Don't scrap the paper: J-Talk with Canadian newspaper editors

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The newspaper is not dead, but the industry is facing a wide range of new competitors. Now — after losing half of its advertising revenue over the course of a decade — the newspaper industry is finding new ways to bring in revenue and deal with the competition, a panel of newspaper editors said Thursday evening.

Scott White, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Press, moderated the panel, which consisted of: Lou Clancy, head of Postmedia’s editorial operations; Michael Cooke, editor of the Toronto Star; Charlotte Empey, editor-in-chief of Metro English Canada; and John Stackhouse, editor –in-chief of the Globe and Mail. They gathered in Toronto Thursday night for The Canadian Journalism Foundation’s J-Talk, Gutenberg’s Last Stand: Reinventing the Modern Newspaper.

Competition/partnerships

“The newspaper war that they (the panelists) are fighting isn’t only against each other; they are fighting a true guerrilla war,” White said at the beginning of the night. “Who—or what—is the competition?”

The answers were plentiful and included search engines and news aggregators such as Google, AOL, and Yahoo.

“Competition is everywhere. It’s the people on stage here, it’s blogs, it’s news publications it’s international publications,” said Stackhouse. “We’re all in a fight not just for readers—our greatest fight is for people’s time and attention.”

Empey said social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are also competition. The panelists agreed, but also cited social media as an important part of driving traffic to their sites.

“If you look at who’s producing the news, has anyone in digital?” asked Cooke. “Google and Yahoo and the rest are basically engineering companies and they do that very well, but they don’t do news. The truth is our reporters do their news for them.”

At the same time, Google as a search engine is valuable in driving readers to a news organization’s website. The Star has in-house trainers to teach them about SEO, and the paper can now operate in ways that will “make Google love us,” said Cooke. (One example: phone Google’s public relations department every time they come out with a new Doodle and write an article about it.)

In addition, the panelists mentioned the CBC as a competitor – with a big difference. “They don’t have a profit imperative. Their websites are spectacular because it’s taxpayer money. I don’t see how that fulfills the CBC mandate,” said Cooke.

Stackhouse furthered Cooke’s notion of the public broadcaster fulfilling its mandate by saying the CBC should not be doing journalism in locations that the private sector is able to serve adequately – it should instead be working in under-served areas.

In regards to partnerships, the Star and the Globe have merged their home delivery operations, a move that will save millions of dollars, said Cooke. 

Digital age and reinventing

Despite newspapers’ competitors in digital media, an Ipsos-Reid survey commissioned by The CJF and released last week showed that generally, traditional media is still very strong. That said, the panelists made no secret that their respective digital presence was important.

“History tells us it’s just about close to impossible for an established institution or business to reinvent itself or go through an unnecessary paradigm shift,” Cooke said. “We do digital reporting. It’s old fashioned reporting in many ways, but we’re using digital tools.”

For Empey, she appeared to have a clear idea of who her audience was, and emphasized this throughout the night. The Metro is not a digital-first media company she said. But a digital focus in strategy has meant they relaunched their website and mobile apps this past spring, hired digital reporters, restructured their Toronto digital team, and created two new editor positions with “digital” in the job title. 

“The paper does not drive digital and digital does not drive the paper. The platforms work in partnership...to deliver stories that capitalize on each medium’s strength and enhance the reader’s experience,” she said.

Clancy said this strategy is also in place at Postmedia. “Our goal is to engage audiences on whatever platform they want,” he said. “Our last couple of years, our newsrooms transformed to reflect the digital work flow with considerable investment in new technologies.”

He cited new projects such as Chinese-language site, taiyangbao.ca — which uses translated Vancouver Sun content, bloggers, and a Chinese-language service — as an indicator of success in the digital field. “Eight months after the launch, its garnered 400,000 daily unique visitors, has a total of 13.5 million page views, and is already profitable.”

The launch of another site, VancouverDesi.com for the Lower Mainland’s Southeast- Asian population already has 200,000 unique visitors, and Clancy said the lessons learned from these sites will be shared across the network.

Monetizing the online experience

Stackhouse took the opportunity to explain more about the Globe and Mail paywall, which was implemented yesterday, and the decision behind it.

Globe journalists welcomed the paywall as something that will allow the organization to keep going forward, though columnists were afraid it’d mean they’d lose their audience, he said. Putting up a paywall doesn’t represent a “last stand” fight by newspapers, Stackhouse said, but rather a great opportunity for the industry.   

After considering an iPad app that The Globe realized consumers weren’t willing to pay for, the paper focused on its paywall, which was originally going to be for the Report on Business section only. A survey of devoted and casual readers found that there was a willingness pay for “great journalism and a great experience,” said Stackhouse. Then in the spring, the decision was made for an across-the-board paywall.

News organizations didn’t have a conference call and decide to put up pay walls said Cooke.  The two main reasons for the speed in which the sites are adopting this system is website metering technology and the downward pressure in CPMs (Cost per thousand impressions), he said.

Clancy was at the Star when newspapers started going digital. He argued with the head of the online unit at the time and said that it was stupid to give it away for free. “Fifteen years later, I think I was right.”

Print revenue

There seems to be more focus on digital - so what about the traditional, hard-copy newspaper?

“I’m pretty sure we won’t be able to turn off print and go to digital (only) any time soon,” said Cooke. “The truth is there is no business case – right now – for doing that…print remains vital.”

Cooke cited a couple of examples of the Toronto Star finding new ways to make money in print. First, readers can opt-in for a slim weekly version of the New York Times to be included with their Sunday home delivery, which generates millions of dollars a year for the Star. Second, the Star now charges for the TV listings insert that used to be included for free with its Saturday paper. With 250,000 households signing up for that insert, the Star also saved money by not having to print for the other home delivery subscribers.

Stackhouse also mentioned The Globe's custom content options for advertisers, which brings in a lot of money, though he did note there had been some debate on how to label the content in print. Advertisers may not want readers to be able to tell the difference between advertorial content and normal editorial content, Stackhouse said, but the paper needs to be more clear about it. 

Final word

Coming off the heels of the Margaret Wente plagiarism controversy, Stackhouse did not address the issue, and members of the audience did not bring it up during a Q&A portion.

 

The panelists were generally optimistic about the future of the newspaper industry, and imparted that optimism to upcoming journalists. 

“Twenty years ago there were...three daily newspapers in (Toronto), today there are eight — plus all the websites,” said Cooke. “It’s a great time to be a young reporter.”

 

 

Comments

Guess we have very different takes on the evening.

Mine's in my HuffPost column at http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/tim-knight 

Glad, at least, that Eric Mark Do finally mentioned Wentegate at the very end.

 

Tim Knight

Should have mentioned that my column is titled Watching the Watchdog:  The Elephant in the Newsroom.

Tim Knight

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