Reinventing the press

While southern newspapers move online or die, Northern newspapers are surviving—and even thriving—in the Internet age.

By HERB MATHISEN


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It’s simple, right? The Internet is killing newspapers. Craigslist, online classifieds and job boards are siphoning off all important ad revenue, while the demand for free and instant online content is rendering the newspaper – especially the weekly – obsolete. The competition for eyeballs and advertisers is rendering the newspaper a pre-digital relic.

But hold the press. As southern dailies slash jobs, cancel editions, lay off staff and rush to put up paywalls on content once offered for free, community newspapers, with their close ties to small towns, are proving resilient. Closer to home, enterprising publishers North of 60 are adapting to this new environment. And while the glory days of holding a monopoly over readership are long gone, some newspapers in the North are thriving.

Long-time entrepreneur but self-described “journalist at heart” Don Jaque has been publishing Northern Journal – known until recently as the Slave River Journal – since 1978. “When things went digital 10 years ago ... everyone was talking about how newspapers were dead, that the end had come,” he says.

But while many large urban dailies have struggled to evolve in the new online world, Jaque was confident that small-town newspapers would be sheltered because of how connected they are to the communities they serve. “They’re engaged with the population,” he says. “They chronicle the events of there.” And they provide a central venue for local advertisers to connect with those readers. “We’re a big small town, and so a community newspaper resonates in an environment like that,” he says.

The numbers back him up. Nationally, community newspaper advertising revenue is increasing, from $1.17 billion in 2010 to $1.21 billion in 2011, according to a recent survey by Newspapers Canada, an advocacy group representing Canadian newspaper publishers.

Roger Holmes, president of the Wainwright Star press, prints 69 papers and other publications across Western Canada and the U.S. He is seeing recent newspaper start-ups in towns where papers hadn’t existed previously, from challengers to chain-run enterprises that are out of touch with the locals.

Holmes says independent, locally-owned and operated community papers are proving immune to online competition because they focus on stories of interest to a relatively small geographic area – Boy Scout activities and local hockey games. “People that live a thousand miles away don’t care,” he says. Holmes believes that due to the demand for newsprint’s tactile and permanent appeal – or how people will always want to cut out stories and post them on their fridge – print advertising remains the most effective means for retailers to reach locals. “The Internet cannot reach down into their small communities. The economics are
just not there for them to do that.”

While inflated labour, housing and, most notably, shipping costs plague Northern newspapers like any other Northern enterprise, the North’s unique make-up – with its large capital centres and far-flung communities with languishing internet infrastructure – has protected local papers more than their southern counterparts. “As far as the Internet goes, penetration isn’t sufficient in the communities to give any publisher a problem when it comes to competition,” says Jack Danylchuk, a veteran northern journalist who has worked for Northern News Services Ltd. and Northern Journal and been behind numerous start-up publications across Canada, most recently EDGE YK. “Print is still the main medium.”

Still, Northern publications have had to pay attention, as the Internet has irrevocably changed the way readers expect content, demanding more immediacy than inflexible weekly print publications can provide on their own. And Danylchuk notes that Northwestel’s pledge to increase broadband access across the North means Northerners will soon have the ability to more quickly – and cheaply – explore and employ the Internet.

Michael Roberts, the president of Nortext, the company that publishes Nunatsiaq News, says whether it’s via traditional newsprint, a website or through mobile apps, consumers still want their news from an authoritative, reliable brand. “It’s a little old-fashioned to think of it as either a website or a print edition,” says Roberts. “It’s not an either/or.”

Since Nunatsiaq News’ website was updated in 2010 and the paper started posting half a dozen stories daily for free, it’s seen a major uptake in online readership. “Prior to that, we were publishing stories on a weekly basis,” says Roberts. Because Nunatsiaq News is printed in Ottawa, by the time it is flown into eastern Arctic communities stories have become dusty. By focusing on daily content, the website can provide breaking news as it happens and update dynamic stories.

People seem to be responding. Print readership was three times higher than web readership in 2010; today, web readership is 2.5 times higher than print. The website gets 50,000 views a week – with 48 per cent of those readers coming from outside Nunavut and Nunavik. Airlines and art retailers, which want to reach readers outside of the region, are lining up to advertise online.

Roberts says the paper is currently focused on growing its readership, and while it has looked at what other papers have done with paywalls, it has yet to consider introducing one.

Still, generating online ad revenue is tough, says John Hinds, Newspapers Canada president and CEO. “I don’t think many people are making a lot of money right now on the Internet,” he says, adding advertisers are still largely interested in the print product. Internet ad revenue for community papers has increased from $27 million in 2009 to $43.7 million in 2011. But this is still a pittance when compared with the industry’s overall ad revenues of $1.2 billion.

Stephen Robertson, publisher of the Yukon News, has taken a careful approach toward online advertising. Because it can be difficult to measure what gives advertisers a response, the newspaper focuses on directed and targeted ads in content-related sections to increase the value for local advertisers. For instance, the banner ad running along the top of the arts section may be for an art gallery. The paper also rotates three advertisers on its main page, with a top page banner ad and both a body and footer ad devoted to each customer. “What we’re hoping we’ll be able to achieve is to create pretty significant revenue from our website,” he says, “so that as we look into the future and we see that the printed copy becomes less and less in demand and that things move more and more digital, that we also have a revenue model online that can sustain the kind of editorial quality people have come to expect.”

The overwhelming majority of newspaper revenue comes in through advertising: overall circulation revenue for Canadian community papers was just $45 million in 2011. At the Yukon News, “Our circulation revenue might account for about one per cent of our revenue,” says Robertson. Still, circulation figures are vitally important to demonstrate a paper’s reach to potential advertisers.

Recognizing that the Craigslists of the world were taking away classified ads and their devoted readers, the paper began offering free private party classifieds to make its print edition the prime destination for notices about yard sales and used vehicles. “It took a fair investment in the amount of pages we publish and the staff time that we needed to devote to it, but our view was that it was a real circulation builder,” he says. “Our whole goal is to create value for our paid advertisers.”

The paper publishes its Monday edition online only. The Wednesday and Friday print editions go out to every Yukon community and Atlin, B.C., and are available in communities for free. “We looked at going paid in the communities, but managing it ends up costing you enough that it actually costs less to distribute it for free than it does to try to (have people) pay for it,” he says.

Robertson’s main competitor, the Whitehorse Star – the North’s only print daily – is generating online dollars another way. The newspaper introduced its website early, in 1997, mainly posting news copy without photos. However, in 2004, it introduced a metered content system, giving readers access to three stories a day. If they wished to read more, they’d have to subscribe to the paper.

This has allowed the Star to spin a positive from a negative. In the early 2000s, the paper had hundreds of subscribers outside of Whitehorse and the cost of shipping out a daily paper, compounded with the sometimes three- to four-day lag times, “didn’t serve a purpose, as a daily,” says publisher Jackie Pierce. “The cost of mailing out the paper out of town cancelled out any profit from selling the paper. The idea I had was to get [the online version] to communities outside of Whitehorse because it cost an arm and a leg to send [the newspaper] to them.”

Now subscribers outside of Whitehorse have an online-only option. For $15 per month, readers get access to a downloadable copy of the paper and its complete archives. This cuts down on shipping costs to communities and to exiles in southern Canada who like to keeping up with what’s happening back home.

Northern News Services Ltd. (NNSL), the newspaper operator with the largest editorial staff in the North, also brings in circulation revenue through its website. Publishing eight papers weekly – six in the NWT and two in Nunavut – the company introduced a paywall way early, in 1996; general manager Mike Scott says the company was one of the first in North America to do so.

NNSL’s website provides free arts and entertainment stories, along with delayed archive access. New content is posted in each newspaper’s portal daily from Monday to Saturday, with a free preview available. But reading further requires a subscription. Subscribers get access to stories in HTML or a full paper downloadable as a PDF.

“We have always been local, long before hyper-local was cool,” says Scott. The company has grown in recent years, purchasing the Hay River Hub in 2011 and, more recently, acquiring local online events site YK Buzz. Scott says the newspaper has plans for expanded digital content delivery, but citing the competitive nature of the industry, declined to talk about its online strategy.

Since rebranding Northern Journal and increasing its scope to the entire Northwest Territories (as opposed to a focus on northern Alberta and southwestern NWT), Jaque has doubled the paper’s weekly circulation to 4,000 and made it available in every NWT community. The Fort Smith-based newspaper’s website does not employ a paywall, as Jaque sees the site as a complement to the print edition. Along with social media, he uses the site to connect readers with the paper’s content. “If you fight it, you’re screwed,” he says. “It’s more like a delivery mechanism than anything.”

Online advertising revenue generation is still in its early stages, though. “We’ve dabbled in it, but at this stage, we’re not really ready,” he says. However, Jaque plans to add a gardening blog, a poetry section and even a Northern politics discussion board to his site. His goal is to turn the website into a community gathering place.

Overall, Hinds of Newspapers Canada believes newspapers are in a transition period. “The newspaper industry used to be print on paper. Now it’s paper, online, mobile app, tablet,” he says, adding there is no general rule for what works. While paywalls provide subscription revenues, they also hide ads. It comes down to experimentation and figuring out what makes the most sense for a newspaper’s specific product and market. But as Hinds adds, consumer habits have changed: people want access to news 24-7.

Readers also have more options today. Aside from the obvious competition from CBC North’s online news site, the North has a thriving blogging community and many upstart websites detailing local goings-on. Kyle Thomas founded YKonline.ca, where he uses videos, podcasts and written posts to promote local events and speak with Yellowknife denizens. His website, which began as a hobby in May 2009, now gets between 20,000 to 25,000 visits each month, and he’s begun securing advertisers so the site can start paying for itself. “I think Yellowknifers specifically don’t just get their content on paper anymore and therefore advertising should follow where the eyeballs are,” he says.

Perhaps the greatest threat to community papers is the loss of many small sources of ad revenue to different places. “In the publishing business, every nickel counts,” says Danylchuk, adding classifieds in most papers have shrunk considerably due to online sites and AutoTrader. Newspapers have lost other traditional revenue streams to alternative advertising mediums, and even online shopping has cut into profits.

One revenue source newspapers definitely cannot afford to lose is government advertising. Shaun Dean, the GNWT’s press secretary, says no defined criteria determines when and where the government advertises; it’s all about landing the most – and most relevant – readers. If a job posting is going out for Inuvik, it makes sense to post an ad in NNSL’s Inuvik Drum. Most of the government’s newspaper advertising is spent on job postings, tenders and contracts and not so much on promotional campaigns.

“Newspapers are the traditional way we have advertised and one media that we’re confident has some wide distribution through all of our communities,” Dean says. But the GNWT has also signed on to Facebook to promote programs like Come Make Your Mark, designed to attract new residents to the Northwest Territories. While the government isn’t prepared to go online exclusively, Dean says it is increasingly examining the effectiveness of online advertising. The government recently advertised its website on devolution on the popular Yellowknife classified site YK Trader. But since the GNWT doesn’t track its media spending on different mediums, Dean could not say whether traditional print newspaper advertising had decreased.

Government advertising is key to the survival of Northern newspapers, Jaque says. “I think the GNWT has to consider what it would be like if there were no community newspapers serving Northern communities,” he says. “They don’t understand newspapers offer a great deal in terms of furthering and benefiting our consensus style of government in the North.” With no opposition parties, papers have taken on the role of ensuring a high level of community awareness on policies and decisions in the North. Northern newspapers also inform and educate residents outside of regional centres on diabetes, exercise and dieting, Jaque says, which contributes to the overall well-being of Northerners.

Everyone has a theory when it comes to newspapers. “Community papers are like politicians: you get what you deserve,” says Danylchuk. “The stronger the link with the community, the stronger the readership,” says Hinds.

Ultimately though, it will be readers who decide the fate of the newspaper. And since a quality paper drives readership, which in turn drives healthy advertising support, one adage is invoked by all: content is king.