By Trevor Busch and Nikki Jamieson
In the not-too-distant past, it was almost a right of passage for many Canadians to stain fingertips with ink alongside their morning coffee while paging through their local newspaper.
But with readers now inundated by multiple platforms in which to access news, that stereotypical image of traditional print media is being excised as newspapers coast to coast move to serve readers in new and innovative ways.
It is no secret the industry has been struggling to meet the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Already hammered by declining advertising and the impacts of an industry in transition, newspapers still remain the go-to for many advertisers, especially in small communities that aren’t regularly served by broadcast or online media.
“Conventional wisdom buys into the theory that folks have shifted to tablets, smartphones and computers to get their news and favourite television shows, and this threatens the relevancy of print newspapers, local TV and radio stations,” said said Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association (AWNA) executive director Dennis Merrell. “To some extent that’s true, but the AWNA’s ‘Media Habits’ survey released in January 2020 shows that people still read their local newspapers to the same extent as they did back in 2005 – even people in the younger age demographic categories, such as millennials.”
Many local organizations, such as the Taber Irrigation District, recognize the value of local weekly newspaper to communities throughout the area, and how it helps the TID serve its customers and producers.
“Obviously we are a stakeholder,” said TID district manager Chris Gallagher. “We are affected by what happens to your paper, and that’s something that’s a concern to us, because we need the Taber Times to share what’s happening in our district and to make the entire population that receives your entire circulation aware of some of the issues that happen in TID that are water-related and affect water supply and security. We need to share that information, and we also need to learn what’s happening out there, and the Taber Times is a critical part of that.”
While subscriptions aren’t usually the main source of a newspaper’s revenue, Merrell believes it can often be the key to survival in some markets.
“We need to continue our efforts to demonstrate that community newspaper readership is still high and we can deliver results for advertisers. Newspapers on their own need to push the concept to their readers that spending $50 or $100 for a local subscription may make the difference between having and not having a local paper. Many local residents and businesses still buy into that and do support our members.”
Frank McTighe, editor, publisher and owner of the Fort Macleod Gazette, has about 40 years in the business. When businesses closed at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, McTighe says it was “pretty much business as usual”, and there was no issue filling the paper with news articles, despite the lack of events.
While it did initially cost the Gazette in terms of advertising, they quickly recovered and business has remained steady.
However, while they are currently averaging 16 pages per edition, McTighe says 10 years ago they were averaging 20-24 pages a week.
“Our decline was due to over the period of years, people putting their ads on social media, that is what cut into our profits.”
Advertising in a community weekly has value above and beyond what might be available from online or social media advertising, argues McTighe.
“People continue to read print newspapers. We have a subscriber base that pays to read our newspaper. They buy the subscriptions and they buy it at the stores and they understand that there is valuable information there. We are the only news organization that covers Fort Macleod on a full-time basis, so if you want to know about what’s going on here, this is the place to look. So I wish they will realize that, that this is the place to look, their ads will get read on the pages of the Macleod Gazette along with the news,” said McTighe. “It’s just like before there was anything like Facebook, or any kind of social media; we always encouraged people, depending on what they were advertising, to do it in multiple ways, and at that time it meant a print ad, maybe a poster if it was a coming event or something like that, to use radio or TV when they needed a larger audience. But you never get everybody when you put your ad in one place, you need to approach it from multiple angles, and print is still a very viable alternative. Our community papers — and I think papers generally — are well-read, so your ad is going to be noticed in there.”
Murray Valyear, owner and publisher of the Cardston Temple City Star, has been implementing some innovative approaches to maximize value for advertisers in 2020.
“I put forward a promotion where I cut the subscription prices basically in half for the year. And also, we did an initiative where I…rounded up some sponsors, like some of the major entities in the area like the town and the county and a few others, and they pledged sponsorship money towards subsidized ads for the business community, and we did a mass mailout, where we mailed out the entire community, instead of just subscribers. So we did that…two to three times, just to kind of give businesses a chance to communicate with the community and communicate their measures, their hours, all that stuff. That went well, too.”
Sometimes there appears to be almost an atmosphere of defeatism — both inside and outside the industry — about the relevance and importance of print media to small local communities, and this needs to stop, says Merrell. “We’re our own worst enemies, in the sense that often times newspapers publish articles about the demise of newspapers. This frequently happens in daily newspapers, not so much in community papers, but it hurts our credibility when it does happen. I don’t see our competitors in radio and television doing this as much, so we need to stop.”
Gallagher with the TID laid out simply and plainly the value he sees in local print media.
“Our stakeholders are in Taber, and we need the Taber Times to be able to share that information, and to make sure that our procedures are followed properly.”