Print isn’t done, but the jig is up

In today’s media landscape, quality content is more important than ever

Ayame Ulrich

If one were following the recent discussion of the future of Winnipeg media over the past weeks, one would be well served to take a step back, given the reactionary assessments of the two recent, unsurprising spates of layoffs in this city’s print media sector.

Perspectives range widely, from an appeal to fix the industry’s broken model, to the traditional journalist perspectives - showing the passion that drives the work and the struggles within - to the smug sign-of-the-times assessment of the Twitterati.

Some punditry knee-jerked a naïve union narrative.

The responses ranged from the heartfelt to the obfuscated.

The sages were marginally better; some wearily pointed to citizen journalism initiatives circa 1999, like Jello Biafra’s battle cry of “Become the Media.”

Others called for online-only initiatives while openly acknowledging those financial structures won’t support the news quality wanted by consumers.

A teen in the first week of her communications program - a symbolic canary of future audiences - penned a Winnipeg Free Press op-ed about her interest in journalism, but not print, and was pointlessly flayed by the online-commenter mob.

There are bits of truth in these assessments, but where was the emergence of the Winnipeg Metroin this?

For over a year it provided Winnipeg with 200,000 additional weekly copies of mostly truncated, wire-driven content with audience engagement strategies involving online-couponing, pinnie-clad street teams and underground walkway sponsorships.

Though of questionable content value, could it have impacted circulation and advertising, in part precipitating the layoffs or the restructuring of Uptown Magazine?

Maybe more than you think.

Was the Freep’s reaction to its new competition adequate?

Such a discussion would certainly dig up more context of what may be happening.

When the Freep purchased Uptown in 2005, the plan seems to have been obstructionist, a strategic deterrent against entry of a free daily in its virtual monopoly - at best a short-term solution.

Despite this audience and readership development, Uptown looks to have been an afterthought over the years.

How would the publication even know if it was reaching an audience, let alone its desired audience, if it didn’t know where or if copies were being picked up?

It certainly doesn’t give justice to those who lost their jobs at either publication, as they were the ones that cared most.

But it does give an indication of just how important audiences and quality of product were to the business side. At the same time, it also provides solutions for local media.

When I think of the impactful stories and events from our daily over the past couple of years, they are all local and in-depth: “No Running Water” on Northern reserves, the “CP rail yards,” bike infrastructure and the mayor’s business dealings.

These unique, in-depth and substantial stories helped us understand our local communities and spurred us to discuss them.

According to the 2011 National Audience Databank, Winnipeg still has the highest weekly print readership (79 per cent) in markets above 200,000.

Print still has a higher reach, with viewers spending twice the time engaging with print, but the gap is closing.

Local stories lead reader interest with 90 per cent saying they usually or sometimes read local content.

That last stat says why these layoffs are so tragic for the journalists, because it is exactly why the community will put money in front of their media - for the local content.

Removing local journalists did the opposite of what audiences want, which can only further the problem.

There are solutions and examples out there that suggest the issue isn’t just the Internet; it’s how a publication can reach its audience in a more profound way.

People will always pay for quality if it’s important.

Over the days that I wrote this piece, Newsweek went online-only, continuing print media’s current narrative, but a deeper look at their competitors will show a complex story.

The Economist claims rising circulation numbers, while Bloomberg Businessweek saw a 66 per cent increase in ad sales after a new content philosophy and redesign was implemented.

Others, like Monocle, with its Winnipeg connections, seems to be leading a set of print-first products, using digital and new media to augment, not replace content.

They’re putting quality and their audiences first, and they’re growing.

It’s chaos in the media world, on the pages or screen, and it’s too early to proclaim print is done. There may even be room for growth outside of the paywall salvation, but it requires some rethinking and innovation.

James Patterson is the associate publisher at Canadian Dimension, as well as the circulations and operations manager at Border Crossings. He is the former business manager at The Uniter.

Published in Volume 67, Number 8 of The Uniter (October 24, 2012)

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