itself. Staff has been slashed and the paper will become a tabloid when Quebecor's new printing plant in Toronto opens this fall.

Ancestors of Josiah Blackburn must be dismayed by the sudden downturn of the family newspaper in a city with an increasing population.

And there is no shortage of critics of Quebcor's cutbacks within the London Free Press and throughout the city.

Butch McLarty, an blogger since 2001, doesn't mince words in his appraisal of today's "Freep." Feedback on his blog echo his critical look at today's product.

In an e-mail to TSF, he writes:

"We here in London, Ontario, are suffering because of the non-stop BS of Quebecor. Morale has never been worse at the Freep. End of an era, really. The dream is over for that paper. Everyone is wondering who will be the last person standing in the newsroom.

"In 1991, they had 170 in the newsroom, including support staff and photogs. Today, there's about 52, with more cutbacks on the way. Since 1991, London has grown by more than 15 per cent, population wise. More than a third geographically."

Paul Berton, editor-in-chief of the London Free Press and son of the late, great author Pierre Berton, is holding it together with columns and guidance.

But for how long?

The Blackburn family provided London with a respected community newspaper for 144 years.

Quebecor has owned it for eight years.


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