Northern newspapers are surviving — and some thriving — in the Internet Age
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.
By Herb Mathisen, for Up Here Business
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.
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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.[node:ad]
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. BecauseNunatsiaq 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.