As the Ink Fades
Canadian print newspapers are declining, and the news industry is faced with uncertainty
By Jaren Kerr
On September 11, 2001, Jeff Brodrucky helped hand out 10,000 copies of the Toronto Star to commuters passing through the Yonge-Sheppard subway station in Toronto.
“I gave out, at that time, ten thousand papers myself and they were bringing me bundles of paper. I couldn't give them out fast enough. And that was at three o'clock in the afternoon.”
Times have changed. Brodrucky, who recently retired after 40 years at the Star working in the circulation department, was the former unit chair of Unifor Local 87-M , the union that represents the newspaper’s newsroom. Over his career, he watched print transition from being a dominant medium to a product that is struggling to remain relevant and economically viable.
Stopping the Presses
In recent years, printing plants across Canada have closed, impacting the processes of many Canadian newspapers. Postmedia, the company that publishes the National Post, has closed plants in Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Regina. Transcontinental Inc., which publishes The Globe and Mail and recently, the Toronto Star, recently closed a printing plant near Halifax, as well as one in Saskatoon. One of the biggest closures was the plant in Vaughan, formerly owned by TorStar Corp., the Toronto Star’s parent company. Brodrucky was there to witness the rise and fall of the plant.
“Instead of buying a [Boeing] 747, they figured to go with the Concorde. It's faster, it's quicker, we can dump out a ton of papers.” He described the company’s huge ambitions for the plant. “It was high gloss magazine quality printing, so they were hoping that they would be able to attract more business to come in so they could print magazines, other newspapers because this press was supposed to be able to pump out huge volumes of papers… Well, it never materialized.”
These failed ambitions eventually lead to 285 jobs being eliminated and the plant ultimately being shut down earlier this year. In September, TorStar Corp. sold the property and buildings where the plant operated to an unidentified buyer for $54.2 million. Postmedia’s London plant, which used to print the London Free Press, also shut down this year, cutting 139 jobs. The closure of the Transcontinental plant in Halifax lead to over 50 job cuts. Along with printing plants, many print newspapers themselves have closed too. This year, the Guelph Mercury ended their print edition, along with the Nanaimo Daily News and Northern Journal. In recent years, newspapers like the Meadow Lake Progress, Le Reverain and Tekawennake News, which calls itself Canada’s oldest indigenous weekly newspaper, have all stopped printing. Ken Goldstein, a media business analyst, predicts that by 2025 “there will be few, if any, printed daily newspapers.”
Compromising Communities and Careers
According to the Local News Map, created by the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, at least 70 community newspapers have shut down across Canada since 2008, along with several mergers and some outlets reducing their output.
“I don't think there is any doubt that a community is poorly served if a newspaper disappears into the ether,” says Jen Gerson, a Calgary-based reporter for the National Post. “That leaves local events and governments less covered.”
In recent years, global media brands like BuzzFeed and Vice – which originated in Montreal as a magazine popular with skateboarders – have opened news operations in Canada. However, the type of news that these brands produce does not replace the coverage of the disappearing local newspapers. Work that interests a national audience is prioritized over local governments and municipal affairs. Small communities can therefore suffer from a lack of accountability on their local governments, which would have been covered by city hall reporters. Coverage of national affairs is not necessarily prioritized either. In June, BuzzFeed Canada closed its Ottawa bureau, which focused on federal politics.
Careers are also adversely affected by a shrinking media landscape. According to Brodrucky, journalists may find the transition easier than people in other roles, with other publications to go to, and other industries that want their skills. “Journalists are a special breed, or a special nut because… there are other options for them to continue applying their trade.” He does not see this as the case for plant workers. “You almost have to reinvent yourself.”
“Day after day after day, people and their families are affected,” says James Bradshaw, a media reporter at The Globe and Mail. “You get a little numb to it after a while, but it's important to remember how many people are affected by it, and not because they weren't performing or anything, but just because they went into an industry that's being turned upside down.”
The upending of the news industry is a result of declining revenues, especially in advertising. More specifically, classified advertising has suffered severely after newspapers lost their geographic monopolies and duopolies to online directories like Kijiji and Craigslist.
The decline in classified advertising revenue has been dramatic in Canada. According to Newspapers Canada, in 2005, Canadian daily newspapers collectively reached over $800 million in classified revenue; in 2014, they made less than $200 million.
“It declined rapidly ever since the Internet came through with Kijiji and all of that kind of stuff,” Brodrucky explains. “Once that started, revenue then started declining, the newspaper side of it. People didn't have to pick the paper up. They didn’t need to see the advertising, they didn’t need to see the classifieds because you could go online and see it all.”
Perhaps fittingly, the disruption of classifieds had one of its central moments happen close to Silicon Valley, as Bradshaw notes. “The guy who founded Craigslist went to the San Francisco Chronicle and tried to sell Craigslist to them, and they were like, ‘get out of here; we’re not interested in you.’ And then he went and ate a huge part of their business.”
Bradshaw does see new forms of advertising, like sponsored content – ads that look similar to journalistic content – as an avenue to replace some of that revenue, but notes that there are some concerns about that method. “Obviously that raises a lot of questions about where we're drawing the boundaries, making sure there's nothing unethical or nothing that would compromise our journalism... If people don't trust the basic journalism anymore, then we don't exist.”
Circulation numbers and subscriptions have also faced challenges. According to Newspapers Canada, in 1995, the percentage of Canadian households that had daily circulation was just below 50%, falling to 20% in 2014. The trend will likely continue, with 66% of Canadians aged 18-34 having never subscribed to a newspaper in print or online, according to Vividata, a media research firm.
“At our high, at one point on Saturday, it was almost 850,000 newspapers,” said Brodrucky. “Well, we're just around 400,000 now. So it’s half, it’s huge.” Brodrucky explains that, since the beginning of the 21st century, selling subscriptions became much more difficult. Discounted subscriptions were tested, along with gift-giving strategies.
“We went into the stores and then the Star said we're going to sell it at full price. And we're going to give you a gift. So they start giving away blenders and toasters and gift cards, you name it.”
Changing living patterns also affected distribution. Brodrucky recounts the difficulty of circulating the paper in Toronto’s condominiums.
“Less than a year ago one of the security guards went nuts. The kid was fourteen years old. This guy handcuffed this kid, threw him in the room, and rolled and phoned the cops. And he was going to charge him with trespassing and the kid says I'll leave right now and I said OK we're going to charge you… the kid had “Toronto Star” written all over him for Christ's sakes, he wasn't going in there to rob somebody.”
There is also a demographic shift that is leaving print newspapers behind, Brodrucky added. Younger people are increasingly getting their news from social media and apps, often on their smartphones.
“A year's subscription to the Toronto Star is almost $500 a year; that's huge frickin' money. What twenty year old kid wants to put out five hundred dollars a year to have a hard paper in their house? They don't have time to read it, they want to go all the time.”
Innovation and Experimentation
Canadian news organizations have experimented with how to shift to digital effectively. The Winnipeg Free Press has sought new revenue streams, becoming the first North American newspaper to implement a micropayment system which asks readers to pay 27 cents per story, with a promise of a refund on anything read. The Free Press has found some success, but their model may not be fruitful in markets with several news outlets, some of which won’t charge readers anything to read online.
Although mobile consumption is growing at the fastest rate (mobile-only news readership increased by 182% between 2012 and 2015) most major newspapers have tested tablet editions of newspapers with mixed results. While the Globe and the Post have reduced focus on this area in favour of attracting readers on the open web, the Star invested over $30 million into Star Touch, their tablet product that was largely modeled after the tablet edition of La Presse, a French-language paper in Montreal that replaced its weekday papers with tablet editions. La Presse successfully transitioned their audience to the tablet, and found high engagement with the product. Star Touch has not done as well in comparison, with recent layoffs at the Star affecting several Star Touch employees.
“The tablet works when there's a closed market. One like La Presse, and the reason why La Presse went well was because they were the only French-speaking newspaper in that province,” said Brodrucky.
Bradshaw explained that most publishers are struggling with engagement online. “It hasn't worked in the sense that we haven't really found a way to convince a lot of people to create a print-like habit where every single day they're going to open a static product and spend a lot of time with it… I think one of the things news companies were really afraid of losing when print, you know, starts to go away, is the time people spend with it. I think, you know, people were used to getting up and opening it up on their table and having their breakfast or their morning coffee or whatever it was and really spending some time doing nothing but reading that paper”
Bradshaw does, however, see some signs of encouragement. “A lot of things at Star Touch have fallen short of [expectations] – most things – but one thing that seems to be going really well is the engagement, the time spent. in the early going it was 18 or 20 minutes in a day when someone opened that. Now I think it's up closer to 25, 30 on average. That's encouraging.” There are also reasons for economic optimism. “Those tablet editions do seem to be getting the big rich ads that are in them, they seem to be getting more revenue than your average web online ad, so maybe we haven't recreated print ads online, you know, but it has at least, I think, moved the needle for what advertisers will consider paying in the right place or if they think they’re reaching the right audience or whatever it might be.”
He also says that the mentality for news organizations changes as they shift to a more digital focus. “It still wasn’t long ago that an awful lot of the core news meetings with the senior editors were dominated by what was going to be on A1, on the front page of the paper. That has changed now. You still care about that, but we think about it a lot more in terms of what are going to be the top stories for the organization, and then where are they going to go. Some of them are going to go online at this time, some are going to go in print, some are going to be social only stories.”
“[Digital journalism] is moving more towards personalization of the news. ‘We know you like this, so here's more of this', and I think that that decreases the chances of a reader finding something they're interested in, but didn't know they were interested in, the serendipity.”
A New Media Landscape
Gerson sees a move to niche publishing as a future trend. “There is an opening to create more tailored media products that can sustain a business with a small audience. This is why we see the rise of more partisan or niche media outlets, for example, and ones that are pretty happy to abandon some of the traditional notions of ‘objective journalism.’”
Explicitly partisan online outlets are building devoted audiences, like the left-leaning rabble.ca and right-leaning outlet The Rebel. But another niche that seems to be thriving is business-focused publications. Newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times are economically healthy, relative to their competitors. Bradshaw believes that the Globe’s business focus helps them as well.
For Brodrucky, media saturation is hurting news organizations, and believes that there will be some amalgamation.
“My gut feeling is that the Star and the Globe are going to get together… It's the best of both worlds. You put Globe's [business] section together and you get the Toronto Star's investigation side of it, you put it together, you've got the best paper going.”
Gerson believes that the decline of print is not completely negative. “Where one form of media dies, it creates an opportunity for another form to flourish with a more sustainable business model. It's what happens in the transition period that concerns me more.”
Bradshaw also sees hope in an industry that currently has an air of bleakness and uncertainty.
“I don't want to sound like I'm saying all the good stuff's going away and it's being replaced by something that's less. There are things we can do in digital that we could never do before that are super exciting.”