Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Current: The Demise of The Independent; Ryan Cleary

Ryan Cleary, former
editor-in-chief of the upstart
weekly,on why the paper
hasn't risen from the dead
First of a two-part series
For all its fighting Newfoundlander guts and
glory, after four and a half years The Independent
went down in mid July with barely a whimper. Or
so it must have seemed, the paper's apparent
gentle slide into that good night.
Behind the scenes attempts were made for weeks
to revive the newspaper. At least three parties
were eager to invest, and one group was interested
in stepping in and taking over, but no one was
prepared to pay publisher/owner Brian Dobbin
$250,000, his asking price.
They saw the amount as out of the question for a
money-losing newspaper. According to Dobbin's
own numbers, The Independent lost more than
$2 million under his wing, and while losses had
leveled off and the break-even point was within
reach, the paper was still operating in the red
when it went down.
Some people saw the high price tag as Dobbin's
way of ensuring that no one succeeds where he
did not. Dobbin, nephew of business legend
Craig Dobbin, is best known for Humber Valley
Resort just east of Corner Brook, which recently
announced layoffs under a major restructuring
plan. Dobbin is no longer directly involved with
his west coast brainchild, or his other business
baby, cod farming, and has become bitter about
the province's overall business atmosphere.
To quote his front-page column in the paper's
final issue on July 18th: "Newfoundland and
Labrador is a barren place to try to grow significant
In a recent column for the Northeast Avalon
Times, Ray Guy, who wrote a once-a-month column
for The Independent, said the paper suffered
from the "heir to the Dobbin millions playing
newspaper dilettante -hey look, I'm a newspaper
Some rich guys buy nice cars, Brian Dobbin
bought himself a newspaper. All flash and pink,
white and green colour. There may have been a
bit of that, but there were deeper motivations.
Dobbin, a closet journalist, got into the newspaper
business partly out of a passion to expose the
Hibernia story and the tens of millions of dollars
that were wasted on the construction project in
the mid-1990s. Cost overruns had to be paid off
before governments saw any real royalties. And
those overruns were said to be ridiculous and
Dobbin's biggest disappointment with The
Independent (besides the fact it didn't break even
before he ran out of cash), may have been the
fact the paper didn't crack the Hibernia story. We
got a piece of Terra Nova - including details of a
1998 meeting between former premier Brian
Tobin and oil executive Dick Cheney, who went on
to become vice-president of the United States, to
"trade off" gold-collar engineering jobs - but that
apparently was only the tip of the iceberg.
From my perspective, I say that Dobbin put a high
price on the paper to ensure that any new owner
was serious about the newspaper business.
Dobbin told me he didn't want to see the paper
flounder for a few months after a quick cash
injection only to close again. The paper meant
too much to him for the death to be drawn out.
The expensive asking price would take care of
The owner of a start-up newspaper must have two
things: money and patience. The owners of The
Independent have had neither.
The paper was all set to close in March 2004 -
five short months after it first opened - because it
ran out of money. What the hell were the owners
Dobbin came in at that point, but he cut off his
support and closed the paper just over two years
later in April 2006. The paper reopened a week
later with an appeal for public support by the editorial
Dobbin lost $250,000 between then and when
the paper closed this past July. It's that money he
wanted repaid with any takeover. I personally
made a formal request to buy the rights to the
masthead for $25,000, but Dobbin turned me
down flat, saying an offer that "in some way deals
with the most recent $250,000 loan I have given
to the newspaper may be better received."
And so here we are today. The Independent's
office equipment has been sold and the pink,
white and green decals have been peeled from
The Independent jeep. I have looked at starting a
new weekly paper from scratch - I'm fond of The
Guardian for a name - but was unable to attract
the necessary money and patience.
Newspapers are dying out, this is a common
refrain. I don't agree. The Saturday Telegram is
worth its weight in gold and there's money to be
A week after The Independent closed, Geoff
Stirling, owner of the NTV/OZ FM empire/dimension,
called me to offer his condolences. But he
said he was confused and couldn't figure out The
Independent's mandate. "Seriously buddy, was
the paper's purpose to be a voice or to make
"Both," I said, but I've been thinking about my
answer ever since.
The Independent was often complimented about
its look and feel, about the columnists and stories
that called it home. But the paper couldn't be
considered a success until it held its own financially.
We were getting there; circulation was up by
almost 10 per cent when the paper closed. There
was a hell of a lot more work to be done, and the
staff was up to the challenge, only the horse got
shot out from under us.
Part two of the series will focus on the challenges
that faced The Independent, and the measures
taken by Transcontinental, the Quebec-based
chain that owns most newspapers in the province,
to protect its monopoly.
Ryan Cleary is the former editor-in-chief of The

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