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article imageCanadian newspaper publishers discuss how to make news pay Special

By Michael Thomas     Feb 4, 2016 in Business
Toronto - It's been a grim few weeks for Canadian newspapers, so the Canadian Journalism Foundation's latest talk, "Spotlight on Publishers: The Challenge of Making News Pay," was a very timely one.
Wednesday night's talk in Toronto featured moderator Kelly Toughill (King's College in Halifax); publishers Phillip Crawley (the Globe & Mail) and John Cruickshank (The Toronto Star); and La Presse's chief operating officer, Pierre-Elliott Levasseur. Missing was someone from Postmedia, owners of The National Post and many regional papers — though the company was invited, it didn't have anyone on hand to send that night. Still, those in attendance found plenty to talk about.
Toughill didn't need to remind the audience of the tough times Canadian media has faced recently. Postmedia merged papers in several cities, leading to 90 layoffs; the 140-year-old Guelph Mercury ceased printing its paper; the staff of Halifax's Chronicle Herald are on strike.
Amid the gloom, however, there may be some brightness. Levasseur and Cruickshank are both happy with the direction their respective companies are going. And while publishers are no doubt wringing their hands, Cruickshank asserts that we're living in an age where media is more creative than ever.
Levasseur first expanded on La Presse's digital ventures. About five years ago, the company began investing in development of a tablet product, with a goal of moving away from reliance on print revenues. The move to digital has served the French daily well; Levasseur says going digital in the newsroom and beyond has saved the company $80 million, which it has been able to reinvest in hiring a larger digital team and staying up-to-date with advances in technology.
On the Toronto Star's side, its still relatively new tablet product, Star Touch, just recently hit 200,000 downloads and averages about 45,000 reads a day. Additionally, time spent on the app seems to grow the more someone uses it; average session times start at around five to six minutes, but are now reaching longer than 20 minutes.
Crawley, meanwhile, sees the status quo at the Globe & Mail acceptable for now. It saw an increase in subscriptions in January over December, and will change the way it operates as it moves to a new building later this year. At a recent board meeting, Crawley says he saw a number of new suggestions on technological avenues the paper could pursue; Crawley sees some promise in virtual reality and 360-degree video, but of course, it still needs to be quality journalism and not just a gimmick.
However, Wednesday night's note wasn't entirely one of optimism. Crawley's biggest issue with media these days is one of leadership. He gave the example of the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian. The latter is especially renowned for its journalism, but is set to lose £50 million (nearly $73 million U.S.) while the former will make £50 million. Crawley says philanthropy-funded journalism is often in trouble — just look at the Guardian's plan to make cuts of 20 percent or the past struggles at First Look Media.
Instead, Crawley thinks leadership should be less about focusing on getting out of the red and more on the future. He sees Jeff Bezos at the helm of the Washington Post as a good thing; he's invested in new technologies and now the Post's digital audience is greater than that of the New York Times.
Levasseur thinks La Presse's tablet product will continue to serve the organization well; he can't see another technology catching on as quickly as tablets have. Cruickshank is also committed to Star Touch, and sees a bright future in app creation. However, Levasseur says organizations need to spread themselves across the digital ecosystem — and more importantly, have a strong presence in each sector — in order to survive. That means desktop, mobile, tablet, and perhaps beyond as virtual reality and 360-degree video become more and more popular.
Smaller organizations are a trickier part of the puzzle, however. An audience member asked how niche media can make news pay — Crawley quickly replied "Find a good owner." Gerrit de Vynck of Bloomberg said on Twitter that niche brands have a distinct advantage, however:
As for papers that aren't in Toronto or Montreal, they face a steeper battle. As Levasseur said, a bigger company buying a smaller one often means taking on significant losses.
The most important lesson to take from Wednesday night is that newspapers aren't necessarily going to die any time soon — Crawley, for example, doesn't see digital revenue overtaking print revenue at the Globe by 2019 — but they need to find ways to stay innovative . Whether that means launching a tablet-exclusive product or investing in virtual reality is anyone's guess; it all depends on how bold the organization wants to be.
More about Canadian journalism foundation, cfj, Toronto Star, Globe and mail, la presse
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