Four top newspaper editors in Toronto talked about the challenges facing their newsrooms in a world where print economics are crumbling and digital is proving to be an economic scramble.
“I suspect the business end of journalism is consuming our panelists to an extent their predecessors could have never imagined,” said Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press and chair of the Oct. 18 panel entitled Gutenberg’s Last Stand: Reinventing the modern newspaper.
“Paywalls, video strategies, apps, custom content,” he listed as some of the challenges of the new age. Here is some of what the panel had to say.
John Stackhouse, the Globe and Mail
John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, used his remarks to speak about the Globe’s new metered paywall system (“Globe Unlimited”), which became operational on Oct. 22.
“I fear a lot of journalists are missing the point of digital subcsriptions. It’s not about saving journalism … this is a fantastic opportunity for all of us.”
Stackhouse said if the brainiacs at Google were speaking, they would say there’s no crisis in journalism. “There are more human beings who are hungrier for better information than ever before. … We just have to wake up and figure out how to take advantage of that enormous demand and monetize it.”
Digital subscriptions are an attempt to do just that, he said.
The Globe has had its experiments with paywalls – GlobeInvestor Gold, a premium subscription service for serious investors that has been around for about a decade.
It had a traditional paywall from 2004 to 2008, known as Globe Plus. A more recent model was Globe2Go, which provided access to a digital version of the newspaper.
Globe Unlimited will follow the lead of the New York Times in allowing 10 free stories accessed from the website before asking one to sign up (stories accessed by following links from social sites such as Twitter or from web searches won’t count).
Market research found that both casual and hardcore Globe readers were ready to pay for a digital subscription that married great journalism with a great experience, Stackhouse said.
From that, the decision was made this spring to sell a digital subscription for the entire paper, not just a niche area such as Report on Business, he said.
The price is about $20 per month. You get a free Globe Unlimited subscription if you are a five or six-day-per-week subscriber to the newspaper.
Stackhouse said the trend to digital subscriptions is a global one among newspapers, adding the technological wizardry behind the wall is tougher to pull off than the journalism itself.
Behind the wall, the Globe will offer some special business content and other offers to Globe Unlimited customers, he said.
The Globe Dashboard, which will allow people to build reading lists and track subjects important to them, is expected to be a key feature, Stackhouse said.
Journalistically, “we need to find different ways of telling stories,” he said, such as more video.
Globe journalists will have to be able to work with different departments such as marketers and technology. They will also have to adapt to a much different production schedule.
“We’re not a once-a-day in the market, and we need to be in the market when our readers want us to be in the market,” Stackhouse said.
The Globe has established an audience unit in the newsroom to help journalists understand what paying readers want and when, how they come to and move through the site, and so on, he said.
Stackhouse didn’t mention that the Globe asked 80 staffers to take unpaid 12-week furloughs this past summer to help the paper with a budget crunch. The topic didn’t come up in questioning.
Lou Clancy, Postmedia News
Clancy, the vice-president of editorial and editor-in-chief of Postmedia News, referred to it as something of a bionic man: “A man hit by a maelstrom of bad press and social media engineers, and put back together with (tablet) arms, mobile eyes, online legs, and retained the print torso. In today’s lexicon, he is platform agnostic. We just gotta figure out how to pay for him.”
He didn’t want to get into the industry’s troubles.
“Our goal is to engage the audience on whatever platform they want,” he said.
The workflow reflects digital realities. The company has consolidated the editing and pagination of non-local editorial content to allow newspapers to 1) focus on local news and 2) reduce legacy costs, Clancy said.
“Journalism, though, is not a legacy cost,” he said. “It is our past, present and future.”
Two examples of attempts at product innovation originated from Postmedia Labs, located at Sherbourne and Richmond — Gastropost, a foodie website based in Toronto and Capital Ideas, a small business site based in Edmonton.
Content from those sites filters up to the papers.
“Our hypothesis is that everyone has expertise in something. Our mission is to inspire these people to share this expertise, creating communities of interest. This expertise is validated by printing it in the newspaper, a win-win for us.”
Some learning points:
- Including peoples’ ideas in the newspaper provides personal validation
- Social media means reaching out to the audience
- Engaged audiences respond to deadlines
- Thinking like an entrepreneur means moving at an entrepreneur’s paces
A success in Vancouver has been the Vancouver Sun broadsheet publishing a paper of its articles translated into Chinese. The paper, Tai Yang Bao, also uses local bloggers and a Chinese news service. The tabloit newspaper the Province has launched Vancouver Desi, which is aimed at the huge South Asian community in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.
For background on some of Postmedia’s challenges, see this July 10 blog post: Postmedia talks of continued cost-cutting.
Charlotte Empey, Metro
Empey, editor-in-chief of Metro English Canada, said the news industry needs to think more about what could be.
She described the free-distribution Metro as a 10-newspaper chain with local editorial teams in each market. Almost 30 per cent of the content in any given issue is local. The other content is centrally sent out from headquarters in Toronto.
“Sometimes we’re content aggregators, but increasingly, we’re offering unique content created by Metro staff as well as exclusive content by Metro News.”
Metro operates in 20 countries. But the key to success is meeting the needs of audiences in each market while acknowledging the psychographic commonalities, she said.
This spring, the company worked on strengthening its digital presence. Along with a redesign of its website and apps, the digital team has added two editors.
“Metro is not a digital-first media company. Instead, we think our audience is looking for a seamless transition from the paper to mobile to online and back, depending on the time of day and what they’re interested in discovering.”
A print story can be a rich read, but an online story can be experiential, Empey said.
Metro meetings need to include discussions on online-only stories, paper-only stories, and stories that will run on all platforms. The paper does not drive digital, and digital does not drive the paper, she said.
The platforms work together to “deliver stories that capitalize on each medium’s strength and enhance the reader’s experience,” she said.
Empey said they envision a Metro reader starting a day at a desktop computer, reading the paper during their commute, and keeping in touch all day via mobile. During the commute home, readers will be looking for me-time news.
“We’re exploring what the content mix should be, and at what time of day.”
Social media matters to Metro readers (“Metro-politans”), so every Metro story page must be regarded as a front page, Empey said.
Personalization could be part of Metro’s future.
While Empey didn’t know how this vision will make money, “I do know that if Metro allows readers to easily get what they want, when they want it; if we offer unique and exclusive content; if we make Metro an indispensable part of their day, they will be back all day, every day. And my crackerjack president and sales team will figure out how to make money off that.”
Craig Saila, director of digital products for the Globe and Mail, had this observation in a tweet: “Metro also faces (or will soon) competitive threat from local news blogs & Foursquare – getting up to digital speed is critical.”
Michael Cooke, Toronto Star
Cooke, the editor-in-chief of Canada’s largest daily newspaper, said after 15 years, the newspaper’s website isn’t making enough money to cover the cost of the newsroom.
As such, he sees no business case at this time for a digital-only Toronto Star.
He talked a bit about the general reason for paywalls (he’s generally positive on metered paywalls), but didn’t say if the Star itself would be going down that road. Currently there are no restrictions on accessing TheStar.com.
Cooke did go down the historical road, noting that for generations, newspaper revenue would rise and fall with the local market’s economy.
“Up until about two cycles ago, something severed in our business, and when the economy came back, newspapers didn’t come back.”
Newspapers also got walloped by the 2008-09 financial crisis, along with the structural changes that have been occurring. As a result, newspapers have about 50 per cent less revenue than they did about a decade ago*, he said.
* Look at the graphic in this blog post by Jim Harris to see just how badly newspaper revenues have plunged.
When the economy recovers this time, “I don’t think we’re going to get the money back either, and it might get worse,” he said.
Cooke noted that for many businesses, a 50 per cent drop in revenue would be a death blow. In his view, the traditionally high operating-profit margins of newspapers have provided a cushion.
“We’re okay, but only because history’s been really good to us.”
Cooke said newspapers can look for new ways to either gain revenue or increase profitability. He gave three examples from the Star:
- an insertion of world news from the New York Times into the Sunday Star
- charging 50 cents for home delivery of the TV guide on Saturdays
- merging home delivery operations between the Star and Globe
A generation ago, there were three daily newspapers in Toronto, Cooke told the audience. “Today, there are eight.”
He said it’s never been a better time to be a young journalist.
Discussion et al
There was about 30 minutes of discussion. It starts just past the 44-minute mark of the event’s podcast, which can be accessed on this Podbean page. The audience had about 20 minutes to ask questions.
J-Source has its own full report on the evening.
Jim Poling, managing editor of the Hamilton Spectator, summarized the event this way:
It was an invigorating night. Panelists were thoughtful, discussed best practices and most of all we’re optimistic and that’s a powerful sentiment that should not be ignored.Too long the media industry, particularly newspapers, have failed to properly report on their own industry. They fail to point out that many of the papers that have collapsed or are ailing, particularly in the U.S. are collapsing under heaps of debt that has been bundled or accumulated with other interests. Newspapers on their own are good investments – they aren’t the cash cows they once we’re, but generally are decent money-makers.
It’s hardly seashells and balloons but I’m sensing we’ve crossed a threshhold here.
In his Huffington Post blog, Jim Harris had this conclusion:
Ultimately it has been the newspaper industry’s failure to adjust to market forces — the failure to change as swiftly as the public news consumption patterns. Newspapers have failed, so far, to acquire the skill sets required for print journalism in the 21st century. And the industry has failed to understand just how deep and profound these changes are.
You can’t have every possible viewpoint represented in one panel, but I thought that the panel would have benefited from some counter-opinion, someone who thinks newspapers are on the wrong strategic track.
Harris noted in his blog that according to the September Comscore report, the Canadian edition of the Huffington Post had surpassed the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail and National Post websites in unique visitors per month.
Why a digital-native brand that didn’t exist seven years ago, and one that didn’t have a specific Canadian presence until May 2011, leads Canadian newspapers on the Intertubes is a question worth at least some discussion.
The CJF commissioned Ipsos to see how Canadians get their news. Not surprisingly, TV evening newscasts still dominate, along with non-free newspapers.
See this blog post for details: Give Canadians that traditional news media.