Yes, daily circulation is in serious decline. But in the nation's capital and elsewhere, newspapers are taking big risks to lure back readers and reinvent themselves
“He’s taking me to see the beast,” I think, as Scott Anderson leads me through an ill-lit warren of cubicles, through a door and down a bright, narrow hallway. He stops and, twisting a knob, swings another door open. The ceiling jumps eighteen metres above my head. Silent hulking machines, beset with buttons and knobs, loom over me. Steel glistens under the mercury vapour light bulbs like the fangs of a predator. In an hour, the beast will rumble and roar, shaking its cave and hurling paper through gaping slots, under and over metal clamps. In the next twenty-four hours, the presses will devour eighty tonnes of paper and over eighty kilograms of ink. Monstrous arms will load the giant paper rolls onto the presses to be yanked, stamped, sliced and folded into 155,000 copies of the Ottawa Citizen. Waiting delivery trucks, spewing exhaust, will drive the newspapers out to Citizen subscribers and 3,200 boxes and locations across the Ottawa region. Over the course of a day, the Citizen’s three in-house presses will guzzle over $2,800 worth of ink and more than $40,000 worth of newsprint – in a year, enough to circle the earth almost nine times. The costs don’t stop there: electricity lights the massive bulbs and fuels the growling machines; delivery vans burn diesel or gasoline; pressmen earn a yearly salary. The beast and its thousands of cousins worldwide don’t just consume commodities – the price of feeding the presses is devouring the newspaper industry itself. Newsprint costs have soared forty per cent in the past three years.
It gets worse. Across North America, the newspaper industry has suffered declining circulation and plummeting earnings. An article in The New Yorker last October stated that, although the population of the United States had increased by sixty-four per cent between 1960 and 2004, daily newspaper circulation had dropped by 3.7 million. One result: massive job cuts, in the U.S. at least. “This is a scary time to be a newspaper journalist,” writes one industry watcher. “Publishers are taking out their machetes.” In Canada, the cuts may lie just ahead.
The Canadian Newspaper Association’s most recent records show that circulation of daily newspapers in Canada dropped 2.3 per cent between 2004 and 2005 – with an overall drop of 8.5 per cent over the past ten years – though big-city papers do worse than that. The Winnipeg Free Press’s circulation has fallen an average of 2.4 per cent each year over the past four years, while The Gazette in Montreal has dropped 3.9 per cent, and The Vancouver Sun 1.8. “Every editor in the country is thinking about it,” says Bob Cox, editor of the Free Press. He cites threats like the Internet, less time to read newspapers, diminishing reader habits and an aging readership. Cox recently asked an auditorium full of students at the University of Manitoba what their first source of news is. “Two-thirds of the room,” he recalls, “put up their hands when I said ‘Internet?'”
In his 2004 book, The Vanishing Newspaper, veteran American journalist Philip Meyer uses circulation trend lines to look forty years into the future. “Extending that line with a straightedge,” Meyer writes, “shows us running out of readers late in the first quarter of 2043.” But prophecies like these haven’t stopped the journalists at Canadian newspapers from railing against the Grim Reaper.
“People have been talking doomsday since I got in this business,” grumbles Anderson, back in his office. The editor of the Citizen has the rosiest outlook I encounter in forty interviews for this story and at least one hundred articles on the state of newspaper journalism. This is “the golden age of print,” Anderson says – journalists are putting more words on paper than ever before. “And that’s not including the web.” Newsstands are exploding with information on every subject imaginable for every readership group – even “left-handed cross-dressers who only come out on Tuesdays,” he deadpans. But that doesn’t make him complacent. “Newspapers,” he tells me, “need to renew themselves constantly.”
Indeed, I seem to have arrived at a time of renovation. When I ask for Graham Green, the Citizen’s business editor, security can’t figure out his extension number; when Green walks me to his office, it’s full of boxes. Next week, the office will belong to the Citizen’s new associate editor, formerly the online news editor. Green is squatting there until the former business editor (of over ten years) moves across the newsroom to replace the former sports editor, who’s just taken over as managing editor from the new editorial pages editor. And the former editorial pages editor – well, that’s Green. “Everything’s new around here,” he says.
“No, it’s a good thing,” says a passing editorial writer. “It’s been too old for too long.” The 160-year-old broadsheet operates out of a brown-brick cavern in a comfortable Ottawa neighbourhood, seventeen kilometres from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive. The Citizen isn’t a national newspaper, but it often looks like one. Rob Warner, the city editor, affectionately calls it, “a schizophrenic newspaper … in the biggest small city in the world.” When the Citizen was born in 1845, fathered by a 29-year-old Irish immigrant named William Harris and called The Packet, its mandate was clear: the four-page journal would compete with the conservative Bytown Gazette, the only newspaper in a muddy lumber town of 4,500. Today’s Citizen serves a booming region of 1.05 million people, including Canada’s fourth-largest city, and is sold across the country. Its readership is educated, affluent and older – average age 48 – and includes the capital’s political, diplomatic and bureaucratic elite.
A heavyweight in political and business reporting, and generally regarded as one of the best newspapers in the country, even the Citizen is bleeding. Circulation has dropped twelve per cent over the past five years, while Ottawa’s population has jumped eight per cent. “There was a time when they used to put the circulation numbers up on the wall in the newsroom,” says Richard Starnes, who has been a reporter and editor at the Citizen for twenty-two years. “I suspect they don’t do that anymore because it’s too depressing.”
But Anderson and his cost-conscious bosses at CanWest Global Communications Inc. aren’t yet ready to cauterize the paper’s wounds with budget cuts. “More for less,” he says, “that’s not a challenge I want to give the people in my newsroom.” On the contrary, since I first arrived at the Citizen on a rainy October morning, the newspaper’s Sunday newsprint magazine, the Citizen Weekly, has been relaunched and editors and reporters have embarked on a number of ambitious projects. And, most remarkably, in October, the Citizen posted five job openings externally, including openings for an assistant news editor, a business writer and a Sunday editor. If newspapers are dying, this one’s still kicking. Even intern Shannon Proudfoot feels a swell of momentum. “It’s clear they’re trying to rejuvenate the newsroom,” says the 26-year-old reporter. “There’s a general feeling of speeding up,” she says, “I mean, that’s the sense I get – maybe it’s just wishful thinking.”
In his opening note for Each Morning Bright, a collection of Citizen articles compiled over 160 years and released in October 2005, Anderson borrows a phrase from Neil Reynolds, his predecessor, in calling newspapers “the literature of the people.” In the years before television, citizens turned to their newspapers for local news, reports from abroad, even weather forecasts. Nearly everyone subscribed, so newspapers had a monopoly over readers – and over advertisers. As business-savvy husbands looked up yesterday’s stock prices, their wives clipped coupons. The kids combed the paper for a part-time job or a cheap used car. And later, for a house. Then they were subscribers, like their parents.
Household penetration for U.S. newspapers peaked at about 130 per cent in 1920, according to Meyer, which means 130 newspapers were sold for every hundred households. Newspapers were raking in profits of twenty to forty per cent; other businesses with a high product-turnover rate, like supermarkets, prosper with profits of one to two per cent.
Even when newspapers started to lose their monopoly to television, owners stayed wealthy because reading newspapers was a habit that many had formed early. But, for the first TV generation, the habit was less entrenched. And for the generations after, less still. In the 1980s, new technology made newspapers cheaper to print by eliminating typesetting and stripping, which compensated for reduced revenue. Population booms masked sagging penetration. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that journalists at the Citizen and other city newspapers even noticed outside competition. “Loyalty was a thing of the past, not just with newspapers,” says Drew Gragg, deputy editor of the Citizen, who has worked for the newspaper for twenty-five years. “It used to be that if you’re a Citizen subscriber, you’re a Citizen subscriber forever. Then, suddenly, readers had to be won over on a regular basis.”
Profits plunged and newspaper owners slashed newsroom resources. Bureaus were closed; page counts dropped. And the readership ebb continued. The industry languished until 1996, when press baron Conrad Black bought a controlling interest in the Southam chain. Famously criticizing the Southam newspapers of an “overwhelming avalanche of soft, left, bland, envious pap, which has poured like sludge through the centre pages,” Black swore that he would refashion the Citizen, the centre jewel in his newsprint crown, into a newspaper “befitting the capital city of a G7 country.”
At Black’s expense, the Citizen underwent a $2-million resuscitation. Ten editorial jobs were posted, an unimaginable extravagance in that era of slashing, and the daily newspaper was pumped with more business pages, opinion pages, and national and international news. The average issue fattened by six editorial pages. Black proclaimed to his employees and competition that he would “end the gradual erosion of circulation that has afflicted the entire industry since the 1970s.” In only four months, the circulation declines of the Citizen and The Gazette in Montreal, also owned by Black, didn’t just halt – they reversed.
In October 1998, Black unleashed the National Post on Canadian readers, igniting a newspaper war crackling with the spirit of yesteryear. Peter Robb, the Citizen’s deputy editorial page editor (formerly the A-section editor) describes the Post of that day as a lightning rod that zapped newspapers across the country into provocateurs that engaged debate and set agendas, instead of limply reacting to the news of the day. By the time Black retreated from the flames, he’d sparked drama and excitement in the industry – but not profits. The Post has lost money since its inception and the circulation of Black’s dailies eventually dropped again. In 2000, Black sold most of his empire to CanWest, including the Citizen and twelve other big-city dailies, and fifty per cent of the Post. In the deal, CanWest also took on Black’s debt.
Last September, the media company announced plans to spin twenty-eight per cent of its newspaper holdings, including the Citizen, into an income trust to pay down the debt. “The day that CanWest assembled its most stable properties into a trust, nurturing and investment went out the window,” commented Steve Maich, Maclean’s senior editor and national business columnist. “They are now assets to be drained of value… and quality is a luxury to be sacrificed on the altar of immediate cash flow.” The January 25 column, called “Bleeding Newspapers Dry,” also prophesied impending job cuts: “CEO Peter Viner… [invoked] the accountant’s favourite euphemism for blood on the floor. ‘We will increase our focus on cost containment,’ he told analysts.”
• • •
The afternoon story meeting at the Citizen starts forty-five minutes late. Anderson looks around the boardroom at his editors, assembled in mismatched chairs around a long narrow table. “Let’s pray for a moment,” he says solemnly. His eyes close as his editors look up from piles of papers, stop talking to one another, swivel on their chairs to face him. “Pray to the front-page gods,” Anderson finishes. His new business editor smiles broadly, a few others chuckle. One by one, the group reviews upcoming stories. Anderson pulls off his glasses to read his BlackBerry as Robb offers up a possible frontpage story. “We need something fun on the calendar,” Anderson interrupts. Robb has a reporter working on the demise of VHS tape.
“How do we shoot the death of VHS?” Anderson asks. The editors lob ideas back and forth. Rip the ribbon out and pile it in front of a camera? Chart the industry’s global value? Anderson doodles on the back of the meeting’s sked: a rectangle enclosing two circles – a crude videocassette. Beneath it, a curved line. He holds up the piece of paper: eyes, a curved mouth – a sad, frowning VHS face. Everyone laughs.
The meeting ends, and the editors return to the Citizen’s dimly lit newsroom to continue sending copy to the ravenous presses, and onward to fight the mostly losing battle for distracted readers’ attention. At the Citizen, Anderson attacked the question of relevance with the newly shuffled editors in his newsroom. “Leonard, I want you to give me voices no one else is hearing,” he told Leonard Stern, the Citizen’s new editorial pages editor. To help him engage a community of readers in debating the issues of the day, Stern has an editorial board of five and an astonishing four pages to fill on weekdays with mostly original content, including an editorials page in the paper’s City section.
Meanwhile, over at the city desk, Rob Warner has overseen no fewer than twenty multi-part series since his appointment in 2001. “Ready or Not,” an eight-part series about emergency preparedness, was reported in part from Washington and New York. “A Revolution in Dying,” an eight-part series on palliative care, encompassed twenty-seven stories from the front lines. Other special reports have probed mental illness, community building, and the stories behind the graves in Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery. Warner bristles when I ask him if his projects attract readers to the newspaper. Selling the paper, he says, “isn’t my job. I’m not a marketer, I’m a journalist.” The way to engage readers, he asserts, is to tell stories that affect them and are about them. “A Revolution in Dying,” called out to Warner after his own son died.
The move towards more length and depth in storytelling goes beyond Warner’s special projects. The newly relaunched Sunday newsprint magazine experiments with narrative techniques and has included lengthy pieces about Michael Ignatieff’s political intellectualism, wind technology and a personal reflection on federal daycare. And Ruth Dunley, the Citizen’s associate editor, who previously did a stint as the news editor responsible for convergence, was inspired by a PBS reality television series called Colonial House when she came up with the Citizen’s “Little House in the Village” series. For two weeks, interns Neco Cockburn and Hayley Mick donned linen sack coats or corsets, milked cows, churned butter and slept on straw-filled mattresses in a farmhouse in Upper Canada Village, a reconstructed 1860s village in Morrisburg, an hour outside of Ottawa. “After twelve days without a proper shower, I could barely stand myself,” wrote Mick. “My hair was stiff, my pits reeked.”
On the series’s website, readers could dress digital mannequins in the cotton layers of Cockburn and Mick’s traditional costumes, tour their spartan bedrooms, watch video diaries and read blog entries by the contemporary pioneers, whose only modern convenience was a laptop. Despite the kitsch, the project garnered responses. “The interns became celebrities,” says Dunley, who fielded letters and emails. Readers visited Cockburn and Mick at Upper Canada Village during tourist hours. Local television and radio shows interviewed the interns. One concerned reader wrote, “Are they warm enough at night?”
“Readers felt personally invested in Neco and Hayley,” says Dunley. “We’re identifying institutions that our readers use,” says Anderson, “and trying to form partnerships with those institutions.” Another example is the Citizen’s embrace of the Cappies, a U.S.?based awards program through which local newspapers help high school students become theatre critics by publishing their reviews of high school plays in the paper. “We had the public school board and the Catholic school board in the same room, working on the same project,” boasts Anderson. “The days when newspapers would simply sit back and report on events in their community are long gone.”
In 2001, Northwestern University’s Readership Institute released an impact study called “The Power to Grow Readership,” pinpointing eight strategies for growing readership at daily newspapers, after examining one hundred newspapers across the United States, survey results from 37,000 readers and non-readers, and a content analysis of over 47,500 stories and visuals. The research backed news that focuses on people and is intensely local. Obituaries hit the mark with readers, as did narrative storytelling. But the study’s clarion call goes beyond content to a wholesale shift in newspaper culture: hierarchical, change-resistant traditions are an obstacle to growing readership; newsrooms need to encourage risk-taking, innovation and more collaboration between sections.
No newspaper in Canada has embraced the Readership Institute’s counsel as enthusiastically as The Hamilton Spectator. In October 2003, the paper underwent a major rethink. Among the changes: the six-section newspaper collapsed to four; the business, entertainment and lifestyle sections were killed; the daily stock pages were axed from two or three pages to one. The paper launched a daily broadsheet magazine called Go, experimented with storytelling and ran month-long serials.
“One of my biggest concerns,” says Spec editor Dana Robbins, “is that we will not, as an industry, have the intestinal fortitude to reinvent ourselves at the speed we need to reinvent ourselves.” Targeting his newsroom’s culture, he tells his staff they’re in “the readership business” and urges them to take more risks. “I would much rather be embarrassed occasionally by what I see in our newspaper,” he says, “than bored.” Robbins is hesitant to use circulation and readership as indicators of success – indeed, circulation has dropped by 1.5 per cent each year over the past five years and readership is down this year.
Across Canada, newspapers are trying to cope with the state of the industry. “The biggest challenge we face is relevance,” says Lynn Haddrall, the Kitchener-Waterloo?based editor of The Record and the Guelph Mercury. “That is always an issue for a newspaper at any time, but it’s even more so now when you look at how fast the world is changing around us.”
This year, the Record added a youth editorial board, an offshoot of the paper’s first community editorial board, established in 2000. “Over the six years, we’ve probably added over a hundred different voices that didn’t have access to the paper before,” she tells me. The Record has also held public forums on issues that appear in the paper. In Winnipeg, to give readers of the Free Press better education coverage, editor Cox appointed a second dedicated education reporter. And every Wednesday is “Neighbours” day, on which the newspaper prints four pages devoted to community stories about local people. At the Edmonton Journal, editor Allan Mayer recently ran a story in the Sunday edition on the election campaign of a local politician – drawn in graphic-novel style across four full pages.
The creativity that Spec editor Robbins sees in newspapers right now makes him envious of me. “When I was twenty-two and coming into the newspaper industry,” he explains, “there was a stupor – a sleepiness.” His voice gains momentum as he describes the industry today as dynamic and evolving. “Your career will witness a renaissance,” he says. “It’s a very exciting time for you as a young journalist.”
On the flip side, the Citizen’s Anderson warns: “If we keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll die.”
My last interview at the Citizen takes place in a robin’s egg blue office that sings with colour in contrast to the paper’s mostly brown newsroom and other offices. Lynne Clark, the Citizen’s market development manager, is a statuesque woman, perched atop a pair of black stiletto heels. An hour-long conversation about radio spots and box inserts dissolves into talk about the future of the newspaper. “Eventually,” Clark says, “the hard copy of the newspaper, the presses, will be gone, thank God. The newsprint will be gone. The ink will be gone. The hard costs will be gone.”
Newspapers outside of Canada are already making format changes to reduce printing costs and improve readability. Broadsheet heavyweights like The Wall Street Journal and Britain’s The Times and The Guardian have shrunk their page sizes. The Independent, a London daily, was the first to go tabloid, and circulation shot up eighteen per cent within six months. Not a single English-language city daily in Canada has tried a format change, though the Spec converted its sports section to a tabloid during its revolution. Citizen publisher Jim Orban has been watching the format changes with interest.
In the meantime, many city newspapers in Canada are improving their websites. The Citizen’s website is run by CanWest employees out of offices in Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton as part of the Canada.com network. The network relaunched in late November 2005, transforming itself from a convoluted mess to a sleek portal where you can find national breaking news, an electronic version of the daily newspaper, blogs and Citizen extras like the “Little House in the Village” series.
Other city newspapers are now adding breaking news and blogs to their websites. (For more about the Internet’s effect on the news business, please turn to page 36.)
Will any of this be enough to save the newspaper? “I don’t know,” Anderson says candidly of the changes at the Citizen. “It’s an experiment. I don’t have the answers.” Similarly, when I ask Spec editor Robbins over the phone if his sweeping changes constituted a leap of faith, the line goes silent for a minute. “You know what,” he says eventually, “You’re absolutely right. There is a leap of faith involved in this, faith that we’re doing the right thing.”
Clark says that the biggest changes in the newspaper business probably won’t happen in her career, but that when they do, they’ll solve the logistical woes of the newspaper industry worldwide. Purely electronic newspapers will market themselves as niche products the same way that magazines do, and readers who don’t buy newspapers now will be able to buy chunks of the newspaper that appeal to their interests. Clark almost salivates at the idea. “We could have people who only subscribe to our Sports sections,” Clark predicts. “That would be wonderful. We could have people who only subscribe to our local news section…. It’s going to put newspaper readership through the roof.”
Halfway through our interview, Orban pokes his head through the open door. “I don’t know what your schedule is like,” says the Citizen publisher, “but I wanted to invite you to Christmas dinner.”
Clark’s heels click-clack on the brown tile as we walk down the main hallway towards the front of the building, through a set of double doors and into a sunken room full of tables and chairs. A ruddy, smiling man with a butcher knife carves a turkey. We help ourselves to mashed potatoes and carrots and then, with every seat in the room taken, walk back to her office.
“Who were all those people?” I ask her of the faces I didn’t recognize.
They run the Citizen’s printing press, Clark tells me.
I try to fathom how different the newspapers of the future will look, when these people won’t have jobs. Then I glance at my watch – it’s 3 P.M. – and wonder how they’ll spend the next hour or two, until it’s dinnertime for the beast.