Blog by John Miller

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Bye bye newspapers

Way back in the 1980s, Canadian publisher Stuart Keate said that being in the newspaper business doesn't make much sense.

"Ask yourself: is there another business quite like it? Where the product may vary widely, in size and content, from day to day, but always sells for a fixed price? Where, having gone through a sophisticated laser system straight out of NASA, it is handed over to a twelve-year-old boy with a frog in his pocket. And what does he do with it? He throws it at the customer!"

Thirty-five years later, things have changed: The fixed price has gone way up, there are fewer reporters gathering the news, we have no more paperboys, there are fewer customers to throw it at, and soon ... so very soon, I think ... there will be no more newspapers.

Eight of Canada’s daily newspapers disappeared last year, victims of  the internet and the public's hunger for news delivered more than once a day. In the United States, things are even worse. More than 166 newspapers have closed down or stopped publishing a print edition since 2008, according to Paper Cuts, a website dedicated to tracking the U.S. press industry downturn.

The largest Canadian newspaper to announce it is turning away from print on paper, Montreal's LaPresse, is scheduled to do so in January, when it will publish its newspaper only on Saturdays. The rest of the week, its customers will be served by a free tablet edition. With the change come layoffs, shrinking the paper's workforce to fewer than were working for it in 1911.

Circulation and advertising are declining at all Canadian dailies, often in the double digits each year. A report for Newspapers Canada pegged the losses in classified advertising revenue at 66 percent for all Canadian newspapers between 2000 and 2012.

Paid circulation fell 29 percent in that period and it seems to be accelerating downward since. Some observers were shocked when the latest circulation figures were released for the Toronto Star, which has more readers than any other Canadian paper. Average weekday paid circulation has dropped to 175,411 from 250,609 in the last three months, according to CCAB, the Canadian division of assurance provider BPA Worldwide.

These trends do not make Canadian newspapers sustainable in print form much longer.

The Star is well on its way to becoming English Canada's LaPresse, since it has copied that paper's tablet strategy and technology. The Sunday edition may be the first to go. Two weeks ago the paper moved its books section from Sunday to Saturday. That left the Sunday paper, which I launched as editor in 1977, without any unique content. Paid circulation of the Sunday paper was  once more than 430,000. Now it's just 192,589.

You can be an optimist or a pessimist about these alarming trends, assuming you care about the right of citizens in a democracy to be informed.

Optimists hope that newspapers can transfer their "brand" as news providers to the internet, and attract (hopefully younger) readers and advertisers. They also put their faith in the so-called "democratization" of content on-line -- many more sources for the curious to seek out less corporate and more independent  viewpoints.

Pessimists on the other hand doubt newspapers have much credibility left -- and point to the debacle during the recent federal election where every major newspaper in the country except the Toronto Star and LaPresse endorsed a party that Canadian voters resoundingly turfed out of office.

I'm afraid I've got to be a pessimist.

As evidence, look at the recent state-of-the-media report issued by the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project. Directed by Carleton University's Prof. Dwayne Winseck, it blows holes in the case for optimism.

Here are just a few highlights:

Yes, there is more out there: "One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; there were about 3 million Netflix subscribers in Canada in 2014; over six times as many Canadians had a Facebook account and many of them rely on the social networking site to get and share "the news"; expert blogs abound; pro-am journalists and whistle-blowers can set the news agenda; millions of websites are a click away; 695 TV channels were licensed for service in Canada in 2014, there are now 1,107 radio stations and ninety-two paid daily newspapers; most Canadians have a smartphone; access to a world of information is easy; and Canadians are very extensive users of all kinds of different information and communications technologies."

The so-called "new media" are even more corporate: "Core elements of the internet – e.g. internet advertising, search engines, social networks, smart phone operating systems and browsers -- are not antidotes to ownership concentration in the 'old media' but actually some of the most concentrated media of all."

So far, online advertisers aren't buying the newspaper brand: "Facebook’s estimated revenues in Canada were more than double the combined internet and mobile advertising revenue of all newspapers in Canada."

Newspapers are too late to the game and may be outgunned: "The 'big 5' television groups – Bell, Shaw (Corus), CBC, Rogers and Quebecor – collectively owned 219 television services that accounted for over 90% of the total television market by revenue in 2014, up from just over three-quarters in 2008."

Corporate ownership has grown exponentially in the last seven years: "The scale of vertical integration more than doubled between 2008 and 2014, as the 'big 4' – Bell, Rogers, Shaw (Corus) and QMI – expanded their stakes in mobile wireless, internet access, television distribution and more traditional areas of the media such as TV and radio. Vertical integration in Canada is extremely high by historical standards and relative to the US and 27 other countries surveyed in this report."

Set against this dynamic, what's going on in the newspaper industry seems reactionary, late, pessimistic and unimaginative. Legacy-media publishers seem to be fighting two realities of the internet age tooth and nail -- most people who follow the news don't want to pay for it; and more money's made in controlling the gate than in creating content.

One of my favourite quotes about newspapers was by H.L. Mencken: "The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer."

Let's hope your favourite newspaper proprietor manages to discover a better quality of intelligence and courage, and quickly.

And, warns Prof. Winseck's extremely valuable report, get used to fighting for what we want, while there's still time.

"The connections between governments and industry, and especially the telecoms and media industries, have been a perennial feature of the political economy of media in Canada in the past and have not served us well," his report states.

"Decisions taken now will influence the course of events and the shape of the media environment we inhabit for years, even decades, to come. Once such decisions are made, the structures of the new medium of human communication that we are still struggling to come to grips with now – the internet- and mobile-centric media ecology -- will become part of the woodwork, and stay that way for a long time to come."

So it really is up to us.

Or else, get used to the day when you won't find any newspaper at the end of your driveway or on your doorstep.

Get used to dealing with gigantic corporations who want to control your every keystroke.