When I started working at the Kingston Whig-Standard, I met a different kind of publisher than I had been used to. Fred was hands on without being intrusive, cared about what was going on in the newsroom and knew everyone’s name (click here to learn more about his background).
Some of my favourite moments at The Whig were just sitting in his office and talking about news. He didn’t play the game the way other publishers do – if he was going to insist on a story, he just told you why. And it rarely happened. And, they were good stories.
He left shortly before I did. Then the new publisher, under directions of the new owner, proceeded to gut the joint.
Here’s what he thinks about the industry now that he is retired, and what he thinks has to happen for things to be fixed.
You’ve been retired for a few years now, and the media landscape has completely changed. Quebecor owns the Whig, Canwest went bankrupt. What the hell happened?
You’re right about the media landscape at least as far as ownership is concerned. It almost seems as though some sort of cyclical consolidation is hardwired into the industry and come hell or high water that’s what occurs every few years. This time around the catalyst might have been a little different as newspapers everywhere were getting pummeled by a series of “perfect storms.”
At the heart of it though I think a certain level of stakeholder greed came into play at precisely the same time that classifieds began their migration away to the Internet and to other “freer” media forms. Newspapers not only were not prepared for this migration but they didn’t succeed to turn it to their advantage. The results were fewer classifieds which led to lower ad revenues, compounded by fewer readers because the daily classified content was no longer sufficient to attract those readers; especially single copy readers.
That in turn drove circulation revenues down as well. (I wouldn’t be surprised if many community newspapers PAID circulation is down 15 or 20% from 2006).
We used to call classified ads “paid editorial” at the Whig; that’s how much we coveted them and tried to nurture them. The classified section was reliably a bellwether predictor of a newspaper’s health. The perfectness of the storm was further enhanced by the 2008 – 2009 “recession” which absolutely clobbered national advertising putting still more pressure on the all important top line of a newspaper’s staying power – ad revenues.
Couple this with stakeholders’ demand for 30%+ profit margins and you quickly see the need to cut expenses and cut them deep and usually permanently. The problem of course is that this is a bit of a mugs’ game as there is inevitably a finiteness to expense cutting. And if you really believe that a newspaper’s most valued asset is its people, why would you jettison them (especially the great ones) to the detriment of the product.
All companies have a certain level of inertia which results in deadwood and redundancies which have to be dealt with but when you cut beyond that you inevitably take something away from the reader and give her a reason not to buy you any longer.
Toss in locked front doors barring visitors, and reader sales departments, classified departments with no local connection or involvement, publishers who aren’t publishers in the traditional sense and remain anonymous within the community, coupled with a fixation on monthly and quarterly reports while eschewing relevant local reporting, commentary and opinion in favor of centralized bureau output and you have all the makings of disenfranchised readers.
The problem is amplified in smaller markets like Kingston and Peterborough etc where readers ARE advertisers and an all too familiar refrain is “what’s happened at the ‘Daily’?”
You ran a smaller paper that punched above its weight – what do publishers need to do to make their papers relevant today?
You’re right about the Whig, Steve. It did a far better job than its size would suggest. The answer to a return to relevance is fairly straightforward and i have touched on it above.
No small community paper will ever “Out-Globe” the G&M or Out-Star the Toronto Star. They don’t have the resources and nor should they try. But they should easily be able to be the absolute most complete, authoritative, reliable and trusted source of news, commentary, opinion and Forum provider of any media outlet at the local level. That is what readers expect and want and failure to provide this simply dilutes the brand and makes it irrelevant, unwanted and unneeded. The fix is, involved local publishers, enough reporters to cover the waterfront, a healthy vibrant op ed. page, lots of local letters, exhaustive coverage of local sports, politics, community/civic events etc.
It’s an absolute truism that the newspaper that is civic minded and leads by example will generate higher readership and fatter circulation numbers. The newspaper should not only provide a forum within its pages but should mimic that concept within its bricks and mortar and make the offices a welcoming place for readers and advertisers.
Obviously care has to be taken to develop the Internet side of the business to complement the “hard copy” but since less than 2 per cent and in most cases less than 1 per cent of a newspaper’s current revenues come from internet based products, where would you put your emphasis for the next while?
Do publishers belong in the newsroom?
To the extent that publishers should determine the overall strategic direction of the paper including general editorial direction, and then hire the best damn editor (someone like Christina Spencer) and get the hell out of the way and let her do the job. Obviously publishers should see the editorial pages, the front page, etc before they goes to press. A smart editor would insist on this too – an embarrassed publisher is not a good thing. A strong editor and a strong publisher on the other hand with high mutual respect, make for a dynamic combination.
What was your favourite newspaper memory?
My favourite newspaper memory was January 8, 1998 the day the ice storm whacked eastern Ontario. The Whig, whose enviable record as Canada’s oldest continuously published daily newspaper was at stake, not only kept it but served the community unlike many other newspapers many times larger.
We proved our relevance (my favourite word in describing a media outlet) and our resilience and not only published on time but helped get a competitive newspaper out to its readers (Brockville). Management and staff, union and non union all pulled together in a manner that was a true sight to behold. Maybe what newspapers need today in order to become relevant to their local communities and to prove they care is another ice storm.
So you’re slumming it in PEI – how is that going? Do you want to kick everyone in the ass to get them moving?
PEI is a great place to spend the summer – we bought land which we have not built on yet (next summer’s project) but in preparation are doing a “training wheels” thing this summer; renovating an old family summer cottage.
There are days when things move a little slowly here and we have to contend with rush-minute traffic congestion but the province has come up with a novel solution to resolve this issue at Charlottetown’s most notorious intersections – roundabouts or traffic circles as they used to be known in Upper Canada back in the day have been re-introduced and lo and behold, damned if they don’t work.
Guess it’s true that some of those old tried, true but often discarded ideas still do have merit within a new paradigm. Maybe newspapers could borrow a page from that thinking.