Why do foreign news outlets see opportunity in a land where Canadian publishers seem on the brink of imminent collapse?

By Phillip Smith

It’s a question that many people working in Canada’s media ecosystem must be asking this month: Are foreign publishers simply naive? How can they see an opportunity in a country where the entire news sector appears to be downsizing rapidly? Or is the very opportunity they see to step in just as the existing institutions collapse — potentially winning over an affluent, English-speaking audience, while keeping foreign news production costs relatively low?

In case you missed the memo: The BBC recently announced investments to expand their market in Canada. The Beeb will be opening an editorial office in Toronto, and plans to launch a a Canadian version of BBC.com.

Closer to home, the New York Times is also looking north to Canada as part of its new “NYT Global” expansion into foreign markets. According to one NYTimes staffer, Canada is the Times’ “second largest market” globally, and — given Canada’s proximity to the US — one would think it is a market that is more easily served than those further abroad. (Side note: NYT Global has a few great-looking jobs posted here.)

As part of that $50 million investment, the Times recently sent a team to Canada to investigate how the Times could best serve Canadians, and it made me wonder: when was the last time a Canadian publisher sent a team on the road across the country to conduct spontaneous street interviews, in-home meetings with subscribers, and focus groups about the news that Canadians want. (If you know the answer to that question, please drop me a note below or on Twitter.)

Admittedly, other countries have been trying to cut Canadian grass for a while, as is evident from the ongoing fiasco involving Postmedia and US hedge funds. And many Canadians already turn to the BBC, NYTimes, and Guardian for their perspective on global issues. However, these investments come at an interesting time in the history of Canada’s media landscape, no?

I predict (perhaps obviously) that it won’t be long before other international news brands enter the Canadian market: just look to the Guardian’s recent week-long coverage of Canada in it’s Guardian Cities section. An excellent way to test the waters, one would think, because Canadians supposedly love to read about Canada. It’s only a matter of time before Australia gets in on the game (I’m looking at you, Ian Gill) — you heard it here first.

So here are the questions on my mind:

  • Is the national news-reading audience in Canada only viable as a secondary market to larger markets? Is it simply too small and segmented to support anything else?
  • If these other publishers can look to Canada as an opportunity, why can’t Canadian publishers look outside of Canada, like the path that Vice has taken recently for example?
  • Is there anything to worry about here? If the media organizations that can survive serving a Canadian audience are headquartered elsewhere, what are the implications?

These questions about the Canadian audience — the challenges and opportunities of serving an audience of this size, and being successful as a publisher — are going to be at the centre of the Connect Toronto event this September.

To get fresh perspectives, we’ve asked people spearheading NYT Global to come and share their learnings, and we’ll be reaching out to the BBC and Guardian in the coming weeks.

Connect Toronto, September 23 & 24 at the Centre for Social Innovation, is shaping up to be a landmark conversation about the future of Canada’s media ecosystem. Don’t miss it.

This story was originally published on Medium and is republished here with the author’s permission.

Phillip Smith is a battle-scarred veteran from the frontlines of digital publishing where, for more than two decades, he has provided unsolicited advice to innovative publishers around the globe. Phillip currently splits his time between leading a small technology team at the award-winning online news site, The Tyee, and producing an international series of media entrepreneurship events in partnership with Google News Lab.