Tough Times for Print Media

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NewspapersIt’s not like the halcyon days when I first started writing for newspapers, back in late 1969. Today, print media is struggling to survive in a world dominated by digital media and mega-corps owners (although not so hard it can’t pay its CEOs and executives several million dollars while they slash real jobs).*

Print media has long been losing its advertising share, a trend exacerbated by the internet. Newspapers now have about 11% share, compared to about 35% for the internet, according to a Globe and Mail story. A Pew Research study in 2015 showed newspaper advertising in the USA dropped 4% in 2014.

But for Postmedia the picture has been consistently bleaker: a drop of 17.6% in advertising in three months of 2015 alone – and advertising represents 57% of the company’s income. Plus it lost $3.2 million in circulation revenue (excluding the Sun papers). Even its digital revenue (excluding the Sun) dropped by $5.9 million in that quarter.

This year has been a particularly tough one for Canadian media: in January Postmedia announced 90 job cuts and the merger of several, previously competitive newsrooms. But no cuts were made to CEO Paul Godfrey’s $1.4 million salary plus bonus package, of course. No share-the-pain momentum in the upper echelons. As the CBC reported:

Postmedia’s finances have been sagging for several quarters under a large debt load, much of which was accrued when the company bought the entire Sun chain of newspapers from Quebecor in late 2014 for $316 million.
That move consolidated most of the English-language newspapers in Canada under the Postmedia banner, with the notable exception of the Toronto Star and the Globe And Mail.

And the pain wasn’t over yet. As the CBC story continued:

A big problem for the chain, Waddell noted, is that Postmedia paid for the Sun Media purchase with debt loaned by U.S. backers. Those debts must now be repaid at a time when the Canadian dollar is worth much less, which means it costs more money to repay at a time when the chain has less cash overall.
“This is an organization that is losing money and losing a lot of money,” Waddell said.

Even though I despise Postmedia’s misplaced affection for the uber-right and its kowtowing to its American hedge fund owners, it’s a sorry day for Canadian media when any paper closes, when any journalist gets laid off. And that’s been happening a lot of late.

In January, with as much fanfare as one can have at a funeral, the Guelph Mercury – a Metroland paper – closed its doors after 150 years. Or rather, had its doors closed by its parent company.

That same month, TorStar closed its printing plant in Vaughan where it had printed the paper for the past 25 years, cutting almost 300 jobs.

In June, Postmedia closed the printing presses at the London Free Press and outsourced the work to its competitor, Metroland, cutting 139 jobs in the process.

In August, TorStar announced it was cutting 50 jobs, mostly “…from its newsroom and tablet edition, amid increasing pressure from declining print advertising revenue” according to a CBC story. That was followed by an additional 26 employees. TorStar’s operating revenue has been falling for several years in a row, its annual report shows and its subsidiary, Metroland saw losses as well (revenues down $37.1 million, see p. 5 and 19, with an operating loss of more than $250 million in 2015, p. 20).

A popular Postmedia Vancouver paper, 24 Hours, laid off all its staff of eight, including its three reporters, in September. The paper was repurposed to merely regurgitate content from other Postmedia papers.

Also in September, the Globe & Mail asked that 40 of its 650 employees take voluntary severance packages, the third time in as many years that the newspaper has tried to slash its payroll. Sixty employees took the first offer in 2013, one site reported.

In September, Rogers Media stopped printing four of its magazines and moving them to digital-only platforms. The company also reduced the number of editions of others, noting that print advertising revenue had dropped 30 per cent in the past year. Number of jobs last was not reported.

And then earlier this month, PostMedia announced it was cutting its salaries by 20%, and layoffs loomed if enough employees didn’t voluntarily resign. Postmedia had 4,733 employees at the end of August, 2015, according to CTV News, but was down to around 4,000 about a year later.

Postmedia has been bleeding money for a long time, with a net loss of more $350 million in the last financial year, and more than $99 million in the last quarter. According to the Globe and Mail:

Postmedia’s full-time-equivalent staff headcount has been falling for more than a half decade – from 5,400 in 2010 to 2,500 last year. Its deal last April to purchase Sun Media’s English-language newspapers and digital properties from Quebecor Inc. added 2,300 staff, bringing the total to roughly 4,800. But that number is now closer to 4,000, according to the company.

Again, no word whether its CEO would share the pain and take cuts to his own salary. Cuts only affect the people who do the actual work. Godfrey did mutter in true bafflegab form, “We must accelerate the transformation of our business operations to align our cost structure with our revenue outlook.” In other words: everyone is expendable but me.

In Quebec this year, a group of 146 newspapers banded together to ask the provincial government for financial support, citing declining ad revenues as the reason for their distress.

Metroland – a printing company whose smaller papers are generally known more as a flyer wrappers than sources of great journalism – went though a series of more than 100 staff ‘departures’ (their VDP or Voluntary Departure Program) in 2015 (previously, in 2009, 30 jobs were cut at the Hamilton Spectator, 21 at the Waterloo Record and 13 at the Guelph Mercury), but it didn’t stop the bleeding. Metroland West then announced more cutbacks last spring, asking for 25 more voluntary resignations.

Marsha Lederman, writing about the losses to Canadian media in the Globe and Mail, opined,

The impact on news coverage is bad for everyone. So next time you go on Facebook to bemoan the lamestream media, or cheer for the demise of that columnist you always disagreed with, or rant about newspapers having the audacity to charge for their content, I urge you: Be careful what you wish for.

Author Ian Gill, former Vancouver Sun and CBC Television reporter told CBC:

“News poverty, as it’s now called in Canada, has reached critical levels. And if you do not have people paying attention and making sense of complex issues, it’s actually really bad for democracy.”

Lederman adds that without the real media to generate the real news, to do the investigative reporting, all we would have are opinions and rumour. Uninformed rants and invective-laced polemics written by pissant ideologues, the illiterati and corporate or party shills:

…consistent coverage of an issue can lead to meaningful change.
Imagine if we lost that.
Oh, but we have bloggers now, I’ve heard people say. We don’t need to be fed our information by the mainstream media… (but) they have taken the work that I was paid by my employer to conduct and either riffed on it or pretty much cut-and-pasted it verbatim.
So if the day comes when media organizations are no longer paying journalists to dig up these stories, what will these sites do for material?

In the maelstrom of social media, journalism is just more flotsam where the know-it-alls have instant opinions on everything and everybody, and don’t need to be informed about the facts to comment on or criticize them. Losing a paper won’t change that. Like Donald Trump, people will make stuff up when the mood strikes them. They don’t need factual reporting to share. But it will hurt our ability to know what’s happening in our local government, and thus hurt our ability to comment on and participate in the process.

Little wonder that a trend emerged on many media sites this year to shut down commentary on topical stories. Too much trolling, too many arrogant, ill-thought-out, racist commentary often followed hot topics. Free speech deteriorated into angry, shouting matches. How we long for the civilized process of writing a thoughtful letter to the newspaper editor.

Regardless of ownership, a good, balanced media is essential for a democracy. Even for local democracy: we need good, local media. Anyone remember the Midland Free Press? Closed by Quebecor in 2013 after 117 years of publication. A great loss to the community. It could easily happen here, too, if Postmedia keeps bleeding money (the EB is a Postmedia paper).

We all have a stake in maintaining good media – which means good standards of journalism and editing. But do we have an equal stake in it when it is bad? I argue yes, but sadly, with outside ownership of most community papers now, we have little say in their content outside advertising. **

“Our society needs journalists,” said Mount Royal University journalism professor Sean Holman in a recent interview on CBC. Yet as Ian Gill noted

Newspapers in this country, for the most part, are incredibly hollowed out by comparison to what they used to provide… We’ve lost our audience, and we’ve lost about 10,000 journalists in this country in the last decade or so — that’s a lot of boots on the ground that aren’t there anymore.

When I started work at the Enterprise Bulletin in 1991, there were already seven other people in the newsroom. Plus people to print, to do layout, sell ads, manage circulation. We ran two issues a week, with a section for the Huronia Sunday regional paper. There is now one reporter/editor there to do the writing, layout and manage all the online content for a diminished once-a-week paper printed out of town. And by my standards, the result isn’t very good (a small tip of the hat to the former editor, Ian Adams, who managed the one-person circus much better).

Are dwindling ad revenues solely to blame? No. Print media has been particularly subject to plagiarism online, which dilutes its value (and web surfers have proven reluctant to pay for digital content). Lederman points out that good journalism is the result of effort, hard work, long hours and dedication, all of which have to be paid for:

Without good reporting, Rob Ford might still be considered some kind of hero and brother Doug Ford could be Toronto’s mayor; Jian Ghomeshi could still be hosting Q (not q); Bev Oda might at this very moment be sipping overpriced, taxpayer-funded orange juice.
Ask the thousands of Syrian refugees starting new lives in such countries as Canada about the power of photojournalism. Ask the victims of Canada’s thalidomide tragedy about the power of tenacious, compassionate reporting – and the value of an editor who allows the time for journalists to conduct it.
Because these stories don’t unfold in a day or even a week. Reporters may spend months working on a story before you ever read a single word about it.

But corporate ideologies have taken their toll, too, by alienating readers, polarizing content and ideologies like those that have made such an international laughingstock of Fox media. Sun’s TV “news” network failed to get enough subscribers to keep it alive, even in Alberta, the conservative backbone of the nation.

Both Postmedia and its predecessor Quebecor shouldered the same rabidly pro-right, pro-white, anti-liberal editorial attitudes as Fox and Sun. Their widespread ownership of newspapers didn’t allow much in the way of independent thought or reporting among the print media. That leaves only a small group of credible print media for us to turn to, like the Globe & Mail and Toronto Star, neither of which offer any local coverage.

Is there a future for print media? Perhaps not under the current business models or corporate monopolies. I can’t see the revenue losses rebounding back to profits any time soon. Unless the hackers destroy the internet (which is a real possibility, by the way), the trend to digital and away from print will only accelerate. And the bleeding in the media will continue while it does.

~~~~~
* Other media are hurting, too, but this month the CRTC told TV stations to suck it up:

TV stations have a responsibility to produce local news, even if it hurts their bottom line, the head of the country’s broadcast regulator told a Commons committee Thursday.
Financial profits aren’t everything, said Jean Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. He lamented the “disturbing number of television stations” that have cut staff, centralized operations and reduced the length of their newscasts… In June, the CRTC announced changes to the way broadcasters can pay for local TV news and required licence holders in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary to produce at least 14 hours a week of local news content — and to keep all of their stations running.

Around the same time as Postmedia was airing its woes last winter, Rogers Media announced it was cutting 200 jobs across the country. And Bell announced it was cutting 380 jobs in its media holdings. The bleeding continues… print media isn’t the only one succumbing to the wounds.

** While I am sometimes critical of the content and coverage in local papers, it is because I care deeply about having good, local journalism with high standards and dedicated reporters. Having done the job, I am at least somewhat cognizant of the demands and pressures. I think it can be – and we deserve it to be – better.

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