Back to Basics for Community Newspapers

The Low Down sign

Note: This post is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Low Down to Hull and Back News, a successful community newspaper based in Wakefield, Quebec, a village about a half-hour’s drive from downtown Ottawa.

When I was a kid, back in the Paleolithic, I worked for a small newspaper in my family’s hometown of Midland, Ontario. I moved back there when I was 24 after spending a couple of years as a staff writer on two Toronto dailies and hating that city.

The newspaper was one of the best weeklies in the country, though it had been in decline since it was bought by the Thomson family about twenty years before. During the Great Depression, the former editor of the Star Weekly bought the newspaper from its bankrupt owner. This was a leap of faith. Herbert Cranston was using his severance money from the Toronto Star — where he had been a casualty in one of the Star‘s many internal struggles — to invest in a business that had failed, in a small community that was in receivership.

Let’s whip through the “times were really bad” stuff and just say the local shipyard wasn’t getting many orders for Great Lakes freighters after 1929. Still, Cranston made a go of his newspaper, selling small ads to the local merchants and putting out a “must-read” issue twice a week.

Within thirty years, Cranston was a wealthy man. His paper won national awards, the publisher was one of the people spearheading the history-based tourism industry – Midland is in “Huronia”, where the Jesuit missionary martyrs were killed in the terrible “beaver wars” of the 1600s – and he’d built his printing operation into a lucrative side business.

There was no Internet. There was no local competition. Cranston didn’t take advantage of the latter situation by skimping on his product. He was a proud man, financially invulnerable to any swipes taken at him by the odd merchant who didn’t agree with the paper’s coverage. None of his profits went to pay big debts for mergers and acquisitions of other papers. Cranston invested in his own paper and printing plant, using his own profits, not debt. This type of investment is very rare. The debt payments of companies like PostMedia are far more damaging than even the Internet. Cutting quality to squeeze money out of a business to pay creditors is a downward spiral to eventual irrelevance and bankruptcy.

For those of you who stuck through this description of an idyllic time and place in Canadian journalism, here’s the payoff. People like Herbert Cranston showed us how to make a paper that people need to buy. So, finally, the point: Canadian publishers have lost the recipe. A few owners, like the publishers of The Low Down, still understand how things work.

In 2009, when I was teaching journalism and media studies at Concordia, I did a TVO interview with Steve Paikin, Carleton University journalism school chair Chris Dornan, Toronto Star publisher John Honderich and Globe and Mail editor Ed Greenspon. The two Toronto news executives said newspapers had to go digital. I told them they were wrong.

This was before paywalls, when papers posted all their stories and let people read them for free, with the expectation that advertisers would pay for web page space, the way they’d bought ads in print newspapers. I asked how the Star and the Globe could give news away on web sites on Wednesday and expect people to pay for the same news in Thursday’s hard copy paper. I strongly suggested they were greedy, that they wanted online profits on top of what they were already making, that they were too focussed on cutting costs, that they didn’t believe in their own product. Honderich waved a Kindle around and said that’s where the Star would be read. (The Star’s online newspaper became a flop that helped accelerate the death of company. Greenspon was snuffed in an office purge and went on to be the point man for the media bailout lobby in Ottawa.)

I strongly suggested they invest in coverage. People didn’t stop buying newspapers in this century, with the advent of the Internet. Newspaper readers, as a percentage of the population, had been declining since the early 1980s, partly because of the dumbing-down of newspapers and of media in general. In fact, the rate of the decline in newspaper readership barely changed when the Internet became a thing. (People didn’t stop getting news, they just got it in different ways. We’re probably more immersed in alleged “news” than we ever were, but most of it is crap written to serve the people paying for it or creating it, rather than the readers. There’s way too much opinion (says the guy typing the opinion blog post) and not enough bodies out in the community talking to real people.

In the TVO session, I said something like: “Your web page should say ‘The Toronto Star is available at these fine stores…’ and that’s all. You can’t tell people journalism has no value, you can’t sell something today that you gave away yesterday.”

I also came down hard on “convergence,” the now-discredited idea that giant telecommunications companies should own print and electronic media, and have reporters filing to all of them. the idea was based on the idea that reporters did not do a full day’s work, and that filing, rather than research and writing, was the most important part of journalism. It was a recipe for dumbing-down created by people who had either failed as journalists or had never been in the trade.

I no longer teach journalism and media studies. But convergence is dead and my take was solid.

We’ve reached a point where it’s unlikely people will ever read metropolitan daily newspapers on paper again. After nearly two decades, people have lost the habit and, even if you do want a print paper, it’s almost impossible to find one. They’re way over-priced and ridiculously thin. Once it becomes conventional wisdom that a local paper has nothing in it, it’s just a mater of time before the paper bleeds to death.

I’m not a Luddite. I simply believe in newspapers, and that journalism, not ads, are the newspaper’s product. Make them must-reads.  Pay for good, intelligent journalism and the money will come in. Opinion podcasts won’t bring readers, just as video doesn’t. People want the “ah-ha!” experience of learning things, which strong journalism gives them.

The New York Times has succeeded with an online paper because it invested in journalism, rather than cutting. It saw journalism as its product, rather than an expense. This confirmed my belief that papers that are capitalized and run by people who believe in journalism and have the skills to deliver it can survive. Otherwise, it’s death by a thousand cuts. In Canada, only the Globe and Mail has shown resistance to the trend of dumbing-down and cutting, which is why I still write for the paper from time to time.

The recipe for a successful small-town paper is simple. I am calling it the Amish method. Pretend it’s 1975. Have reporters on the scenes of stories. Cover local sports and entertainment. Sell inexpensive classifieds. Run coming events columns. And don’t give it away. If you have a web page, just post a few teasers and community events, and a list of retailers selling the paper.

And, as important, don’t build massive media chains enslaved by high-interest mergers and acquisitions debts.

Chain newspapers are never part of the community. They simply can’t be. Publishers have to be out there in the community, along with reporters.

I’m sure many people will think I’m just an out-of-touch old fart who’s peddling a fantasy based on burnished memories of youth. But we have papers doing this right now. They’re selling well. They’re full of ads. They’re as important to their community as they ever were. The Low Down is one such paper.  The Picton Gazette, Canada’s oldest surviving weekly newspaper, is another. They report on high school sports and local councils. They don’t shy away from local issues. And they seem to be doing just fine. Both papers are in towns with a strong sense of community pride and identity. Whether is a result of a strong local media, or a prerequisite to one, isn’t clear to me, but I suspect they are intertwined.

There are some challenges with my Amish model. Small merchants are struggling in most communities as big-box chains scoop up the general merchandise and much of the grocery business. Neither Picton nor Wakefield have Walmarts or Costcos, but their main streets no longer sell much general merchandise. They do have independent grocers who buy ads. Real estate companies are another big group of advertisers in regional papers. Community publishers have to convince them to make print part of their ad strategy, with print ads steering people toward web pages (yes, that happens) and open houses.

I believe a back-to-basics low-overhead, high-quality newspaper can succeed just about everywhere. First, the owner has to have the capital to hit the ground running with a credible product. The news can’t just be advertorial. It must be run by people who see journalism as a vocation, not a job. Staff must be willing to get away from screens and see people face-to-face. They must report with skill and courage, and with an open mind. That’s how you get the best stories.

Can this be done online? I don’t think so. The online reading experience is different. And people get around paywalls by sharing PDFs of stories. I think it’s also larger to convince local advertisers to buy space in a medium that seems transient and insubstantial.

So Merry Christmas, Nikki and Trevor at The Low Down. Keep up the fight.