Friday, February 4, 2011

Welcome back, Free Press

Welcome back downtown, Winnipeg Free Press.

Twenty years ago the largest media outlet in this part of Canada abandoned downtown Winnipeg.

The delusions of Thomson Corp., its owners, drove the newspaper into a new but sterile and forbidding complex on the edge of an industrial park on Mountain Avenue.

The market is booming, the owners pronounced from Toronto and New York. Let’s buy some big orange presses and shovel tons of fliers into our trucks every day. To hell with downtown and its one-way streets.

And so the Free Press abandoned its once grand building at 300 Carlton St.

By then, 300 Carlton was no palace. Even when I worked there in the 1970s it was dirty and dark, and it usually smelled bad.

But Stanley Knowles, the longtime MP for Winnipeg North Centre, would appear in the newsroom the odd evening, sit down at a empty desk, pound out a press release on an already ancient typewriter, and stroll up to the city desk to drop it off.

Down the hall from the newsroom, Winnipeg’s chess club held meetings and played games. That’s community involvement.

Community involvement on Mountain Avenue? Not so much.

But now, under different owners, the Free Press is taking a baby step back downtown.

Prodded by John White, its online editor, it’s opening a “news café” in the same area where it competed with and vanquished 10 or more papers on newspaper row, beginning in 1882. Today’s announcement says:

The Winnipeg Free Press News Café, which will be located in the Exchange District, is designed to be a community hub where customers can not only grab a bite or have a drink, but will be encouraged to interact and engage with journalists working on site.

The paper’s story doesn’t acknowledge any of its current downtown competitors, but it should.

The Aboriginal Peoples Television Network has its national headquarters on Portage Avenue, the city’s main drag.

CTV has moved downtown to Graham Avenue from almost-suburban Polo Park.

And the CBC building on Portage actually marks the western edge of downtown.

As you drive east on Portage, the welcome appearance of the Corp and the neighbouring University of Winnipeg signals not only the end of a wasteland of dreary shops and apartments but the beginnings of the possibility of a life of the mind.

I guess that’s too much of a burden to lay on this “news café.”

But I plan to drop in. Maybe they’ll have a chessboard set up.