It's standing room only at the October meeting
of the Ottawa Independent Writers. The monthly gathering of local
novelists, poets and freelancers awaits the man whom Conrad Black
selected a year earlier to transform the Ottawa
Citizen into a smart and provacative newspaper worthy
of the nation's capital.
With his scowl and dated
clothes, 57-year-old Neil Reynolds is no well-tailored newspaper
consultant. In a low, rusty voice that barely reaches the back of
the room, he expresses disdain for how most newspapers are
managed and says the Citizenneeds to its
community. "I think there is very much a sense of priesthood
within any newsroom, where, if you're on staff, you're
privileged, and if you're not on staff, it's very tough to get
It's a well-practised sermon. At three newspapers,
Reynolds has made no apologies for editing according to his own
idiosyncratic tastes and unconventional dogma. At The
Kingston Whig-Standard, the
Telegraph-Journal in Saint John, N.B., and
during his first year at the Citizen, Reynolds
has rejected the notion that readers suffering from time poverty
must be pandered to with short news items, flashy graphics and
Reynolds's eclectic style of
newspapering, unique among major North American dailies marks a
startling change for both readers and journalists in what has
traditionally been regarded as a staid, liberal, government town.
Over the past year, Ottawa has been offered a flagship paper with
frankly right-wing opinions, literate though sometimes verbose
features, a smattering of quirky news items and the juxtaposition
of sober reports and photos of leggy supermodels.
as startling, Reynolds's formula seems to be working.
The "renaissance," as Reynolds and his new regime call
it, began September 30, 1996, when Citizen
publisher Russell Mills spent an afternoon with Conrad Black in
his suite at New York's Carlyle Hotel, absorbing his new boss's
views on the direction of the paper. In the four months since
Black's Hollinger bought a controlling interest in
Citizenowner Southam, Black had demanded
sweeping changes to what he would describe only days later in a
Globe and Mailarticle as the "overwhelming
avalanche of soft, left, bland, envious pap which has poured like
sludge through the centre pages of most of the Southam papers for
With neither a national newspaper nor a
Toronto presence of any kind, the Citizenwas
the closest thing to a flagship the Southam empire had. (Black
has yet to decide whether to turn his dream of a new national
daily into reality.) And the Citizen- known to
detractors as the Shitizen-was especially in
need of repair: In the four years prior to September 1996,
weekday circulation had dropped 24 percent to 134,266, with
similar declines in the Saturday and Sunday editions. Its rivals,
The Ottawa Sun and the
Globe, had made substantial inroads, with circulations
of about 54,000and 20,000 respectively.
With the Hollinger takeover, Russell Mills sensed an
opportunity to make changes that would have been impossible under
the top-down approach of the previous management. Mills requested
the Carlyle meeting to pitch his own plan, which called for the
Citizento better reflect changes in its
readership. No longer solely dependent on government, Ottawa is
facing a future that increasingly lies with the
telecommunications, technology and tourism industries.
Mills's plan fell in line with the transformation at all of
Southam's larger newspapers, which has seen less reliance on wire
stories in favour of original, authoritative reporting,
especially with local stories. The papers also offer a stronger
emphasis on business, national and international coverage and
boast revitalized weekend editions, including bigger book review
sections. The campaign to improve Southam products has required
larger news holes and sweeping redesigns. The Southam papers
subjected to an overhaul include Montreal's
Gazette,The Vancouver Sun,
The Edmonton Journal, The Hamilton
Spectator and The Windsor Star. The
redirection of Canada's largest paper chain follows the example
of the Globe'sdramatic redesign in 1990, which
enabled it to stay profitable and even boost its circulation
during the recession of the early nineties. Following the example
of the Globe's overhaul, the Southam makeovers
herald a rejection ofthe 20-minute newspaper
read, a made-for-TV-viewers formula that became popular with the
introduction of USA Todayin 1982, and a shift
of the industry toward exploiting the print medium's analytical
and literary strengths.
Citizen's changes would be extensive. Mills
asked for six months to make the transition and received an
initial $2-million investment from Black, most of it spent on
more newsprint. Further, he and Black agreed that changes would
be needed in the newsroom's managers.
On October 7,
editor-in-chief Jim Travers resigned, commenting, "I absolutely
endorse [Hollinger's] viewpoint or position, if you will, that
the editors of newspapers should be of like mind with the
At the Carlyle meeting, Black
recommended Neil Reynolds to succeed Travers. Then
editor-in-chief and publisher at the Saint John, N.B.,
Telegraph-Journal, Reynolds had built a strong
reputation on his ability to cultivate over achieving newspapers.
Born near Kingston in 1940, Reynolds was an editor at
The Toronto Starbefore joining The
Kingston Whig-Standard in 1974, where he became
editor-in-chief five years later. For 13 years, Reynolds produced
a literary and worldly newspaper for a small-town audience,
gaining national attention with articles dispatched by reporters
sent to such remote locales as China and Afghanistan. Reynolds
resigned from the Whig in 1992, a year and a
half after it was acquired by Southam, concerned by the new
owners' lack of financial support for the newsroom. He was hired
in 1993 as editor-in-chief of the J.K. Irving-owned Saint John
paper. In a still-foggy set of circumstances, Reynolds was fired
in August 1994, but then rehired at Irving's personal direction
two months later, becoming publisher as well. During Reynolds's
time, the Telegraph-Journalwas transformed
from a thin, innocuous paper dominated by wire copy into a
dynamic and controversial news source with strong local coverage.
At both the Whigand the
Telegraph-Journal, Reynolds created weekend
magazines devoted to literary topics.
Black would also
find comfort in Reynolds's brand of Libertarian politics. A
right-wing antigovernment movement with origins in leftist
anarchism, Libertarianism holds that government ought to be kept
out of citizens' private lives. Reynolds took a year off from the
Whigin 1982 to be president of the Libertarian
Party of Canada and ran unsuccessfully for the party in a local
federal by-election. In the newsroom, where right-wing politics
were seen as having pushed Travers and Calamai out, staff felt
their jobs were in question. "Everyone was totally terrified,"
confides one reporter. "People thought that anyone at all
left-wing would be obliterated."
purge the news staff, but he did add conservative voices to the
editorial board. Through the hectic redesign period between early
December 1996, when Reynolds arrived, and February 20, 1997, when
Black approved prototypes (the extent of his involvement),
editorialists with ties to the right-wing Fraser Institute
(William Watson and John Robson), Donner Foundation (Adrienne
DeLong Snow) and the Ontario Tory government (Dan Gardner) were
recruited. Watson, a McGill University economist, became
editorial page editor in January, and Snow would join David
Warren, founder of the right-wing
Idlermagazine, as coeditor of the new weekend
On March 3, Ottawa awoke to an
all-new Citizen,in which city, national and
international reporting was expanded, supported by a merger of
Citizenand Southam parliamentary bureaus.
Business coverage had more than doubled and was showcased in a
new stand-alone section. The following Sunday saw the
introduction of The Citizen's Weekly, a 16-page "broadsheet
magazine" devoted to sprawling articles as long as 12,000 words
on the arts, sciences and literature. The
Citizen's new design by Carl Neustaedter (now
with the Globe) and consultant Lucie Lacava
was clean and classic with a restrained use of colour and a
simple, highly adaptable, layout to cope with the longer and
increased quantity of stories. The nameplate now boasted a
typeface reflecting the paper's incarnation a century earlier.
Coupled with a detailed etching of the Peace Tower, it proclaimed
a new gravitas at the Citizen.
of the most surprising additions, however, was the six pages of
editorials and letters, including two daily pages in the City
section run by a separate editorial board. In its editorials, the
Citizen unapologetically argues its
neo-conservative view of the world. "It has sharper elbows than
it used to," says Chris Dornan, the director of Carleton
University's journalism school. "The new
Citizen is not afraid to irritate people. They
want an avalanche of letters."
who loves newspapers should be rejoicing," wrote
Globecolumnist Robert Fulford a week after the
relaunch. Despite a brashly right-wing editorial slant that was
expected to alienate some readers, reaction to the new
Citizenhas been favourable. Readership jumped
more than five percent Monday to Friday and Sundays, and
circulation rose by more than 2,000 copies a day. Circulation
would later taper off to a weekday average of 135,724 and 128,092
on Sunday over the next three months, but still didn't slip below
the March 1996-97 average. The steady slide in
Citizen readership has been arrested.
The paper's favourable reception may derive less
from its new ideological position than a new spirit of enterprise
in its news-gathering practices.
In the final week of
April, as flood waters engulfed southern Manitoba, two
Citizenreporters went to cover the story: Tom
Spears followed the river's path of destruction, and education
reporter Francine Dube filed stories for two weeks on life inside
an all-but-deserted town, revealing an intimate and human side to
the flood that news wires could not provide.
Reynolds, the Manitoba disaster was an early opportunity to
extend the reach of the Citizenby covering
stories outside Ottawa with unusual aggressiveness. The 1997
travel budget, about $200,000 greater than the previous year, was
frequently dipped into. If Reynolds could find a reason to send
someone, he did. It was also this push for stories that the
Citizencould call its own that caused the
paper to exceed a freelance budget that had already increased by
one-third within eight months of the relaunch.
Ultimately, Reynolds's goal is to create what he calls a "unique
story file" that features Citizen-reported
stories, including fun and eccentric items that go beyond the
important "news of the day." One method is to dedicate staff to
rewriting international wire stories and, after an additional
phone call, use a Citizen byline; another is
to take stories that other papers would place in "ghettos" like
the Religion and Fashion pages and run them in A-section space,
even on the front page.
An early example of Reynolds's
approach was "Mosquito Week," a series of articles on the
increased dangers of malaria-infecting mosquitos that ran the
week of the relaunch on the front page and in The
Citizen's Weekly.Written by Reynolds's wife, freelancer
Donna Jacobs, it was a strange story for March, but in August the
respected U.S. journal Atlantic Monthlyran the
subject on its cover. The Citizenattracted
more attention in October when United Church of Canada moderator
Bill Phipps told the Citizen editorial board
that he doesn't believe Jesus was God. And stories on the virtues
of medicinal marijuana use, a topic that often gets front-page
play in the Citizen also show an odd and
sometimes compelling sense of story selection. "The joy of a
newspaper is its unexpected elements," says Reynolds. "At the
best, it's a strange mixture of the sacred and the profane."
It is a strange mixture that doesn't sit well with
some. "I think the paper is quirky as hell," argues Peter Donolo,
head of communication in the Prime Minister's Office. "Every day
there's a T-and-A shot in there," he says, referring to the
frequent photos of celebrities and fashion models, particularly
those of fetching women in immodest clothing.
his successes, Reynolds's idiosyncratic news judgement has raised
eyebrows. Reporters are urged to look for stories in odd places
rather than merely react to announcements from Parliament Hill
and City Hall. Which explains the appearance of a story in
October on the revealing dress worn to a Corel Corp. gala by
Marlen Cowpland, wife of Corel chair Michael Cowpland. In some
eyes, the prominence of fun and eccentric news injures the
authority of the Citizen's serious reporting.
The editorials don't always go down smoothly, either.
Donolo, who not surprisingly doesn't applaud criticism of his
boss, calls Citizeneditorials "dilettante."
"[On] Day One of the redesign, the editorial was that the Prime
Minister should resign. And through the rest of the week, they
went on to say that all the opposition leaders should resign as
well. I find them sophomoric.
"Are they becoming the
Canadian equivalent of The Washington Post?
No. Are they closer to that than they were a year ago? Arguably,
but only if you measure in millimetres."
preferred comparison would be to Conrad Black's Daily
Telegraphin London. "I find a lot of American content,
a lot of Canadian content, too, is very formu-la-istic," Reynolds
declares. In fact, much of his foreign news is scalped from the
Telegraph. "It's got way too many
Daily Telegraph bylines on subjects that have
nothing to do with Britian," says Donolo. "It's just as easily
picked up by Knight-Ridder or better yet, by Canadian
It is this British-styled
"tits-and-analysis" character of the paper that has some in the
newsroom cringing, too. According to one reporter, the use of
celebrity and model photographs "has troubled virtually everyone
who works at the paper, man and woman alike." Some
Citizenjournalists also question the ethics of
rewriting wire stories for an in-house byline.
Compounding newsroom anxiety was a drastic change in personality
at the top. Gregarious Jim Travers joked and chatted with staff,
while Neil Reynolds rarely emerges from his office along the
north-west wall of the newsroom, which has earned him the
nickname "Bubbleboy." Reynolds prefers to leave hands-on managing
to someone else;in this case, Scott Anderson, a trusted colleague
from his days at the Whigand the
Telegraph-Journal. "Reynolds has nothing to do
with us. He stays in his office all the time," says one reporter.
"Everything is sifted through Scott Anderson. It's a constant
guessing game;things change all the time."
quote Frank,I'll sue you," says Anderson as he
marches towards the cafeteria. Dressed in grey slacks and a navy
blazer with tie tightly knotted, he marches everywhere, in brisk
straight lines, his gait short and stiff. Though he's only 34
years old, there is no question who holds the authority in the
Chatting in his office next to Reynolds's,
Anderson makes it clear that the mood of uncertainty isn't
accidental. He has "cross-polinated," for instance sending court
and police reporters to cover the Quebec bus crash at
Thanksgiving that killed 43 people. And he thinks beat reporters
should have at least one "off-beat" day a week. When asked if the
turmoil has subsided in the newsroom, he responds, "Is there
turmoil in the newsroom? If you find none, let me know and I'll
make some. You don't go through any revolution without some
amount of chaos. Chaos isn't a bad thing. A lot of great ideas
come out of the rough and tumble."
Citizen journalists saw the shakeup as an
opportunity to try something new and have blossomed, particularly
those now writing for The Citizen's Weekly. On the third day of
the relaunch, former city columnist Shelley Page pitched Reynolds
an interview that would require a flight to Vancouver. Reynolds
sent her, later agreed to a detour through Arizona for another
interview and then sent Page to Vienna to complete the story.
Reynolds and Anderson have quietly tested everyone in
the Citizennewsroom, even veteran reporters.
Those who succeed, like Page, get to do almost anything they
want: Page now writes features from home, as does investigative
reporter Paul McKay, who works in Kingston. Those who fail, or
don't know how to prove themselves, are marginalized. Former
World editor David Evans was shunted to the side after a trip to
Europe failed to produce the quality of stories he had pitched.
In November, he moved to The Edmonton Journal,
and his wife, Citizen assistant arts editor
Keri Sweetman, is to join him later. Her only comment is, "It
takes a lot to move two journalists with three kids to Edmonton,
away from all their friends and family."
And there have
been other defections of accomplished journalists. Ten days after
Jim Travers resigned, editorial page editor Peter Calamai
resigned under circumstances similar to Travers's. That led to
managing editor Sharon Burnside accepting a buyout that took
effect in April and features writer Ken MacQueen, "saddened and
disconcerted" by the "removal" of Travers and Calamai, going to
The Vancouver Sun in August. In September,
Queen's Park columnist Jim Coyle left for The Toronto
Star(now edited by Travers).
sports columnist Roy MacGregor, who could draw almost a year's
salary on Southam's buyout option, has considered leaving the
Citizen, too. He has stayed on, though,
because he loves Ottawa and finds sanctuary in sports, a section
which escapes Reynolds's feedback. MacGregor is also intrigued by
the Citizen's changes. "It is almost worth the
price of admission," says MacGregor, calling the Sports
department the "best seats in the house." "In terms of the
dynamics of journalism, it is an absolutely hypnotic experience
That experience will continue in the
newsroom and in the Citizen's pages,
challenging journalists and readers alike. According to Mills,
the new Citizen,bolstered by a booming ad
market, has had one of the most profitable years in its history.
Reynolds can afford to take chances.
Not that he has
ever shied from risks, nor will he start anytime soon. Reynolds
delights in controversy and inducing debate around Ottawa's water
coolers and on his letters pages. For now, at least, he can
escape unscathedÛthe extent of the
Citizen's other changes provides some
disarming glare for its readers. As Chris Dornan explains about
Citizenreaders: "Lots of people are still
irritated, but they are probably talking about it and reading it
more-simply because there's more in it."
there are those Ottawans who actually like the new
Independent Writers meeting is dragging out its final questions,
when a young woman poses a question on the minds of many in
attendance. "How do you justify the increased quality of the
Citizen with the fact that I will open the
paper every day and see a picture of a woman with a plunging
neckline or in a bikini?"
Reynolds requests an example.
She offers, "Mrs. Cowpland," referring to the previous day's
front page photo of Marlen Cowpland in a dress revealing her
"I loved seeing that dress," another
woman calls out.
Neil Reynolds's eyes flash. His scowl
becomes a grin.