By Nick Fillmore
News outlets in Canadian communities are falling like bowling pins.
At least 171 media organizations in 138 communities closed between 2008 and this January, according to the Local News Research Project, a project led by Ryerson School of Journalism. By comparison, only 51 new outlets opened.
The loss of media is so severe that a special report submitted to the House of Commons Heritage Committee was entitled: “Local news poverty in Canadian Communities.”
“Local news poverty, we argue,” is greatest in communities where residents have limited or no access to timely, verified news about local politics, education, health, economic and other key topics they need to navigate daily life, ” project co-ordinator April Lindgren writes in Policy Options.
Small communities such as Markdale, Ont. and Canmore, Alta. lost their local papers while cities Guelph, Ont. and Nanaimo, BC were among the largest centres to be hit.
Newspapers have been crucial for the development of Canada for more than three centuries. But ‘free’ news from for-profit papers is coming to an end.
Daily papers are failing because millions of dollars of advertising they used to have has either moved to the internet or has just disappeared. Because an ad that brings in $1,000 in a paper sells for about $100 on the internet, the newspaper corporations are so far unable to make a go of it in a digital world.
Corporate-owned news organizations around the world are trying to find a formula that will allow them to be profitable. However, they have made little progress in the dozen years since internet-based companies started stealing their ads and readers.
Hundreds of Canadian communities are now poorly served when it comes to local news by underfunded and under-staffed internet news sites, give-away newspapers and even bloggers.
Nonprofit media can be the solution
However, Canadian communities still should be able to have reliable newspapers. They need to explore creating community-controlled not-for-profit papers.
Nonprofit newspapers have financial advantages over for-profit papers. A commercial paper is expected to churn out at least 15 per cent profits or investors will take their money elsewhere. Business executives at corporations command salaries into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The manager of a nonprofit might earn $90,000. Ad sales staff at daily papers earn a large salary; not so at a nonprofit. A for-profit paper pays taxes. A nonprofit pays few taxes and can engage in fundraising activities.
Other factors: The internet is the future for many news organizations, but many people prefer to hold a newspaper in their hands. A printed publication tends to have more authority than an internet site. And, finally, advertisers like to see their ads in print.
There are no nonprofit daily newspapers in Canada, but hundreds of public interest organizations operate on a nonprofit basis.
The U.K. Guardian is the most prominent not-for-profit newspaper in the world. Last year, the award-winning but financially-strapped Philadelphia Inquirer switched to the not-for-profit model. Both organizations have large endowments.
I believe not-for-profit newspapers are highly desirable if a group can develop a break-even budget. I believe this is possible in Canada.
Set up a research group
If folks feel there’s a need for a newspaper in their community the first step would be to bring together 15 or 20 people who represent a cross-section of citizens. The group could conduct a survey to determine whether people in the community support the idea.
An important early task would be to have experts help you develop a project model to see if the concept is financially viable.
Warning: Don’t focus too much on journalistic content in the early stages. Instead, the most important thing to determine is whether the model you develop is financially viable.
Think about how groups and businesses in the community might contribute. Reach out to local journalists and media outlets to see if they would like to become involved in the project.
My recommendation is that groups create a nonprofit corporation. This way any surplus at the end of the year would go back into the project. A lawyer can create a nonprofit organization for about $700.
An important decision: One of the biggest questions concerns is how to distribute the paper. Traditional door-to-door delivery could be costly but, if the project can afford it, this is the best way to go.
However, groups could use a much cheaper distribution system. What I call the “mini-paper” would have small pages – 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches – just about the same size as Maclean’s magazine – distributed to subscribers by e-mail.
Subscribers would print out the paper in the morning. The group would provide a simple binding system that readers would use to hold the pages. It might be best to limit the size of any one edition to 24 pages or less.
The huge advantage of the mini-paper is that it would not require newsprint and there would be no distribution expenses.
In case subscribers prefer to access the information on-line, all of the articles and other information published in the mini-paper would be posted behind a paywall on a website.
The big question for any group is figuring out where the money is going to come from.
I think it should be possible to run a nonprofit paper with about one-third of the revenue coming from advertising, one-third from subscribers and sustained donors, and one-third from fundraising.
Many sources of funding
Note: I have considerable experience as a fundraiser and I would be pleased to provide fundraising advice to any group free of charge. Here’s a summary of funding possibilities:
- Sustaining memberships where strong supporters pay an annual amount,
- As is the case with any newspaper, subscriber fees would be charged,
- Revenue from community advertisers would be an important source of funds,
- For organizations that know how to utilize it effectively, the Internet has a huge potential for fundraising,
- An investigative journalism fund,
- A fundraising committee could carry out a number of activities to raise money, including silent auctions, evening panel discussions, and hold breakfasts with guest speakers,
- Support from “A Guardian Angel”: Perhaps your community has one or more individuals who have amassed a lot of money. Shown a viable business plan, this person might be willing to provide a fairly substantial amount of funding to help cover costs over, say, a two-year period,
- Government support: With the pending collapse of for-profit journalism, we need to educate governments that public money needs to be made available to help support nonprofit media projects. A group should make presentations to municipal governments and the appropriate provincial government departments.
My strong advice to a group is to not launch a new paper until you have lined up funding for at least your first full year.
I know a number of Canadian nonprofit experts and journalists who would be pleased to help develop a project. Several knowledgeable U.S. organizations, such as Institute for Nonprofit News and the Poynter institute would provide advice.
The creation of even one sustainable, independent newspaper project anywhere in Canada would be a huge, unprecedented accomplishment. It could be the forerunner of other papers that would once again provide our communities with a reliable source of news and information.
Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist who specializes in writing about media issues. He was co-publisher of The 4th Estate, a highly-successful alternative newspaper in Nova Scotia. Nick was a CBC journalist and producer for more than 25 years, and is a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists. E-mail: email@example.com