Saturday, February 10, 2007

The best media job in the province (February 2006)

Of the many happy and fulfilled journalists out there, I think I’ve discovered the most contented in the province.

Meet Dwight Blackwood and Gord Follett of the Newfoundland Sportsman franchise, which includes a popular magazine, TV series and now a set of DVDs. Other people work, and take their recreation when they can get it. These lucky guys do recreation for a living.

To research stories, they go hunting and fishing. They fly into remote wilderness camps, where they catch enormous sport fish while being feted like kings – usually at the lodge owner’s expense. They also do hunting and fishing trips on their own, which are less glamorous but still great fun. They are showered with free sporting gear, including two top-of-the-line ATVs, on loan from a sponsor. Two snowmobiles are also coming soon.

The toughest part about their job? They have to come down to earth long enough to write about it.

Gord Follett laughed when told that he had the best media job in the province.

“I’ve heard that countless times,” said Follett, a former sports reporter/editor with The Daily News, The Telegram and The Sunday Express. “Put it this way – there are very, very few complaints in this line of work. The worst thing I have to do is get up at 4:30 in the morning to go salmon fishing. And that’s not much of a complaint.”

Newfoundland Sportsman magazine was started in 1990 by Blackwood, financed in part by previous business successes, including the sale in 1988 of Creative Printing, which he co-owned, to Newfoundland Capital Corporation (NCC). Blackwood then went to work at Robinson-Blackmore, which was owned by NCC. He met Follett in the smoking room, where they talked at great length about hunting and fishing. When Blackwood started the magazine, he asked Gord to help with editing. They soon became a team, as well as good buddies (which is important if you’re going to share a tent).

“And we never looked back,” said Blackwood. “We knew there was a market there, but it was more a labour of love than anything else. There were no other publications that focused on the outdoors in Newfoundland and Labrador.”

The gamble paid off - the magazine now has a circulation of about 15,000 copies per issue.

In 1996 and ‘97, knowing that there must be an appetite for outdoors material on TV, they produced two seasons of shows on NTV. The program was popular but not sustainable – the cost of the betacam camera, equipment and crew, as well as the editing suite, was prohibitive.

The advent of digital camera technology and desktop video editing software changed everything. “We went out last year and filmed a few shows on spec,” Blackwood said. “When the Stirlings (at NTV) saw the shows, they liked them. And from there, the ratings speak for themselves… The afternoon is not a prime time, but if memory serves we were the third highest-rated local program. We had anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 viewers per show.”

Some valuable synergies have been created by the show, which airs Sundays at 2:00 pm. Blackwood said there’s been a rush of magazine subscriptions from viewers in other provinces. And now, there are several outdoor networks in the U.S. that want to air it as well.

Late last year, the first season of the program was released as a four-DVD set, retailing for $19.95 each. Though he wouldn’t reveal actual numbers, Blackwood did say that sales are already in the thousands.

Okay, so their business model is a success. But that’s enough business talk. I want to hear more about that odd notion of doing recreation for a living.

Follett estimates that he and Blackwood take about 30 trips per year of three days or more (which doesn’t include numerous day trips). Of those, about 60 percent are self-directed, in which they camp in a tent, stay at Blackwood’s cabin, or at cabins belonging to a network of friends across the province. The other 40 percent are to fishing camps, which generally cover all their expenses (the publicity generates business that more than offsets the outfitters’ investment). Not surprisingly, Follett is diplomatic when asked if he has a favourite fishing camp.

“I wouldn’t be able to pick one particular camp over another,” he said. “But we do have favourite places, like the Gander River and the Flowers River in Northern Labrador… In Flowers River, in one general area, we can fish for big salmon, big brook trout, big arctic char and big lake trout, all within 10 miles of the lodge.”

The biggest fish Follett ever caught was an 18-pound lake trout in Labrador, which doesn’t hold a candle to Blackwood’s 25-pound salmon caught last year on the Humber River.

“That was an experience… biggest fish I ever caught in my life,” Blackwood said. “It was almost 40 inches long… it took me about 45 minutes to land. I caught it just before dark and by the time I played it out and got it in, it was pitch black. Here we were with no light on the camera… We did take some still photos which we used at the end of the program so you could see how big it was.”

Follett said that the many perqs they receive from sponsors do not compromise editorial independence.

“We’re not a hard-hitting newspaper, like the old Sunday Express. It’s all feature articles.”

The magazine doesn’t publish reviews of equipment, Follett explained. Instead, what the sponsors are looking for is product placement. “They’d like to see a picture of their product appear on our pages,” he said. If you watch the program or read the magazine, you can see what he means. The stories are all about the thrill of catching fish or bagging game – they don’t plug equipment in any overt way.

The key to the success of the magazine and TV show is its lack of pretension, Follett said. “We keep it real. Everybody says that to us. We’re just a couple of fellows who go out, get a few fish and harvest a few animals, but we’re down to earth, having a good time wherever we go, and making a few mistakes too. But it’s all natural.”

Blackwood echoed those sentiments. “We’re just two ordinary guys out in the woods having a great bit of fun for ourselves. People relate to that.”

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