Things I learned from Merv Farmer – the art of the soft sell and community newspapers

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This is Haliburton. A tough advertising nut to crack. Why? Well we happen to live in the poorest riding in Ontario. Don't let all those summer Hummers and Porsches give you the wrong idea. That's not Haliburton. But we certainly need their input. If it weren't for tourist dollars? We could probably apply for third world status assistance from the UN. How many friends do you know who are working three jobs? I thought so. Photo by Ken Dryden.

By Terrance Gavan – Editor HalHighlands.ca

I have no idea what’s going on with the small town press paradigm here in Haliburton and the Highlands.

But I know that when I was growing up in the trade I worked for Merv Farmer, publisher and owner of the Interlake Spectator, the Stonewall Argus and the Selkirk Journal.

We owned that market.

Actually Merv owned it.

I remember in the early eighties that Merv received a visit from Quebecor suitors at least once a year.

They would take him to a lovely and expensive french restaurant in St. Boniface.

The name eludes me.

And after every visit he’d be back in that ink-stained blue smock, pushing flyers into the papers. As he had done for, hmmmm, 20 years?

I’d nudge up against him, grabbing a fistful of flyers to stuff. And I’d wink.

“So, I guess we’re still here for another year boss? How was the dinner?”

“You’ve got me for another year Gavan.”

And then next year would come. And another offer from Pierre Karl Peladeau. (PKP) And another turn down.

I was already back in Ottawa working as managing editor for Runge Press in Kanata when Merv finally sold out to Quebecor.

I phoned and asked.

He said: “The numbers. They finally got it right.”

And it was a matter of time. And only that. Independent newspapers? A grand dream and a grand scheme. But they can’t compete in today’s market. It started with the dailies and moved to the weeklies. Thompson, Quebecor and in Ontario, there’s Metroland.

I learned a lot from Merv Farmer. Swervin’ Mervin. Astute, clear-headed and strong.

An independent thinker.

But when they came a knockin’?

With that wired in offer?

The smart businessman moves.

Merv owned half of downtown Stonewall. His acreage had a zoo, and his house an indoor pool. He bought his son a sports store to run. Right across from the Argus offices.

He was your typical rags to riches story.

He quit school in Grade 10 and went to work with the local publisher. He started in graphics, old style.

When the old owner was ready to set up and go?

He gave Merv the right of first refusal.

That’s how Merv Farmer ended up in the news business.

He got a loan and the blessing of the owner.

And he became very rich. He was a long-time Vice President in the CCNA. (Canada’s national Weekly paper association.)

He’s richer today thanks to PKP.

Now?

Merv Farmer is making money.

He won’t retire, not the type.

He’s into elk today. Big time stakes in the elk business. Here’s the link for elk farmers in Manitoba.

So Merv, now out of the newspaper business, and I bet he’s happier than an Elk in a field of  knee-deep alfalfa.

What the hell does this have to do with our local press?

Well. I loved working at the Voice. But I have also done the math. And for the last little while -since last September in fact – the ad to print ratio, a pretty reliable little equation first given to me by Swervin’ Mervin,  was low. Makes sense too. The Voice is going up against one of the biggest publishing entities in Canada. Quebecor. They own like 2 billion newspapers in Canada. They’re big baby. I don’t like PKP or the way he runs his businesses. But that’s just a personal opinion.

He’s very litiginous so I had to run that by my lawyer. PKP also dislikes independent bloggers and I’m assuming he’s not in favor of independent blogs posing as newspapers and running links to his own papers for its own news. I’m pretty sure that Hal Highlands dot ca will have to eschew quoting from news stories from the Echo, and the Minden Times. Google “Quebecor lawsuits” and its welcome to Disneyland.PKP loves the judicial system.

“Quebecor World Litigation Trust files 1727 lawsuits in In re Quebecor World (USA) Inc.” And you will find a veritable litany of other pending suits. Some are just downright slap suits. I’m a PKP sceptic. I know he exists I just wish Quebecor didn’t. I’m a tree hugger and a social democrat. So how could I like that scion of corporate drudge. Pierre Karl Peladeau. I’m no Randolph Hearst aficionado either. Rosebud!!!!!!

Back on point!

I personally don’t see the Voice grabbing enough of the extant ad market in the Highlands to continue to survive with any modicum of profit.

If my Mervin tally sheet is correct?

The Voice is going to have problems staving off increased pressure from Quebecor. They’ll manage okay on long weekends and they’ll survive the summer, because businesses always fluorish in the summer in cottage country.

Major competition is Quebecor; the Minden Times and the Haliburton Echo.

How many local hardware stores have fallen to Home Depot? Many, many, many.

How many local coffee shops have folded to pressure from the Timbit gang?

Many, many many.

So, and I love you the Voice and Connections and Open for Business.

But if I were making the decisions?

I would probably be going the Merv Farmer route.

And yes, I know, Quebecor is not a choice.

However. If it was me?

I would be approaching MetroLand or some other equivalent entity to see if there was any interest here. Because I am in favor of competition per se in the news business. But can you fight Quebecor with a bricks and mortar paradigm? No. The assets and the staff they can throw at the local scene will eventually wear down the small independent.

I’m not a pessimist. But a sale certainly would provide the stakeholders – HCDC, MaartenSteinkamp and the present owner of the Voice, Chad Irvine – with some modicum of monetary remuneration and a chance for this little paper to thrive on a level playing field.

I don’t know if Metroland is in the market. Or even if they are interested in going head to head against Quebecor? In this tiny market. I do know that ties in the Highlands would mesh with Metroland’s significant interests in this enclave of cottage-centered industry, in both Bracebridge and Huntsville.

But I do know that if I was to phone swervin’ Mervin right now and fill him in?

I know what he’d say.

Do. A. Deal.

I love the idea of the small town vibe and the independent press.

But if one does the math – and please don’t be fooled by ad content on the busiest weekend of the year – one must conclude?

It may be time to reconsider the paradigm.

And sell. With an intrinsic rider for a commitment to keep the local staffing intact.

Just spitballin for spitz and giggles.

gav@pardontheeruption.com for HalHighlands.ca and get him on Twitter at twitter.com/terrancegavan

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