A year of red ink for the newspaper business
Three of Toronto's english language daily newspapers sit in boxes on a street corner in downtown Toronto, Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1999. (Kevin Frayer / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Saturday, January 2, 2010 12:39PM PST
It has been a very, very tough year to be in the newspaper business.
Newspapers got squeezed by a lack of advertising dollars during the worst recession in recent memory, they cut hundreds of staff members and continued to fight paid-circulation declines that have been gradually snowballing for decades. In some cases, papers stopped publishing as frequently as they used to, and in other cases, they shut their doors for good.
The bleak spirit of 2009 can perhaps best be summed up by the CanMediaLayoffs page on Twitter, which provides frequent updates on what it terms "the changing media industry landscape in Canada." A more accurate description would have been the 'declining' media industry in general, particularly on the newspaper side of things.
Journalist Ian Harvey has seen these kinds of cuts repeatedly during his 32-year career.
Like the time he was downsized himself.
After more than 20 years working for the Toronto Sun, Harvey got laid off and he decided to make a change.
"I could see that I wasn't going to be able to get back into newspapers," Harvey explained to CTV.ca in a recent telephone interview from Toronto.
Now a full-time freelancer for a variety of publications, Harvey took the storytelling skills he had and applied them to other opportunities in the private sector that weren't exclusively newspaper-related.
But Harvey made his move nine years ago, when things weren't nearly as grim as they seem today.
To him, the newspapers suffer from a number of long-standing issues that aren't going away any time soon. They are built on an outdated business model, they cost too much to print and distribute, they are competing for a captive audience in a modern world and they are struggling to find the funds to pay for quality journalism.
Then there's the age-old problem of attracting readers, an issue that often provokes the same old methods of response.
When Fred Kuntz, the former editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star described changes to the format of the newspaper in May 2007, he spoke about how "we are certain we can do a better job of making every word count."
Readers wanted "an intelligent and attractive paper that is easy to read and navigate, while satisfying a wide variety of interests," he wrote in a May 2007 column that ran in the paper and on the Star website.
But these aren't new ideas. In fact they're the same kinds of solutions proposed by William Randolph Hearst when he was trying to get his newspaper editors to publish shorter stories for customers who were too busy to read lengthy copy in the early 20th century. Or when he made sure his papers had the best graphics, illustrations and layouts to draw in fresh eyes.
In short, newsrooms are "entrenched in the past and overly entrenched in the way they've always done things," as Harvey put it.
Others, however, say the problems in the newspaper industry go way beyond the way that papers make money and how they get people to pay for what they read.
In the first part of a recent series for rabble.ca, veteran journalist Nick Fillmore argues that today's papers are too corporate-minded, to the point where they are doing a disservice to their shrinking audiences.
The most recent figures available from the Canadian Newspaper Association website show that of 98 daily newspapers in Canada, all but four are owned by private companies.
The way Fillmore sees it, there is a need for smaller, independent media outlets to provide the public with "an alternative to corporate-owned media and their right-wing bias."
While there may be an opportunity for independents in a still-evolving economic landscape where newspapers are still arguing over whether they should charge for online access to content, it is unclear how, or if, alternative arrangements would work.
That seemed to be the real newspaper story in 2009 -- that no one knew exactly what to expect.
Layoffs and restructuring
Even before 2009 got rolling, there were big cuts in the newspaper business in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere.
In Canada, nearly every major media company had cuts at some point, some of which happened before the year got started.
- In November of last year, Canwest Global Communications Corp. cut some 560 jobs, or about five per cent of its workforce. And in December, Sun Media slashed 600 jobs in Western Canada, Ontario and Quebec, the equivalent of about 10 per cent of its workforce. The cuts at both companies were harbingers of the year to come.
- In January, the Globe and Mail said it was cutting 80 jobs -- or 10 per cent of its workforce -- so that it could trim costs at the paper.
- In the last week of February, Torstar Corp. announced it would cut 64 full-time positions its Hamilton Spectator, Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury newspapers.
- In March, Torstar Corp. laid off 60 employees at its printing plant in Vaughan, Ont., where the Toronto Star and other papers are printed. Star publisher John Cruickshank said the cuts was partially motivated by the decreasing size of the paper.
- Also in March, the New York Times cut 100 positions and planned to cut non-union salaries for the rest of 2009.
- In April, the Canadian Press announced that it would be cutting about eight per cent of its work force, the equivalent of some 25 positions.
- In early October, the CBC and the National Post announced a content sharing agreement for their respective websites -- as well as the opportunity to run CBC sports material in the Canwest-owned newspaper. And in late December, the two companies said they would team up for 2010 Olympic Games coverage.
- In late November, the Toronto Star said it would contract out newsroom production work and slash dozens of jobs to save an estimated $4 million per year.
- The same week, the venerable Washington Post would close down its remaining U.S. bureaus outside the Washington area.
Shut downs, close calls and question marks
In January, about 250 members of Le Journal de Montreal got locked out of their workplace. The staffers launched a website, RueFrontenac.com, which they have been updating on a regular basis. But they have still not returned to work.
The first major newspaper to be trampled in the Year of the Ox was Denver's Rocky Mountain News, which printed its last edition on Friday, Feb. 27, about two month's shy of the paper's 150th anniversary.
The paper had won four Pulitzer Prizes in the past decade and employed 230 editorial employees. It had a daily circulation of 210,000 and 457,000 on Sunday.
But the E.W. Scripps Co. had to shut it down because it was losing too much money.
About three weeks later, the Hearst Corp.-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped existing in print form. The last print edition of the 146-year-old paper came out on a Tuesday. It had been losing money for years.
When the Post-Intelligencer first went online, Managing Editor David McCumber expected that it would employ a newsroom of 20 people, as well as 20 people to sell advertisers. The paper had 181 employees.
At the start of May, the National Post announced that it would cease publishing its Monday print edition for the summer. The reason? To pare down its costs during "unprecedented economic conditions," president Paul Godfrey said in a note to readers.
In September, Montreal's La Presse newspaper threatened to close its operations on Dec. 1 if management and staff could not reach an agreement on cutting
costs. The 125-year-old paper announced Nov. 26 that it had reached an agreement with the last of its eight unions.
At the end of October, Canwest Global Communications warned that it could be forced to close the National Post if a court did not allow to shift the newspaper's operations into a different holding company.
In the end the paper didn't fold, but court documents revealed it had lost $62.4 million over the past four years and owed $139.1 million to its holding company, Canwest Media.
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press