WP’s longevity comes down to knowing its readers

THEN & NOW:

In the beginning, there was Turner’s Weekly, which begat The Progressive, which begat The Western Producer.

With all respect for the Good Book, that’s how the farmers’ bible came into being.

The newspaper is now celebrating its 90th year, having provided news to western Canadian farmers ranging from world wars to wheat prices to wooden washtubs.

It is still going strong. It has outlived early competitors, shed some of its offspring, embraced the electronic age and kept constant company with its readers.

Knowing its readers is the secret to the Producer’s longevity, says publisher Shaun Jessome, who has been in the paper’s top job since November 2012.

“The secret is its relationship with the community it serves,” says Jessome.

“I do look at it that the farming community is just one big community, which is why I love The Western Producer, because it serves it the same way a community newspaper serves its readers. It treats them with respect, it understands its readers, it understands what its readers want from it and expect from it, and it just delivers. It delivers consistently.”

Jessome, originally from the Maritimes, was first acquainted with the Producer in 1991, when he managed the Whitecourt and Mayerthorpe community newspapers in Alberta.

He was both impressed and chagrined, given his responsibilities for advertising sales and revenue at the two papers.

“We always got the leftovers, after The Western Producer,” he recalls.

“In all cases, it didn’t matter how hard we tried. Everything we got was seconds, after The Western Producer. So that’s how I got to know it. I sold against it for all those years. I looked at it with great envy … and there may have been the odd derogatory statement made toward it.”

The days of non-complimentary remarks are gone for Jessome. He now praises the newspaper for remaining relevant to its audience even as the agricultural industry has changed.

It has survived when many major newspapers, tasked with providing general news and serving many masters, have fallen on difficult times.

“It’s not a niche product,” Jessome says of the Producer.

“It’s a general purpose newspaper within a niche industry. And as the niche industry became bigger and bigger and bigger and more profitable … The Western Producer was able to keep up with that, so it always remained relevant.”

Retaining relevance is the newspaper’s ongoing task. As the agricultural industry has become more sophisticated and information delivery more technical, the Producer has put resources into its website and other electronic data delivery.

Its other challenge is the ever-shrinking number of farmers, which translates into an ever-shrinking subscription total. Jessome notes the Producer still serves the same number of acres that it always has, but at a paid circulation of 46,700, its weekly press run is a fraction of totals at its peak in 1953, when 157,000 copies were distributed weekly.

However, visitors to the Producer website continue to increase. Visits in the October to November two-month period in 2013 were up 99 percent over the same period in 2012, Jessome says.

The shrinking circulation trend is nothing new. Previous publishers have watched it, explained it and survived it.

One of those was Allan Laughland, publisher from the mid-1980s until 2001.

“People could never figure out how we could make the business work with the size of subscription base that we had,” Laughland recalls.

He, too, believes the paper’s agricultural concentration ensured its survival.

“The focus of the paper when I got there, and I thought it was the right one, was always to be looking at the interests of farmers. Politics played a much higher profile in the paper’s activities in those days than it does now,” Laughland said.

“It was the place where people wanted to be updated on what sorts of political issues affecting farmers were front and centre and who was saying what about them. That was the place to find out.”

Finding out — that has always been part of the newspaper’s credo.

One of its founders, Harris Turner, laid that groundwork when he established Turner’s Weekly.

A First World War veteran, Turner was blinded in a battle at Ypres, Belgium. It didn’t deter him from returning to Saskatoon and teaming up with Patrick Waldron, another war veteran and former newspaperman.

In its first issue, Turner had this to say about the paper’s goal.

“It is our intention to so strongly entrench ourselves in the estimation of the reading public of Canada that this paper will become one of the permanent forces in the Dominion making for the common good.

“We have no alliance with any party, any organization, or any set of men. It is our opinion that our existence depends on our independence, and that the moment we be-come limited to the expression of views of a narrow-purposed group we deserve to lose public confidence and public support.”

Turner, who was also an independent member of the Saskatchewan legislature at the time, made a journalistic success of the weekly, but by 1920, it had run out of funds.

Three years later, he and Waldron launched The Progressive, the predecessor to The Western Producer. The paper took its name from the Progressive political movement, supported at the time by the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association.

Amid widespread efforts to establish a system of grain pooling in Sask­atchewan, a vehicle was needed to explain the philosophy and progress of the campaign. The Progressive fit the bill.

Establishment of the prairie pools eventually transformed the farming industry in Canada.

In a history written by former Producer editor Keith Dryden, he re-counts the Progressive’s editorial policy, fashioned during discussions between Turner, Waldron, the SSGA and the Saskatchewan Co-operative Wheat Producers, also known as the wheat pool. These two groups provided the main support for the paper, which was distributed to all those who became wheat pool members.

“Turner, managing editor, and Waldron, as editor, made it clear they wanted to present both sides of the story in the news columns and they would go on advancing the cause of farmers on their editorial page.

“Farm leaders of the day were suspicious of advertisers, fearing news policy might be influenced by corporations buying ads. However, the editors pointed out that advertising hadn’t inhibited their writings in the past and if the publication was going to survive it needed revenue.”

So began a relationship with readers and advertisers that has continued for 90 years.

Within a year of The Progressive’s establishment, the paper’s advisory board decided its name had unwanted political associations.

A new name was needed, and pool director Harry Marsh of Herschel, Sask., brought forward a suggestion. In a 1973 history written by former editor Rusty Macdonald, Marsh recounted the meeting.

“We wanted a name that would take in all western farmers, not just those of the pool or the pools and not just those in Saskatchewan. It had to be regional, covering Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta at least. And we didn’t want something that sounded like the name of a house organ, either. It had to be a newspaper, a real paper.”

And so, since Aug. 15, 1924, this newspaper has been called The Western Producer. It has also earned a few nicknames over the years — the Western Depressor during tough agricultural times, and Western Seducer at tongue-in-cheek times.

The reputation for employing good writers has continued throughout the paper’s history. Turner was an accomplished writer with an often sharp and frequently witty turn of phrase.

“We hope to rub the feet of progress with the oil of humour so that the march may be the more triumphant if less wearisome,” he once wrote of his newspaper.

Grant MacEwan, a farmer, professor, author and ninth lieutenant governor of Alberta, briefly served as agriculture editor, and was in that role during the devastating foot-and-mouth outbreak near Regina in 1952.

Violet McNaughton, the first women’s editor at the Producer, wrote a column for many years and championed the cause of prairie women. She was influential in obtaining the vote for Canadian women, and in 1934 received the Order of the British Empire.

Laughland also credits good writers as key to the paper’s longevity.

“I think we just found good people to work there who have the genuine desire to inform farmers, and fortunately the idea of writing good factual material and not putting any puff pieces that a lot of other papers do, is really what makes the difference. There’s no other paper like it, really.”

At its peak, the paper boasted a staff of 171 in 1973, which included those involved in composing, pre-press, printing, book publishing, insurance, travel services and the usual newspaper departments.

Having shed all but the core news business, staff now number 62.

A vital part of The Western Producer’s history is its 70 years of ownership by Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, from 1931 to 2001. The paper, like its readers, suffered greatly during the Depression and an agreement with the pool allowed farmers to authorize a $2 subscription fee to be deducted from their final grain payment.

When the world wheat price plummeted to 85 cents a bushel, both the Producer and the pool faced financial disaster.

Despite that, the pool saw the value of the Producer to its members and other prairie farmers. It took over the paper and its printer, Modern Press Ltd., in June 1931.

The paper kept its independent editorial stance and was able to expand into Alberta and Manitoba in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s and 1950s, which had always been the objective of the original owners.

The newspaper’s relationship with SWP lasted until 2001, when the Producer, now separate from its printer, was purchased by Glacier Media Group in 2001.

SWP was a giant player in the agriculture industry over most of the 70 years that it owned the Producer, so it was frequently necessary for the paper to report upon its owners.

That presented challenges for editorial policy, and former publishers including Waldron, the late Robert Phillips and Allan Laughland had to defend it almost annually to the SWP board of directors.

“Most of the time I had good support from the board,” recalls Laughland.

“There would be the odd director on there that thought the paper should be more supportive of the wheat pool, especially with respect to the pool’s position on policy issues, and that we shouldn’t really give any space to the opposition, as they would put it.

“We tried to argue that that really wasn’t in farmers’ interests. They needed both sides of the story. I would have to make some kind of a speech like that at almost every annual meeting.”

Pressure on the Producer to give favourable coverage to the SWP escalated when the Pool went public, Laughland recalls. That was short-lived when the giant grain entity faced financial ruin in the 1990s.

“In my mind I could sort of see the company was starting to unravel. After awhile they had bigger fires to deal with than to try to twist my arm.”

Many Producer readers seem to think the paper was once based in Winnipeg, but in fact Saskatoon has always been home base.

In 1983, the roof over its offices on Millar Avenue fell in, causing massive damage, no injuries and an insurance lawsuit that dragged on for years. The paper continued to publish amid the wreck, and has maintained a near perfect record of publishing and distributing weekly newspapers throughout its 90-year history.

Postal strikes and a Grain Services Union strike in 1994 disrupted delivery and content, but never halted the Producer’s run.

The newspaper has offered other magazines and supplements over the years. Among them was Western People, a magazine launched in 1978 that was loved by readers but treated indifferently by advertisers, which eventually made it uneconomical to maintain.

Two separate magazines, Farming and Acreage Life, have been launched and folded within the paper’s last 10 years.

The Saskatchewan Seed Guide, Canola and Pulse Producer and Techs & Specs continue as part of the stable, and resources have most recently been allocated to the website, mobile apps and use of social media to reach readers and attempt to meet their information needs.

Ultimately, it is knowledge of its readers and advertisers, coupled with employees’ inner fire, that maintain the Producer, says Jessome.

“The sense of ownership here is incredible. It’s far beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. That’s without a doubt. I’ve been directly or indirectly involved in about 10 different publications and without a doubt this is the one that has the greatest employee engagement and pride of product. We do this because it’s important. We do this because we take pride in it.”

Download a PDF of the original WP page here: 1926_sep02_p16

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