How’s the newspaper business doing? :( Depends on who you ask :)

During a Facebook exchange the other day, my nephew Andy made the following observation:

“It’s funny, a lot of times lately when I hear about the Internet killing print journalism, you pop into my head.  You (or at least people you know) must be feeling the impact in some way.”

Damn straight my boy. The Ottawa Citizen, this city’s paper-of-record, is a shadow of its former self, has dropped dozens of editorial positions and reduced its freelance budget. The Ottawa Sun is dominated by Toronto-centric writers, made even worse by the recent death of veteran Earl McRae.

Both papers are slimmer every week. If it it weren’t for car manufacturers and travel ads, we could read either on a single sheet.

I exaggerate, but everywhere I look, and I mean everywhere, newspapers are slimming down and cutting staff. And it’s not limited to here.

In England, The Times and Sunday Times are to cut at least 150 editorial posts, out of their combined full- and part-time workforce of approaching 1,000, as the newspapers aim to slash editorial costs by 15% and 12% respectively.

John Witherow, the Sunday Times editor, told journalists at his paper that 20 editorial staff would be asked to leave, while part-time casual staff would be reduced by 30%. Between 50 and 100 positions will be eliminated in total.

In the U.S., the  nation’s largest newspaper publishers all reported continuing declines  in advertising revenues in the third quarter of 2011,  bringing a barrage of bad news from Gannett Co., The New York Times Co.,  and McClatchy Co. What’s more, digital ad revenue continues to grow at a  lackluster pace — if at all.

The  latest round of results from McClatchy Co. showed total revenues  declining 8.4% from $327.7 million in the third quarter of 2010 to  $300.2 million in the same period this year. Total advertising revenues  declined 10% from $249.1 million to $224.2 million, with losses spread  across all the major categories: National advertising fell 21% to $17.2  million, retail 10.3% to $114.6 million, and classifieds 12.2% to $62.3  million.

Within the classifieds category, automotive fell 4.9%, real  estate 20.7%, and employment 8.9%.

This all follows a continuing string of bleak news in the daily newspaper business worldwide except in developing countries, where increasing literacy is leading to growing demand for anything with print on it.

India is a good example where that is happening. During a visit there in 2007, I was impressed that circulation of papers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times ran well into the millions. As such, these papers were filled with very broad stories, Bollywood celebrity news and cricket stories and stats. And yet, there was no presence of smaller or community newspapers, which would be far more accessible and relevant to the average Indian.

In fact, contrary to all of the bad news begetting dailies everywhere, community or weekly newspapers, free and paid, are not showing the same symptoms.

The only community paper I had heard of closing in the past year was the 116-year-old Cobden Sun. And a week after former owner Gerald Tracey closed it, it was bought by a Cobden native who’d moved to the U.S. years ago, re-opened and is now thriving under new ownership. We received this email from editor Debbie Robinson just a few days ago, as she is looking for help covering the community:

We have more than doubled our subscriber base in the
past eight months and grown from 12 to 20 pages – too much for one person to
fill.
Ideally, I need a part-time reporter/photographer to
work between 20 to 25 hours per week. There is every reason to expect the
position to become full time, possibly by next summer. Alternatively, I would
consider hiring someone who is interested in just weekend work, or covering
municipal council on a bi-weekly basis.”

Many of my past students did not appreciate my promotion of the community newspaper industry, and its excellent role as a training groud for graduates. A few of them wanted us to teach travel and conflict journalism and exotic-sounding beats that our dailies just don’t need any more. But community or local journalism is where I continue to see the bulk of jobs being created and maintained in Canada in the future. Indeed, the term “hyperlocal” has become the latest buzz word among journalism think-tanks in the U.S. as a way of encouraging major dailies to get more local and cede world news to others.

Maybe the meek really will inherit the earth.

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