The death of a daily paper

On a Friday at the beginning of July Black Press announced their purchase of the Prince Rupert Daily News. On the following Monday they announced that they would retire its century-old masthead. Black Press owns the competing weekly, so it was a convenient execution. There’s a lesson in this, but not the one you might expect.

Although I published and edited a sister paper during the era of Hollinger ownership, and was involved in some of the decision-making in the mid-‘90s, I never worked at the Daily News. I’ve watched most of this from the sidelines—watched increasingly junior staff make frustratingly basic mistakes, watched the ad count decay. I’m saddened by the death of any newspaper, more so because this was my hometown daily. But even given my limited involvement I’ve known for 15 years that, unless there were some drastic changes in approach, the death of the Daily News was only a matter of time. Compounded bad policy hastened that end.

In today’s publishing climate the loss of a small newspaper scarcely seems newsworthy. When I ran -30- under the masthead of the Hollinger newspaper Prince Rupert This Week on February 7, 1999, veteran legislative columnist Hubert Beyer wrote: “In the old days, an owner might have tried everything to ride out the current economic malaise and, by hook or crook, keep the paper going, betting that the economy will eventually turn around. Those days are gone.”

Was the Daily News another victim of economics, and of changing taste and habit as newspaper readership turns increasingly to online new sources? That wasn’t the case here. Not even close. Here a newspaper’s distant ownership allowed increasingly bizarre local decisions that hurried along the paper’s death. Tiny papers such as this one can still be resilient to the trends that are collapsing the big dailies—they can be lifelines for small communities if they adapt and stay relevant by telling community stories available nowhere else. Readers will continue to turn to any information source that is meaningful to them. The Daily News was unable to adapt and unable to stay relevant.

Instead, this story is a lesson in what happens when a newspaper—or any news source—allows itself to stop mattering to its audience, and therefore its advertisers.

In the mid-‘90s the media climate in the north remained viable for an old-fashioned approach to news reporting. The local TV and radio stations, with a staff of real local announcers and newsies, were powerful sales forces. Hollinger published the daily and the weekly, both with staffs larger than comparable papers, and the market even supported a variety of other products—independent tourism guides, a weekly TV listing magazine, and so on. But the writing was on the wall. The city’s largest employer was entering death throes, which brought a tightening of local advertising budgets. At the Hollinger papers we were saddled with bloated payrolls and an outdated, expensive press at the Daily News. Our weekly property had issues; for one, when I took it over in the mid-‘90s, despite a powerful editorial and graphic reputation it was already desperately in the red.

At about the same time Pete Godfrey became publisher of the Daily News. He and I talked for hundreds of hours, trying to devise a solution to all of this. The most obvious was the path taken by Black Press.

We had reached a sort of détente with Black Press. Hollinger (here Sterling Newspapers) and Black Press had carved up the newspaper communities of the north between them, the publishers suspiciously eyeing each other like the lords of medieval walled cities. They had a powerful advantage over us. Black Press had amalgamated their printing at Williams Lake. That made one press profitable, and, without expensive pressrooms, made the remaining papers all but recession-proof.

Papers like the Daily News had been in Hollinger control since the early ‘70s, and hadn’t exactly seen progressive change. Our press was a relic of that era. In fact, if there was a business plan at all in Prince Rupert it wasn’t one that made sense to me (when I started we even owned a hotel here, something that I doubt even the cleverest newspaperman could properly understand—let alone run profitably). Yet just down the road we owned the Prince George Citizen. That was a former Southam paper, a Cadillac by comparison, and with its comparatively modern press we could surely bolster long-term viability for all of us by printing our northern papers there.

We didn’t get far with that idea.

We fell back on local solutions. Why not take the Daily News to a tri-weekly, reducing our print costs and forcing our remaining ad revenue into three editions per week? Why not consolidate our forces, incorporating the weekly into the daily in a strategic fashion before we were cornered into closing one?

Nor did we get anywhere with these ideas.

I was never directly told so, but I had the impression that the borrowing power provided by equity in these bloated papers was more important to the ownership than their future viability. That’s not the sort of position that would be adopted by local ownership, but it was hardly a surprising position in that corporate climate.

The pulp mill closed. Within two years we closed the weekly. It would be an oversimplification to say that the declining advertising revenue couldn’t support a unionized shop, but that was at the core of it. We’d brought it back out of the red, renewed the community’s interest in it, but with the closure of the pulp mill it slipped back out of the black. We might have hung on for awhile, but when the collective agreement expired, and there was a demand for increased wages to achieve parity with the Daily News shop, there were no options left.

As predicted, that further complicated matters at the Daily. Printing the weekly paper had been one of the long-term revenue streams that could be counted upon to keep the Daily profitable.

Local businessmen who understood the newspaper business also saw the writing on the wall. When we announced the closure of the weekly, Mitch Greene, as a representative of the same local group that had sold the Daily News to Hollinger, engaged me to buy it back and make it work as a local paper. Hollinger wasn’t selling. That’s really too bad, because when the paper did ultimately sell, in the spectacular collapse of the Conrad Black empire, to CanWest and then Glacier, daily decision making removed it further and further from relevance within the community.

Sure, advertising revenues were in steep decline. But there was still enough advertising to create and sustain a competing paper. There was still a local need for advertising. But without the core issues of profitability addressed, what followed was inevitable. Somehow, as a tiny player straggling along behind a corporate pack, even the basic principles of newspapering were gradually forgotten.

I can think of a dozen bad decisions that even a casual observer must have wondered about. At one point they even moved their prod department out of shop—out of town altogether, in fact. Anyone who has even witnessed the mad bustle of deadline knows that can’t work. Satisfied advertisers need the last-minute ability to make changes and proof. Without that the advertising base will slip further, and the end-of-month spreadsheet will look even more grim.

To retain the flyer business that had sustained This Week, when the weekly closed the Daily had created a weekend TMC (an inexpensive, total-market circulation “flyer wrapper”). For whatever reason it wasn’t working. Perhaps it proved unprofitable in the face of a lean, new independent weekly. Instead of forcing at least a portion of that business into the paid circulation days—or simply allowing the competition to take business that was for them unprofitable—the Daily made the insane decision to distribute two of their paid days free to the total-market. Besides an increase in printing and distribution costs, that instantly devalued their subscription base. And after awhile it seemed as if the circulation department stopped even trying to ensure consistent delivery—at my house I would see maybe one of their free editions every few months.

Things were just as troubling on the editorial side. Even in the ‘90s there was an unfortunate reluctance to end the practise of using wire stories as fill, even though broadcast had long since ended their relevance. That they remained, relics of a time when print was the sole news source, fostered a feeling among readers that the Daily News was losing its relevance. The same space could have been much more effectively filled with columnists from community groups, photo features, and other low-effort forms of local content.

It seemed as if the editorial decision-makers knew that they needed to engage their readership, but not understand how to do it. I don’t believe that the resulting mess was always a result of intentional policy. Sometimes it was simply a case of reporters being allowed to run amok. I recall a reporter of maybe seven years ago who skated at the edge of libel with his conspiratorial, tabloid-like partisanship. Or a pair of more recent vintage: Their specialty, presumably to stretch their quotas, was running one side of a story one day, and the other side of it the next, apparently revelling in the contention caused by unbalanced reporting. Perhaps this was just laziness; they were so adept at ignoring the community that the joke around town was that if it didn’t happen within sight of the Daily News building, it wasn’t news. It was good for people with a specific message to convey—craft a press release, and these wunderkinds would legitimize it by running it verbatim under their own byline. But journalistic integrity had become a forgotten virtue.

None of these cheap tactics sold newspapers. Instead they further alienated readers. And realizing that they had further alienated their readers the Daily flipped to a saccharine approach to news that would gag any seasoned editor. These bad policies, coupled with the memory of bad reporting, overshadowed the good, hard work done by the reporters on a day-to-day basis. And there’s good work being done. Heck, just the guy covering the local sports beat right now is as good as any I’ve seen anywhere.

Anybody with real newspaper experience would have understood all along that sales and profitability rest on the twin pillars of solid content and circulation.

Reporters tirelessly work their beat, truly keeping their fingers on the pulse of the community, always digging deeper, and reporting on it in a balanced and compassionate fashion. That keeps readers engaged. As long as the reporters hold onto that pulse, and the paper reaches those readers, it will remain relevant. No offense to the very hard working individuals who have manned this rudderless ship—I’m sure that most have seen these things for themselves—but none of this has happened at the Daily News for many years. And that’s what makes this closure so bloody sad. It was completely, indisputably avoidable—a needless death. A drifting ship finds shoals.

Iain Lawrence wrote a final installment of his popular column “Across the Harbour” for the February 7, 1999 edition of This Week. He had been reporter and then editor at the Daily News, back in the ‘80s. In his final column he wrote about how the Daily News was always the survivor of Prince Rupert’s surprisingly complex newspaper history. He wrote about how the Optimist became the Daily News, how the Evening Empire eventually lost out to the Daily. He remembered the opening days of This Week. “It was like a bunker in there,” he wrote, “with the Daily News camped outside with endless supplies of money.” And now, he wrote, the bound volumes of This Week were trundled up the hill to the archives of the Daily News, as had been the case with every single one of the many newspapers that had gone before.

This trend is ended. That stalwart, the undefeatable Daily News, has been defeated. And like so many unassailable bastions, in the end it did not fall to an enemy. It didn’t lose its readership to the Internet. Despite the crowing of online pundits, I doubt that the Internet had any meaningful impact whatsoever upon its readership. No competitor made the Daily News lose relevance. It was the paper’s own policies that did that.

Iain’s assessment should have held true. They should have been the last. It’s ironic that, after winning so many newspaper wars, the Daily News fell in this way. No competitor ever beat it. No competitor ever won a newspaper war against the Prince Rupert Daily News, but that didn’t stop the Daily News from losing one.

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  1. Posted July 15, 2010 at 10:04 AM | Permalink

    A good lesson here for anyone in any business. Stay relevant and look for real purpose.

  2. Posted July 15, 2010 at 12:02 PM | Permalink

    Great article and great insight. It seems so many newsroom of small community papers don’t know what it takes to make a local paper relevant to the readers.

  3. Gordy K
    Posted July 15, 2010 at 1:19 PM | Permalink

    Great article, Bruce. Very insightful. It is difficult to be relevant in a NEWS industry when NEWS papers have drastically reduced reporters, photographers, talented columnists and page counts. If you aren’t letting the readers know what’s going on at city hall, or school board, or at the local arena, or why HST and Olympic costs matter and cover the school musicals, volleyball and charity events — you know, the stuff everyone does in your town and talks about around the water cooler the next morning — it’s impossible to be relevant. A lot of newspapers, due to a variety of reasons and economics, are now glorified flyers, many afraid to call out council’s financial scandals or the government’s waste of taxpayer money for it may hamper their bottom line, or ability to get dinner invites with the higher powers. The independent newspaper, with people who have dreams of serving the community and being a part of the community and covering what matters in the community with well-written and well-researched stories is the ideal platform to keep papers alive, or at least serving as NEWS papers. And if people aren’t reading newspapers because they have no content or relevancy, why should anyone think they’ll read websites written and produced by those same understaffed newspapers? Any day a newspaper dies is a bad one. And the fact most larger papers/chains are run like impersonal banks with profit mattering a heck of a lot more than people, is sad, too. But then what hasn’t changed in this world?

  4. Bruce
    Posted July 15, 2010 at 1:51 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments. I think that you’re right in your assessment, Gordy. A friend and I were talking about this just this morning. In this case the failure of the ownership to invest in a proper website may have been a contributing factor, in a small way, but that was symptomatic of the broader issue. Online sources didn’t impact this paper; heck, what there is of that here is either sheer invention or the regurgitation of the work of paid reporters. People here were by and large still content with the broadsheet. A website would have been built with an eye to long-term viability, but it would still have been produced by that same understaffed shop. And the staff of the paper would still know that they worked for owners who regarded them as little different than workers in a fast-food franchise. Or rather, perhaps, as workers in a bottled water plant…

  5. Scott Crowson
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 2:13 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for your insight, Bruce. I’ve been looking for some insider analysis of what happened. Please contact me when you get a chance.

  6. Bruce
    Posted July 27, 2010 at 9:31 AM | Permalink

    I’m not sure how much of an “insider” I was, Scott – an educated observer, perhaps. I’m furious about the closure of the Daily News, and I’ve been increasingly frustrated watching its decline. It’s been like watching a friend start every day by injecting themselves with slow-acting poison. Had you come back as Managing Editor, a decade after you left, you would have found it almost unrecognizable.

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.