Ontario Construction News: Celebrating our first year as a daily construction trade newspaper

ocn-d cover may 1 2019
The cover of the first daily issue of Ontario Construction News, from May 1, 2019

Ontario Construction News staff writer

We’re celebrating our first anniversary today.

Ontario Construction News started publishing daily on May 1, 2019.

It’s been an incredible year. At the start, I wondered how we would find enough news to publish every day, Monday through Friday, week after week, through the four seasons.

That turned out to be an unnecessary worry. At the start, the province’s normally peaceful labour relations exploded into two strikes, from sheet metal workers and (briefly) plumbers and pipefitters. And now we are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The story behind OCN began about a year before its launch, in April, 2019, when I viewed then-new Ministry of Attorney General (MAG) regulations about the new Ontario Construction Act’s regulations for publishing Certificates of Substantial Performance (CSP)s and other legal notices.

The regulations for the new law continued many of the previous Construction Lien Act’s provisions–including the mandatory publication of CSPs in a daily construction trade newspaper.

But there was one critical difference, with the key words bolded.

The regulations specified:

“Construction trade newspaper” means a newspaper,

(a) “that is published either in paper format with circulation generally throughout Ontario or in electronic format in Ontario

(b) that is published at least daily on all days other than Saturdays and holiday

(c) in which calls for tender on construction contracts are customarily published, and

(d) that is primarily devoted to the publication of matters of concern to the construction industry.”

I knew then that another publisher had enjoyed an extremely lucrative monopoly for more than three decades in publishing these notices.

If contractors want to receive their final holdback payments, they need to publish CSPs. But, before our arrival, only one newspaper met the requirements. This resulted in a true legal monopoly.

For years, my office fielded calls from contractors wishing to place these mandatory notices, but every time, I needed to refer them to the other publication, as clearly it would do no one any good to publish the notices in a non-compliant publication.

However, under the old rules, setting up a full-scale print newspaper to compete would be economic suicide. No business earns market share instantly, and with high printing and distribution costs we would be blown out of the water.

But the new rules allowed the newspaper to be published in electronic format, and when I read those words, I had a eureka moment. There would still be a lot of work, and significant editorial and production expenses, but the idea of “going daily” seemed feasible.

We checked with our lawyers, and the MAG. We began researching how to build the backend administrative and technical systems, a new website, and editorial processes.

Quickly, we decided that the newspaper needed to have the look, feel and characteristics of a conventional print newspaper, even if it would be electronic.

The reason:  A second piece of law, The Legislation Act (2006), defines “newspaper” quite clearly for the legal notices publication.  Under this law, the newspaper needs to be “printed” in sheet format, at regular intervals. While the Legislation Act has an override provision if other regulations or laws contradict its wording –  clearly a newspaper in “electronic format” as allowed by the Ontario Construction Act cannot be “printed” — we thought it safest to consider this exception as narrowly as possible.

However, there was one more problem. The new Construction Act had transition provisions, meaning that the old law would apply for all current projects at the time it was implemented in 2018 – and it would take upwards of a year or more for enough projects to be in the pipeline for the new rules to properly apply.

Hence, we decided to start in May 2019 – about 10 months after the Construction Act went into force, giving us enough time to build our base as we sought to develop the market.

Things started slowly, with just a dozen legal notice advertisements throughout the first month of publication in May 2019.  Yet we still needed to maintain the publishing schedule, including covering the growing labour strife.

Things started picking up in June, in part because of our strategic alliance with Databid.com, which provides tendering and leads data, essential to comply with the Construction Act’s definitions.

Then we came up with our most initially effective marketing strategy. We would scan notices published elsewhere and send a direct mail piece through Canada Post to the contractors who had published CSPs at much higher fees than we were invoicing.

Soon, the orders started coming in. Quickly our new customers discovered two things – they were saving thousands of dollars each year on their legal notices, and they discovered the notices were published much more rapidly than they had ever experienced.

We developed systems to make it possible that a notice submitted mid-afternoon the day before publication could be published the next business day, with the Certificate (and proof) of Publication emailed that day. Faster turn-around means faster holdback recoveries and enhanced cash flow for contractors.

We’ve continued to improve our processes and systems, building a powerful electronic data entry portal, which also allows us to post the original certificates and proof of publication for all of our advertisers. However, we’ve also decided to make things as easy as possible for our advertisers. They don’t need to key in the forms unless they wish, and they certainly don’t need to prepay for their notices to appear.

(Some people prefer to enter the data directly, and that is fine – and the data-entry tool makes things much more efficient for our administrative staff to complete the work, speeding up our cycle even more.)

So, here we are, a year into the publication, with a major economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Business volume has declined, partly because of the normal seasonal dynamic, but more significantly because of the shut-down of much of Ontario’s industrial, commercial and institutional construction industry. Still, however, we are maintaining the daily publishing schedule and we are continuing to win new customers, who appreciate the service, speed, and cost savings.

About four decades ago, when I was a young adult working as a reporter and later a sub-editor on daily newspapers, I wondered what it would be like to actually publish every day.  It seemed then, and in the years following, to be a pipe dream, in part because of the crazy costs to achieve the objective, coupled with the historical decline of daily newspapers.

But in 2018-2019, I realized we had built a solid editorial, sales and business team for our monthly publications and we could indeed pull things together and truly publish a daily construction newspaper for Ontario’s construction industry.

We did it. It has succeeded. And with your support, readership, questions, and feedback, I expect the next year will be even better, with loads of news, construction business leads and really speedy and cost-effective publication of the mandatory Construction Act notices.

I welcome your observations and questions. You can email us at insights@ontarioconstructionnews.com.


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