Media: Analysis; Conrad's new baby may have teething troubles

A WEEK ago, it seemed that Conrad Black had asserted his dominance over Canada's newspaper market in a way that no one could challenge. A few days later, with one bold stroke, one of his few rivals had challenged him. It could have big ramifications for the conservative media tycoon who owns The Daily and Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator.

Mr Black may be a big player in the British media scene, but in his native Canada he virtually is newspapers. His Southam Inc and Hollinger Inc have over over 50 per cent of the nation's daily titles, and over 40 per cent of the circulation. The country's political centre and left agonise about his dominance, given his well-known political attitudes.

Last week, he sought to stamp his presence on Canada indelibly, with the launch of a national newspaper, The National Post. Canada has sometimes been described as a horizontal Chile: the population mostly lives in a narrow strip along the US border that extends from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and until now that audience has been served largely by local city papers. The Thomson-owned Globe and Mail makes a stab at being a national, but it is essentially focused on Toronto, home to 10 per cent of the population. The Post looked, in fact, little different from The Globe and Mail, though it was further to the political right. It seemed as if the two papers were set for a long and costly war.

But no sooner had Mr Black sent his baby into the world than one of his few rivals, the Toronto Star group, launched a bid for another, the Toronto- based Sun Media group, which is the country's second-largest group by circulation. Sun runs papers in Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton, which while by no means the same as our own Currant Bun, are not in the same market as The Star or The Post. They are both right-wing, racy and populist.

The Star is Canada's best-selling paper with a circulation of 450,000: it is liberal and serious paper. The deal does not seem a good match, to put it mildly, in terms of content. But The Star risked being outflanked. The intention seems to be to take the Sun titles, which include a clutch of serious and profitable papers in southern Ontario, and weld them into a national group capable of challenging Mr Black - and, possibly, his politics.

The president of Sun, Paul Godfrey, still believes a White Knight may arrive to save it. But if the deal goes through, says the Sun columnist Peter Worthington, "It's the end of The Sun. We've sold our soul." Christie Blatchford, formerly with The Sun but now at The National Post, called it "a horse's ass of an idea".

For those who fear that Mr Black is eating Canadian media alive, the idea that someone apart from him might take over a newspaper is welcome news indeed. Sheila Copps, Canada's Heritage Minister, welcomed the news warmly that a left-leaning paper might have a chance of establishing a broader base. Canada is habitually a more left-wing place than its southern neighbour, though you wouldn't know it to read the papers.

"I think it is wonderful there is competition in newspapers," said Ms Copps, a Liberal. But wasn't she concerned that the deal would increase newspaper power in a few hands? "If you look at The Post this week, the agenda has been strictly right, right and more right," she said. "It's nice to have different opinions in this country and perhaps opinions that are a little bit more reflective of the broad public." The Star might just give Mr Black a run for his money.

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