By John Devine
With much of the economic chatter bouncing between recession and recovery, the newspaper industry is showing resilience and continued renewal, strengths that bode well for the future according to industry leaders.
The industry isn’t immune to the gales buffeting the economy, but ongoing stability and growth in key sectors, including housing and automotive, as well as an innovative approach to structural challenges and the opportunity they present are all reasons for optimism going into 2012, says John Hinds, president and CEO of Newspapers Canada (NC).
“On the whole people still see the newspaper business in Canada moving forward. From our membership perspective, we’ve only seen growth,” says Hinds, pointing to a recent flurry of market interest in newspapers that included Black Press buying three newspapers in Washington State, Glacier Media getting the Victoria Times Colonist from Postmedia, and Torstar buying the EMC group in eastern Ontario and the rest of the Metro commuter newspapers.
“I think what we are seeing is that people are voting with … their dollars to invest in newspaper properties. I think that is a very healthy sign for the future of newspapers.”
The strength of the medium can also be found in strategies to develop content and readership initiatives, says Suzanne Raitt, NC’s vice-president of marketing and innovation.
“You are actually seeing substantial investments in papers and in content within papers,” she says. “It’s very robust.”
The industry’s reaction to the recession has left it, in many cases, with lower costs, and therefore more able to withstand financial tremours as the economy struggles toward recovery, says Hinds. That, and continued strength in key sectors, fuels optimism for the future.
Also, when discussing the industry’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges, it’s worth noting that it’s not a monolithic entity that shifts as one, he notes. Rather, in parts of the country where the regional economy is strong, such as resource-rich western provinces, the
experiences of local papers reflect that strength and diversity.
The many differences inside the industry also come into play when discussing strategies, including continued belt-tightening measures, says Hinds.
“Every market is different and every newspaper is different. Some publishers are still in belt-tightening mode, others are in spending mode and others are in investing mode, and some are doing a combination of all three.”
Underneath all these decisions runs a current of innovation that serves as a foundation for continued growth in these ever-changing times, a resilience fostered by confronting challenges, says Raitt.
Innovation includes moves to embrace the community in non-traditional ways, says Raitt, pointing to the Winnipeg Free Press Café as one example.
“They’ve opened a café right in downtown Winnipeg. It’s very unique and is a way of engaging the public, the community, in the newspaper.”
Additional opportunity for the industry is coming from south of the border as American retailers look to establish a presence in Canada. Newspapers have a key role to play in helping the newcomers grow roots in communities across the country, and also to explain the differences between the American and Canadian newspaper experience, says Hinds.
“Newspapers in this country are very different than newspapers south of the border. Our readership is up, while theirs is down. We have to make sure that we’re getting the message out to those new (retailers) entering the market that we’re the place to be for their advertising.”
And with the arrival of the newcomers, existing retailers will require solutions-based marketing strategies of their own, points out Ed Strapagiel, executive vice-president of KubasPrimedia, presenting the industry with another revenue opportunity.
“Before these new competitors flood the market and get too established, a lot of retailers would be well advised to get out there and pitch business and do some fundamental marketing,” he suggests.
Hard times are often also good times for journalism as people turn to newspapers for news, analysis and insight. Research shows that when people feel vulnerable, they turn to trusted brands, newspapers, for clarity, says Hinds.
“I don’t think you are get the analysis of what’s going on in Europe on the 30-second radio sound bite.”
The industry’s ability and desire to embrace new methods of content delivery, such as mobile and tablet platforms, gives it a competitive advantage over other media, says Raitt. The term ‘newspaper’ no longer only refers to a print edition. Rather, it identifies a brand with numerous strategies, digital and print, to engage readers and advertisers.
“People are touching a newspaper brand more throughout the day than they ever did before. I think that’s what you’ll see in 2012,” says Raitt, who adds that readers are not choosing one platform over the other.
“All our research shows that people are going to tablets not instead of newspapers, but as well as newspapers.”
Pay-to-read strategies will also continue to emerge next year, say Hinds and Raitt, but they won’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. The growth of pay-for-content strategies will likely continue to be slower than in the United States, partly in reaction to different market realities here where communities are served by more than one newspaper, giving readers an option if one newspaper adopts a pay-to-read strategy and the other doesn’t.
“We’re in a different boat and that’s why I think it has been slower to be adopted,” says Raitt, who adds subscription models will involve the packaging of the different platforms, “which is what you see happening in other countries.”
In 2012 Newspapers Canada will continue to develop its industry marketing and innovation roles, demonstrating to advertisers the strength of the medium and fostering a forum for the exchange of ideas among members, says Hinds.
“One of the areas we see a real strength in is additional research. We have some really good industry news to relate, and we have to get that information to the advertising community.”
Next year will also see an expansion of NC’s education series, including webinars, continued work on policy issues and public affairs, and efficiency measures.
In 2012, advertisers will still need to build their brands, and the newspaper industry is positioned to facilitate that need, says Raitt.
“We are embracing everything. I don’t think we give ourselves enough kudos for saying, ‘you tell us how you want to communicate and we will communicate with you that way.’”