It was Mark Twain who once wrote, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” or something to that effect in responding to an obituary that had been written about him. While speaking on behalf of the other 128 community newspaper owners in Ontario – reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated as well.
There’s barely a week that goes by when I don’t receive condolences over the demise of a particular newspaper, or newspapers in general. And despite the recent closure of 71 community newspapers in Ontario by the Metroland Media Group, there are still 128 operating across the province, most of which, like the Orléans Star and the L’Orléanais, are independently owned. And that’s the key.
News report after news report about the closing of the Metroland newspapers blamed it on the “changing reading habits” of their audience, or at least that was the excuse given by the Metroland spin doctors.
By “changing reading habits” they meant that most of their former readers had turned to the Internet to get their news. And while it is true that most people get their news from various Internet platforms ranging from digital news sites to social media, most of it is either national or international news, or professional sports. The truth of the matter is that most of the news you find in a community newspaper can only be found in that particular community newspaper.
The real reason Metroland closed its news-papers is a lack of respect for their readers and a focus on the bottom line at the expense of content. When accountants start running a newspaper, you can bet the end is near.
The Metroland papers were being run by accountants and the results was all too predictable. As the price for printing and distribution went up, they began to cut the only other discretionary costs they had left – reporters and freelancers. Stories that were being reported on locally, were being replaced by generic articles produced in a central clearing house. At the same time, the percentage of the paper devoted to editorial content steadily shrank and the advertising portion steadily grew to 60 per cent or more.
I’ve been in this business almost 35 years and there’s one thing that has never changed – if your newspaper doesn’t have relevant, thought-provoking content about the community it serves, no one will read it.
When I bought the Orléans Star in 2016, it had no editorial, no opinion pieces of any kind and was running at about 60 per cent advertising. All that changed after I took over and we now run the paper with a 50/50 split between editorial content and advertising.
That doesn’t mean that community newspapers don’t have issues. I recently attended the Ontario Independent Newspaper Publishers Conference near Orangeville where the two main topics of conversation was the Metroland closures and the continued strength of the independents.
Independent community newspapers will continue to survive for two main reasons – we produce local stories about local news and events for local readers, and we provide an affordable advertising option for local businesses which can’t afford radio and TV ads, or expensive brochure campaigns.
That doesn’t mean that we aren’t facing our fair share of challenges. Most notably, the trend by various levels of government to advertise on social media platforms at the expense of main stream media outlets including community newspapers like this one. For example, the federal government spent nearly $200 million in advertising in 2022, 80 per cent of which went to Google, Twitter and Facebook. Which means those tax dollars went straight to the tech giants in California at the expense of local media. Only four per cent went to community news-papers. That hurts.
Here in Ottawa, the city no longer runs rezoning notices, or notices about various public meetings or consultations in the paper. It sends all its money to California as well.
In order to make up for the loss in revenue, and increased costs, community newspapers have to be innovative. Here at the Orléans Star it means running different special sections, publishing our annual Christmas Recipe and Songbook and producing a physical road map of Orléans.
We are also developing a program by which our readers will be able to provide a modest monthly contribution in exchange for some bonuses. Stay tuned for that and in the meantime, the Orléans Star will continue to serve our readers and the community.
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