Volume 90, Issue 72

Friday, January 31, 1997

big stick


Free Press up for sale

By Dave Yasvinski
Gazette Staff

The London Free Press, one of Canada's last independent daily newspapers, went up for sale to the highest bidder Tuesday.

The decision to sell the paper came after 144 years of ownership by the Blackburn family of London. Also up for sale are local radio stations CFPL-AM, CFPL-FM and the publisher of the Pennysaver, Netmar Publishing Inc., all owned by the family.

Sandy Green, president of the Blackburn media group, said selling the paper is the logical thing to do. "Conditions have changed in the marketplace," he said. "It is becoming more and more difficult for an independent paper to compete effectively."

Green added although the paper is financially sound now, it may not have been in the future if it stayed independent.

It was only a matter of time before this move away from independence occurred, said Michael Nolan, Western journalism professor and Blackburn biographer. "It is inevitable in media today. It is much easier to belong to a chain. You can share costs and revenues," he said.

Nolan added the sale is occurring partly because there is no longer a Blackburn descendent interested in being in charge. "Eventually there comes a point when someone does not want to do it and they sell it off."

Green said the late Martha Blackburn, the previous publisher, would have done the same thing. "Martha would have had difficulty with this decision but she was a realist and would have decided to do the same thing," Green said.

The London Free Press saw its greatest period of expansion occur under Martha's father, Walter Blackburn. He would have been upset but understanding about this move, Nolan said.

"Privately he would have been disappointed. I think in the final analysis he would have recognized the need to sell. His practical side would say 'we sell.'"

Green said a transfer of ownership is probably best for the community in the long run as even stronger leadership from the new owners will be expected. "The business is in good shape and has a wonderful staff, hopefully the new owners will honour that."

New ownership, however, might not provide this leadership, but instead diminish it, Nolan said. "I liked the idea of reading a paper that didn't belong to a chain," he explained. "They were in synch with the region, their roots were here. The publisher had an extended role in the community – you're going to lose this."

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Copyright The Gazette 1997