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Requiem for a Welterweight: 24 Hours a ‘Scrappy Little Paper’ — Until It Hit the Canvas

Looking back at the 12 years of Vancouver’s feisty free upstart.

Bill Tieleman 10 Jan

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who wrote a weekly column on B.C. politics for 24 Hours Vancouver newspaper from 2005 to 2017. Email him here, find him on Twitter @BillTieleman or visit his blog.

“It was a scrappy little paper!” — Erica Bulman, former 24 Hours Vancouver editor

It was launched by B.C.’s biggest billionaire with a bang in 2005 and was terminated in Toronto in late 2017 by a corporation that owned it for mere hours — and in between it informed and entertained hundreds of thousands of readers every weekday.

Call this “Requiem for a Welterweight,” because 24 Hours Vancouver was the little newspaper that consistently punched above its weight, until dubious ownership and disappearing advertising dollars delivered it to the growing graveyard of print publications.

On Nov. 27, two major newspaper chains — Postmedia and TorStar — swapped over 40 newspapers across Canada, then closed most of them and laid off over 240 staff.

The move allowed both corporations to avoid giving advance notice to the federal Competition Bureau, since the new owners were now only closing one of their two newspapers in many towns.

A review by the bureau will still take place, but seeing any of the now dead papers resurrected would be a miracle, given the flagging economics of the industry and that even Hedy Fry, Vancouver Centre Liberal member of Parliament, has publicly criticized the bureau’s powerlessness.

‘A stroppy bunch’

Despite having extremely limited resources that dwindled even further after its initial years, 24 Hours Vancouver regularly broke news; attracted some of the province’s best young journalists; and gained a large and loyal readership that in 2014 surpassed that of the mighty Vancouver Sun on weekdays for a while.

What’s more, 24 Hours Vancouver had a mission: to be unabashedly populist and political, recognizing it had a working class, transit-commuter audience base and that it needed to differentiate itself from traditional newspapers’ “balanced” viewpoints.

That’s one reason I became 24 Hours Vancouver’s first columnist — as a well-known New Democrat, labour and left-wing commentator, it was a signal that the newspaper wouldn’t be conservative. And it didn’t hurt that I was recruited from writing a weekly column at the Georgia Straight by former BC NDP premier Glen Clark — my ex-boss — who became 24 Hours Vancouver’s president.

And other columnists provided perspectives from both the left and right.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby was a columnist before becoming an NDP MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, sparring with Kathryn Marshall, a lawyer, former spokesperson for Ethical Oil and a Conservative activist whose husband Hamish is now 2019 election campaign manager for federal leader Andrew Scheer’s party.

Dean Broughton, the Richmond News managing editor hired to be 24 Hours Vancouver’s founding editor-in-chief, put it this way in explaining what made the paper different:

“As the founding editor, my sole mandate was to create a paper that was engaging and relevant. From the outset, we gave notice that we would have something to say with a stable of columnists with the likes of Bill Tieleman, Sean Holman and Linda Cullen,” Broughton said. “That was backed up by a hungry staff of idealistic and driven journalists such as Irwin Loy, Bob Mackin, Carly Krug, Matt Kieltyka and Graeme McRanor.”

Broughton says 24 Hours Vancouver had a mission based on circulation and advertising and, at least initially, it was a mission accomplished.

“We were a stroppy bunch that wanted to tell Vancouver stories in a Vancouver way. There were great holes in editorial coverage by mainstream media we exploited and that allowed us to connect with people from across the region,” Broughton said.

“I would go as far to say we were endeared by the public and not just because we were free. Our NADbank [newspaper readership ratings] success backed that up.”

“Where we excelled was telling shallow stories that meant something to everyone such as ‘What’s in Your Purse’ to deeper dives such as Matt Kieltyka's one-week stint exploring the dirges of life in the downtown core or Sean Holman’s dogged determination as our bureau chief in Victoria,” Broughton added. “We were the little paper that carried a big stick.”

Broughton also gave me full leeway in reporting on the under-covered B.C. legislature raid case. Police had searched the offices of two BC Liberal ministerial aides in 2003, later charging David Basi and Bob Virk with breach of trust in a case that went on till 2010, when surprise guilty pleas were entered. 24 Hours Vancouver and The Tyee were often the only news source for reports from the ongoing pre-trial hearings that I covered extensively.

That coverage prompted a break-in to my office in December 2007, which was trashed, and a tell-tale calling card was left behind — but Vancouver police were unable to solve the mystery.

Nor were police able to do anything more than trace death threats I received in April 2008 to an email source in China, which does not co-operate with external police investigations into online crimes originating there. The threats came after I wrote a 24 Hours Vancouver column suggesting not just boycotting the 2008 Olympics in China but all Chinese products over that repressive dictatorship’s abuse of Tibetans and human rights.

Both incidents showed that 24 Hours Vancouver was being read by many, including some unpleasant people, and had enough influence to warrant illegal actions.

Also writing for 24 Hours Vancouver in its short lifespan were Daniel Fontaine, a former chief of staff to then Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan; Jeremy Nuttall, now The Tyee’s Ottawa correspondent; David P. Ball, now at Metro Vancouver; Steve Burgess, whose humour columns appear in The Tyee and other publications; right- and left-leaning Brent Stafford and Garth Mullins, whose ‘The Duel’ took opposite sides of an issue and thoroughly thrashed it about; and many more.

Deep talent pool, shallow budget

The talent pool was as deep as the paper’s budget was shallow. In 2009, the world financial meltdown came home to 24 Hours Vancouver, with about 40 per cent of the newsroom laid off, including Holman and many reporters and columnists. It was only the beginning of the long goodbye.

The second editor-in-chief of 24 Hours Vancouver, Suzanne Wilton, also told me the paper reached beyond its grasp.

“I think you described it best as the little paper that could. It was irreverent; real stories about real people; a newspaper for the 99 per cent; and a paper with personality” Wilton said by email from Calgary. “24 Hours Vancouver reflected the stories that mattered to ordinary people; the dinner table conversation.”

Wilton also emphasized the staff contribution.

“It was a solid training ground for young journalists. Their enthusiasm, fresh perspective and ambition was reflected in their coverage. Young Stephanie Ip, for example, found herself in the middle of the Stanley Cup riot and produced some of the most stellar reporting that night, enabling a moment-by-moment account via the @24hours Twitter account,” Wilton said.

And former editor-in-chief Erica Bulman, who succeeded Wilton, agreed, arguing that continual newsroom cuts made the paper take more chances.

“24 Hours had to become more focused on enterprise journalism, which we did pretty successfully,” Bulman said in a telephone interview. “We passed the Vancouver Sun in the NADbank survey in 2014, Monday to Friday obviously, and were the second most-read paper in Western Canada. It was a really special team.”

But despite that team’s success, by 2014 the paper — now owned by Postmedia, itself owned by a hedge fund — was starting to unravel financially.

Huge readership and huge staff cuts

Bulman was shocked at what happened shortly after the strong readership numbers came out.

“Two weeks later I was asked to fire half the newsroom! So what can you do with that?” she asked rhetorically. Bulman, now an instructor at Langara College’s journalism program, decided to leave, hoping it would keep more staff at the paper.

But the cuts were not over. New editor-in-chief Chris Campbell came on board like his predecessors, prepared to work with little to do a lot.

“On my first day at 24 Hours Vancouver, I heard the word ‘scrappy’ used to describe the newsroom. I worked in small newsrooms for more than 20 years at suburban community newspapers, so I was used to being part of a small team, but that was typically in competition with another small team of reporters,” Campbell told me by email.

“At 24, we were expected to compete with large teams of reporters at TV and radio stations, and several larger daily newspapers with far superior resources,” he wrote. “That could have been daunting, but it never felt like it in our newsroom.”

“If anything, it inspired the reporters to double down and find stories nobody else was covering. We revelled in beating the pants off of bigger outlets on stories, and watching them chase our stories to try and match them,” Campbell said.

But in September 2016 the axe came down hard. Postmedia closed the entire newsroom and moved editing to Toronto. Campbell was among the casualties.

However, the paper’s columnists continued, at least for awhile, until more cuts came in 2017: Burgess, Stafford and Mullins were all let go.

As for me, I was the first but also the newspaper’s last columnist and the only person on the editorial side to survive the entire 24 Hours Vancouver run from March 2005 to November 2017, making me an unusual journalistic “survivor” who never got voted off the island — until it sank. (From 2009 to 2017 The Tyee ran a considerably longer version of my 24 Hours Vancouver columns.)

Born when newspapers were healthy dinosaurs

24 Hours Vancouver was born at a time when newspapers were not yet seen as doomed dinosaurs, looking up ignorantly at the approaching giant meteor headed for Earth.

Just the opposite — Vancouver became the market for not one but three separate free weekday newspapers. Dose — an odd, wannabe hipster/youth entertainment paper — only lasted a year after being launched by CanWest, the predecessor company to Postmedia. Metro was launched by Swedish media conglomerate Metro International, with both the Toronto Star and CanWest initially buying a one-third share. And 24 Hours Vancouver, 50 per cent owned by Jimmy Pattison and Quebecor Inc. subsidiary Sun Media, run by media baron turned temporary politico Pierre Karl Peladeau.

All three papers had editions in several cities, though Pattison’s half ownership was restricted to Vancouver.

And it was Pattison who perhaps best explained the business case for a giveaway weekday newspaper.

Pattison put it roughly this way: people don’t pay to listen to the radio or watch television — advertising pays for it — so why not free newspapers?

His logic was good, but daily newspapers had all depended on both advertising and paid subscriptions to prosper; this was a new gambit that required a nimble but bare bones newsroom and a lot of ads to make up for no subscription income.

Metro International had made the model work starting in 1995 in Sweden, then expanding to 150 major cities in 24 countries in Europe, North and South America and Asia with daily circulation of 7.8 million and, perhaps equally important, 6.4 million social media followers.

While Metro is clearly a powerful player worldwide, at the time of the three free papers’ launch, that wasn’t so clear.

While most believed all three Vancouver papers couldn’t survive, observers found it fascinating to see major players competing in the news business.

“This is the most excitement we’ve had in a long time,” said Andeen Pitt, a vice-president at Wasserman and Partners Advertising, in April 2005.

And Toronto newspaper consultant Len Kubas agreed: “All of this is good for newspapers — believe it or not. It really has made for a more vitalized newspaper-publishing scene.”

For a time, it truly was.

But despite 24 Hours Vancouver leading Metro continually in readership, it did not have the deep pockets of the Swedish media giant.

Instead, 24 Hours Vancouver ownership went from Pattison and Sun Media/Quebecor to just Quebecor and then to Postmedia, whose hedge fund investors watched the company dip at one point to just 1.5 cents a share, with hundreds of millions owed to creditors.

24 Hours Vancouver, the scrappy little paper that could, did everything right, but in a world where Internet advertising is demolishing not just newspapers but television and radio too, and where junk bonds are more important than journalism, it ultimately didn’t stand a chance.

That may not matter to some of its detractors, but as Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Richard Kluger eloquently put it, “Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism....”

Exactly right, and 24 Hours Vancouver will be sorely missed by many — especially me.  [Tyee]

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