Good news, bad news: A snapshot of conditions at small-market newspapers in Canada

Executive summary

We undertook this survey to find out about conditions at small-market newspapers in Canada and to explore the sector’s prospects at a time when newspapers in general face major challenges. The Local News Map, a crowd-sourced platform that tracks changes to local news outlets across the country, has documented the closing of 36 local free and subscription daily newspapers and 195 community papers over the past decade (Lindgren & Corbett, 2018).

The survey is a collaborative effort by The Local News Research Project, led by Ryerson University professor April Lindgren, and the non-profit National NewsMedia Council, a voluntary self-regulatory organization that promotes editorial standards, ethics, and news literacy. Together, we sought answers to questions about workload; the use of digital tools; how employees stay up to date with ethical, technological and other changes; and how publications engage with audiences. Respondents were also asked for their views on the future of the industry, including challenges and opportunities.

similar exercise was conducted in the United States in 2016 (Radcliffe, Ali & Donald, 2017), so we designed the Canadian survey to allow for a comparison of small-market newspapers in the two countries. To be consistent, we adopted the Americans’ definition of what constitutes a small-market newspaper, that is, a print publication with a daily/weekly circulation below 50,000 copies.

In Canada, 30 of the 90 daily newspapers have a total weekly print circulation below that threshold. Print-only circulation numbers are unavailable for the country’s 1,029 community newspapers (published fewer than four times per week), but 954 have a combined print and digital circulation below 50,000 (Kelly Levson, News Media Canada, personal communication, December 16, 2018). There were 127 eligible responses to the online survey, which was conducted between February 5, 2018, and April 25, 2018. Responses were anonymous.

In addition to asking the same questions included in the American survey, we included supplemental queries related to knowledge of ethics and editorial standards in newsrooms, diversity in staffing, and audience engagement strategies.

The majority (61 per cent) of the feedback received from this survey came from editors and reporters. Most respondents (81 per cent) worked at newspapers with newsrooms staffed by five or fewer editorial employees. Two-thirds worked at weeklies; more than half were employed at papers with a print circulation between 1,000 and 10,000. Almost all of the newspapers rely on advertising as a revenue source.

The survey results point to a sector characterized by shrinking newsrooms deeply divided over the future. While 50 per cent of respondents were “very positive” or “slightly positive” about what is in store for the sector, 41 per cent were “slightly negative” or “very negative.” Optimism was much more pronounced among older respondents.

The good news is that the Canadian survey results paint a picture of newspapers that recognize the need to engage with their communities: 43 per cent of respondents said their publication had launched an editorial campaign on an issue that is important to their community, 96 per cent said they had published contributions from community members, and most use Facebook to connect with readers. Respondents were also steadfast in their belief that a trusted local newspaper providing timely, reliable local news has a significant competitive advantage when it comes to competing for advertising and audiences even in these turbulent times.

Respondents defied stereotypes of smaller newsrooms as reluctant to embrace digital tools: Most have embraced some aspect of “digital.” Three quarters said they actively post to their organizations’ Facebook account and more than half contribute to their newspapers’ Twitter feed. Three quarters reported using some sort of metrics to measure audience engagement with their content.

The responses to our survey questions, however, also highlighted significant challenges facing the sector. Survey participants said their efforts are constantly undermined by the perception that their industry is on its deathbed—a perception that harms their ability to attract new audiences, advertisers, and young journalists. The responses also pointed to other issues, outlined below.

  • Smaller newsrooms: Fifty-seven per cent of respondents said there are fewer people in their newsrooms now than in 2016. Multiple survey participants linked waves of layoffs to concerns about the quality of journalism in their newspapers.
  • A work culture that is demanding more of its workforce: About one third of journalists said they are producing more stories and working longer hours compared to two years ago. Forty per cent of respondents reported that they regularly work more than 50 hours per week.
  • A split between employees who feel secure in their jobs and others who are concerned about job security: About one-third of respondents (35 per cent) said they felt slightly or very insecure in their positions while nearly half (46 per cent) said they felt very secure or slightly secure.
  • Limited technology training/investment in newsroom personnel: Respondents are learning about new technology and tools related to the industry mostly on their own—only 20 per cent said their employers paid for training courses.
  • Limited employer-sponsored ethics training: Most respondents said they learn about journalism ethics and best practices on the job from fellow journalists and from published articles. Only about one third (32 per cent) cited employer-sponsored resource guides or ethics training courses.
  • Difficulties attracting and retaining qualified staff.
  • Intense competition from non-local digital platforms and publications for audiences and advertisers.

While Canadian and American small-market newspaper sectors are dramatically different in terms of scale, the pool of self-selected survey respondents in both countries turned out to be remarkably similar. Responses to the 23 common questions revealed two notable differences between the two countries. In the first instance, we found that respondents’ use of video reporting, live video and podcasts in the United States was approximately double that of Canadian respondents. The second significant difference had to do with sentiments about the future. Canadians were generally more pessimistic in their outlook. While approximately half of the participants in both surveys felt slightly or very secure in their jobs, more than one third (35 per cent) of the Canadians felt slightly or very insecure in their jobs compared to just 18 per cent of American respondents. 

The report concludes with recommendations related to revenue diversification, newsroom collaborations and relationship building with audiences. Given their almost complete reliance upon advertising revenue, for instance, we point to the need for publications to develop supplementary revenue streams. We recommend building relationships with journalism schools to attract new talent, diversify newsroom staff and to publicly demonstrate confidence in the sector’s future. Newsroom collaborations are highlighted as a way to bolster limited training resources and produce quality journalism. And where it isn’t already the practice, we suggest publications make it a priority to adopt and publicize a code of ethics as a way to build trust with readers.

Click here to read the full report

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