May 25, 2009


Here's the presentation I made at the CAJs this past weekend in Vancouver about why I think community newspapers are a viable business model for the future:

In my first class as a journalism student, a professor asked, by a show of hands, who reads a newspaper. Out of 25, just me and one other student raised an arm.

I should have known then the industry was in trouble — and that just four years ago.

In my two short years as a working journalist, I cannot believe the 180 newspapers have done. Worldwide, companies are now under pressure from investors and banks because revenues have nose-dived as a result of the tumultuous economy. Declining ad revenues, rising print costs and shrinking subscription sales have resulted in cut backs, layoffs and bankruptcies.

However, if there's one business model that seems to be fairing better than others, it's the community publishing model. Granted, I'm slightly biased in that I work for Kamloops This Week, a tri-weekly community newspaper within Black Press. But, the fact is, community papers aren't being hit as hard as the larger papers.

And why? One word: Hyperlocal.

This means all local editorial content and strong local advertisers, creating a sturdy community following. With content that's informed, current, intelligent and creative, community papers fill a very specific need for readers. And, I think, it's this connection that allows this type of paper to adapt to reader's needs while developing a viable and potentially robust business model. All of which puts community newspapers in a prime position for evolution — something which, at this point, is inevitable.

Regardless of the quality of journalism, a successful model must make money. Community papers, however, aren't immune to the current recession and are getting squeezed by rising paper costs, declining national ad revenue and — surprise, surprise — the Internet.

Like most things, paper keeps getting more expensive. Last year, it cost about $570 per tonne for paper. This year, that's nearly doubled to just more than $1,000. KTW, for example, is less impacted because we only print three times a week and we've mitigated some loss by shrinking down the page size by half an inch and moving from six to seven columns. Those are just a couple of small change, but they've had positive results because advertising prices have remained the same although the actual ad sizes have been slightly reduced.

Which brings me to the necessary evil of community papers — especially free ones: Advertising. Ad revenue for many papers is anemic at best these days, especially in the national ads department. In Kamloops, KTW claims about 38 per cent of the national ad market — not bad, considering we compete with a daily newspaper as well as a TV and radio station.

But the biggest coup for community papers — especially now — is the amount of local advertising. At KTW, local verses national is split 70/30. So, even though we're losing national ads, our locals are marginally up from last year. This even more so since the introduction of online advertising, which includes classifieds, and both are slowly making gains.

Honestly, the industry's reaction to the Internet, for the most part, is really disappointing. Many companies were either complacent or outright resistant to the emerging technology. And, the irony is, the Internet could have helped newspapers make money — it's relatively cheap and can reach a wide audience. Over the years, this complacency has led to a sort of defeatism.

But, most national and many community papers are slowly coming around — better late then never. And that's the point: Nothing is lost forever, technologies change and now is the time for newspaper industry to reinvent itself. Clearly, I don't know what that entails, but I imagine newspapers to be multi-social-media news outlets.

One very easy way to bring this to fruition is the Internet. And I think Black Press is largely leading the way in the community paper category. At KTW, we've moved away from just shoveling old content onto the web. We've added video clips, photo slideshows and breaking news before stories hit print.

Furthermore, KTW is twittering. Nothing new to many of you — but was and still is totally unknown to most people working in our office. And, in the first two weeks of operation, twitter has boosted website traffic by nearly 8,000 unique visitors.

To further KTW's exposure to the community, we've set up a facebook account — who doesn't have one of these nowadays? And, by linking the twitter to facebook, we can update both accounts simultaneously. But, we didn't set it up as a business page on facebook. Instead we opted for the regular person profile. The message: KTW is your friend. Send us a message, post on our wall, give us feedback. We also have photo albums of the editorial team, a casual one showing all of us outside of work as well as a photo of the week album, which our friends can submit their pics.

This is just one small part of the social aspect of the new newspapers. We can't just disseminate information to passive audiences. The community needs to be included, we need them to participate. There's the traditional letters to the editor portion in newspapers and comment sections online, but I think we can further engage readers with online open-chat forums, or a rate your city section, where readers can write about experiences at new restaurants, live performances or movies, or even have links to personal blogs.

Now, I don't mean citizen journalism, where the news is reported by non-professionals. Journalists are trained, know the usefulness of information, can translate intricate issues into common, understandable language and transform these facts into rich, compelling stories that are upheld by truth, accuracy and transparency.

However, I do feel there needs to be a shift in the way written information is presented. In some cases, but not all, inverted, pyramid-style reporting is dead and we're seeing a real demand for a human approach to some issues. I think there's a place for a sort of hybrid between civic journalism — in which readers are treated as participants, not spectators — and literary journalism — which uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.

What will happen in the next couple of years will be interesting to watch and be a part of. And whatever it may look like, I know there will be newspapers and journalists. Journalists have long had an obligation to public life and played an integral role in society for centuries. We have informed, educated and recorded history.

But, now is the time we decide our future. I believe, if we can change archaic practices and evolve into something astute and participatory, turning new practices into philosophies, we will have a solid place in society for centuries to come.


Post a Comment