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The 'giant,' the 'mouse' and the fight for Winnipeg newspaper readers

In 1988, Winnipeg's daily newspapers were competing hard for readers, even if it meant spending or losing money to do so.

Free Press and Sun newspapers fought hard for readers, even as they spent and lost money doing so

Winnipeg's battling newspapers

34 years ago
Duration 1:49
In February 1988, the Winnipeg Free Press was seeing the rival Winnipeg Sun make gradual gains against it in the marketplace. 1:49

Talk about a loss leader — a paper that hadn't turned a profit in its first seven years.

But despite all the metaphorical red ink that had spilled, by February 1988, the upstart Winnipeg Sun newspaper was building a steady readership by taking away readers from its long-established rival, the Winnipeg Free Press.

"The Free Press still has a big lead — 169,000 papers sold every day, compared to the Sun's 50,000," the CBC's Ross Rutherford told Midday viewers, reporting on the years-long battle between the two papers.

"But there's no mistaking a trend, according to the latest circulation figures."

'We can stop it'

The Winnipeg Sun launched in 1980 and gradually built a readership during the decade that followed -- a period in which the paper also lost money for years. (Midday/CBC Archives)

The challenge to the Free Press was serious enough that its then-publisher Art Wood was taking steps to halt the Sun's challenge to the Free Press.

"I think we can stop it, I think we can arrest it by making some improvements," Wood said, telling CBC News about plans to address the paper's quality and its delivery operations.

Over at the Sun, Brian Dunlop pointed to the advantages a tabloid held for potential readers, when discussing the readership gains it had made in the Winnipeg market.

"Tabs have better acceptance, particularly among new readers, than broadsheets do," he told CBC News. "People don't have as much time to dedicate to a newspaper as they used to have. So, they turn to a tab, they can get a quick fix."

A slicker product

The Winnipeg Free Press intended to invest more than $100 million to establish a new printing plant that would allow the paper to put out a slicker, more competitive product. (Midday/CBC Archives)

Whatever the explanation, the Free Press planned to push forward with changes that would deliver a slicker product to readers.

"The giant is about to step on the mouse," Rutherford explained, referring to an impending move by the Free Press to open a new printing plant at a cost of more than $100 million.

With a new plant, the Free Press would be able to put more colour into its pages and also print a paper that could arrive on readers' doorsteps by the early morning.

"That, I think, will help to alleviate a tremendous of the problems that we face today," said Wood.

Rutherford said Wood questioned how long the Sun would keep on going if it kept losing money, particularly if the Free Press had a more competitive product.

Three decades on, both papers remain in operation.

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