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Canadian newspapers give status update on digital revenues (Includes first-hand account)

Last night, the Canadian Journalism Foundation held a talk called “Turning Digital Into Dollars,” looking at what moderator Joshua Benton (Nieman Lab) called the continued “disruption” of the Internet on the consumption of news.

Comprising the panel was Gerry Nott, senior vice president of the Eastern region, Post Media; André Pratte, editorial pages editor of La Presse; Phillip Crawley, publisher and CEO of the Globe & Mail; and John Cruickshank, publisher of the Toronto Star.

Benton, an American-born self-described “Canadaphile” was impressive in his role as moderator, quickly citing statistics of the decline of advertising revenues in both the US and Canada when relevant. He started by asking the panel if anyone sees print revenues growing again. Predictably, no one did.

“We would certainly celebrate a single-digit decline,” Nott said in regards to print revenues. Crawley said that the “pace of disruption is increasing.” Cruickshank, however, believes that Canadian newspapers are slightly better off than their American counterparts, however, he says we can trace the decline of print to the advent of television.

One interesting topic that came up was how the papers are adapting to the increasing popularity of digital news consumption. The Globe, Star and National Post are all behind metered paywalls, while La Presse is still free.

La Presse has gone in an entirely different direction with its pursuit of a younger demographic. Pratte noted that while La Presse continues to increase in popularity, the company noticed that their demographic was skewing increasingly older. They found that their younger audience often consumed news through mobile devices and tablets.

In response, La Presse created a tablet app called La Presse+, a once-a-day interactive digital paper. Pratte noted that when someone reads news, they want more than just words on a page. They’d also appreciate video, and more importantly, they want to be in complete control of their experience — in other words, they won’t respond well to unskippable ads and not having the ability to switch seamlessly between stories. While Crawley believes it isn’t a good solution, Pratte noted that the La Presse+ app has been downloaded over 400,000 times, and readers spend on average 35 minutes a day on it.

All of the newspaper men, meanwhile, agreed that paywalls are not the be-all and end-all for making money from the Internet.

“The paywall does not and will not work,” Pratte said.

However, Crawley, Nott and Cruickshank said their respective papers have more paywall subscribers than they had anticipated, ranging from 40,000-55,000 digital-only subscribers.

Crawley also said that paywalls have a secondary use beyond providing revenue; they can also help papers see what kind of content will get people to pay. In the Globe’s case, 75 percent of the content readers have paid for is related to business. He added that those who do pay for online news are much more engaged and spend much longer on the site than they would if they hadn’t paid.

In terms of where the newspapers see growth in ad revenues, Nott believes that there is something to be said for the mobile market. He noted that over 50 percent of total online traffic for Post Media news sites comes from mobile devices, a statistic that caught even Benton off-guard. Crawley points to the success of the UK paper the Telegraph, which has seen revenue growth as it ventures into doing things like sponsoring talks and selling products. Cruickshank was less clear, but says that the Star is trying to find revenue in many different places.

Benton later mentioned that several Canadian journalists are concerned about Canada’s lack of news startups. Cruickshank agreed that is a problem, and suggested that journalism schools in Canada don’t do enough to foster an innovative/entrepreneurial spirit.

If anything could be gleaned from this talk, it’s that Canadian newspapers aren’t in a death spiral. However, there is clearly much to figure out should the newspaper go the way of the dinosaurs.

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