Life after journalism, Part 83: A publisher’s guide on how to save papers

Layoffs? Bad idea, says Fred.

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’?”

Today's Whig.

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.

Ice storm!

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.

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10 responses to “Life after journalism, Part 83: A publisher’s guide on how to save papers

  1. Fred and Steve,

    Thank you so much for this, reminds why I got into the newspaper game and why I was happy to leave.

    Stay well.

  2. Fred Laflamme

    Neate,
    Sort of like boating for some of us – the 2 happiest days of my life? The day I bought my boat, and the day I sold my boat!
    Thanks for reading.
    F.

  3. Steve and Fred;
    Thanks for the good read and great insight. Too bad the peeps that should see this probably won’t.
    Kerry.

  4. I, too, am a Fred fan.
    But I’m going to totally disagree with you on one thing. There were lots of times in my 10 years at The Whig that the paper did indeed “Out Globe The Globe” or “Out Star The Star.”
    Just because a story is in a national newspaper doesn’t mean it’s a better researched, or well-written story. It’s a bias that happens at the National Newspaper Awards every year. There’s stuff that gets nominated because of the paper it’s in, not because of the story itself.
    And there there are all these moments that the Whig “Out Globed the Globe” in my 10 years there.
    1) Sharon Reynolds: Little Girl Lost. The paper did justice to that little girl;
    2) John Gallienne
    3) The Canal Deaths (My husband, Paul Schliesmann)
    4) Tracy’s Journey
    And the list goes on …
    The Whig has constantly been strangely blessed with reporters who care – and dare I say care too much
    Sarah

  5. I agree with some of Sarah’s points. But I’m not sure about stories being nominated just because of the paper – I’d like to see some examples of some weak nominees before making that call…

  6. Steve,
    I’m not going to out colleagues in the newspaper world, but I could give you many. Go look at some short features in the NNA’s history. If it had been in The Whig, no shot. A bigger paper – an award. The entertainment category is also an easy-go to one. Are you telling me the only award-worthy stories EVERY YEAR come out of the Globe, Star and LaPresse? It’s a shocker when a smaller paper gets one – this year, I think it was the Telegraph Journal.

    • I think it goes both ways. If I had written my crash story for the Globe, I don’t think I’d have won. There’s a small-paper premium that the Whig, and a few other papers, has certainly enjoyed. They earned it, for sure, but there is a certain cachet when a smaller paper is up against the biggies.

  7. Fred Laflamme

    My point about Out-Globing the G&M was not that the Whig couldn’t or shouldn’t do a better research, writing and editing job than a national newspaper but rather that the Whig should cover the local scene better than anyone else. Sarah’s examples above are great examples of stellar coverage by the Whig but they are all local stories – that’s what the Whig should do and if an award or two are won in the process, that’s a bonus. What the Whig should NOT be doing is covering the Mayoralty race in Toronto (unless Jack Chiang is a nominee) or spending a lot of time on the latest sex abuse case in Moosejaw (again unless there is a local connection). Leave National CP stories/columns etc in a subordinate position and celebrate everything local. The Whig and other “community” newspapers of the genre should cover the local scene to the “nines”. If they do, they’ll be read because community residents can’t get that stuff anywhere else – not from radio, (apologies to Sarah) not from weeklies, not from 18 minutes of 6PM and 11PM TV news, not from the G&M or the National Post, not from the Star, not from FB or Twitter etc. not from anywhere else. Print it in the local daily and they will read. And BTW there was never any excuse not to do so which is why the Whig won so many major awards for local and enterprise stories – The Whig’s newsroom with 30 or so employees easily had more journalists covering the local waterfront than ALL the other news media in Kingston COMBINED. And therein lies the problem today – those people have all pretty much been jettisoned leaving no one to research, interpret, edit and write the important stories. And who has replaced them? A bunch of folks in Toronto/Ottawa/Montreal news bureaus filling the paper with a lot of the same stuff you can find in a dozen other dailies. So i repeat, why read the Whig or the Belleville Intelligencer when there is nothing unique in them – when i can find a lot of the same stuff elsewhere? Instead, tell me how i can improve my daily life (by whatever means) by knowing everything i need to know about Kingston and area. I’ll find the national and international stuff elsewhere and easily.

  8. Agree with Fred. Often I’ll end up in a “local market” to work on a story for the national section. The reporters will snicker about how they kicked the Globe’s ass – I always did too (kick their ass, and snicker) – but of COURSE they should. They live there – they have sources. And your market has different expectations of you that mine does – the guy in Chilliwack doesn’t need to read the same thinsg as the guy that lived across the street from the crime scene. And we often don’t need the deep follow up – the first hit is often what we are there for – and that’s the niche local newspapers fill so beautifully.
    When local papers are good – and in Peterborough I worked with one of the best local editors EVER and in Kingston one of the overall best editors EVER -the focus is on local news and the rest of the file can fall into place somewhere way back. The further the better.

  9. Oh Fred. You are second to none. You have such valuable insight into the newspaper industry and I agree with it all. Like Kerry said, it’s really too bad that the people who should read this, won’t.

    I hate seeing what is happening to the Whig and can only hope that the tides will shift and it will once again become a product to be proud of. And that’s not to say the reporters shouldn’t be proud of the work they are doing. The reporting is still great, but they don’t have the freedom or the resources that they should have.

    I’m glad you are enjoying retirement Fred. You more than deserve it!

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