Closing of two small BC dailies is good business, new owners say

July 15, 2010

By Terry Field
Media Columnist
Troy Media

CALGARY, AB, July 15, 2010/ Troy Media/ – In what might be considered an odd move, British Columbia-based Black Press is closing down two small daily newspapers with long histories in the province.

Although recently acquired from a rival publisher, Black Press Chief Operating Officer Rick O’Connor maintains the timing of the bottom-line based decision is not as odd as it seems.

O’Connor told Troy Media that Black Press wasn’t keen on owning either the Prince Rupert Daily News or the Nelson Daily News as well as several others but taking control of them was part of a recent purchase of 11 newspapers overall owned by Glacier Media. The closings will not affect the Trail Daily Times, a newspaper O’Connor says has strong community support and a solid business record.

According to O’Connor, the circulation for Prince Rupert Daily News is about 750 paid customers, while Nelson’s daily has about 2,000 subscribers. Those modest numbers, combined with a more challenging environment to attract advertising dollars, means the papers aren’t viable, he says.

“When you put everything together the business model is not sustainable.”

Black Press already owns weekly newspapers in both Nelson and Prince Rupert. The Nelson Star will become a twice-weekly product with one additional reporter, while the Northern View, which focuses on Prince Rupert, will also add a reporter but continue as a weekly. Its sister newspaper, the Northern Connector, a regional paper that includes Terrace and Kitimat, will also remain a weekly, allowing for a twice a week publishing cycle overall for Black Press in Prince Rupert.

Publishing twice weekly serves the lucrative advertising “insert” business says O’Connor, with grocery store and other flyers providing a steady income stream.

There are a range of reasons for the financial decline of the two dailies, O’Connor says.  The move to internet news is one reason, with the recession being another. He describes the latter as similar to hitting a “brick wall while going a 100 miles an hour.” More importantly, he adds, is the new sophistication in advertising companies are employing. They are reducing their traditional ad buys in favour of event sponsorship and promotion, and using technology and social media to tell their story.

“If a company like Telus (as one example) cuts it’s (newspaper) advertising budget by 20 per cent there is a big impact on us (and other publishers).”

The Prince Rupert Daily News proudly trumpets its 100 years of service to the coastal community that is going through some tough economic times.  The Nelson Daily News has been around in some form for 109 years. Predictably their demise is going to upset some people in those communities.

“It’s been quite a story,” says Bob Hall, Managing Editor of the Nelson paper. “Not surprisingly a lot of people (in the community) are shocked and upset. They didn’t see this coming but we (newspaper staff) saw it coming.”

The closing is a result of a number of circumstances, Hall adds. Former owners Glacier Media moved the Nelson paper’s printing press to Cranbrook, BC, several years ago and, by doing so, reduced much needed income in Nelson where other smaller papers paid for use of the press. Posting the newspaper online likely contributed to reduced subscriptions, and the recession hurt advertising especially hard when local car dealers reduced their budgets. At the same time as this was all taking place Black Press started a weekly in Nelson that siphoned off some of the available ad revenue.

Even though the newspaper’s failure was all but certain at some point, Hall says it is going to be tough on a number of its 24 employees.

“This newspaper paid well for a small community. Some (staff) are coping and some are having a tougher time . . . it depends on your age and the skill set you have.”

Jack Mussallem is the mayor of Prince Rupert and his concern is mostly for the “jobs lost” when the paper shuts down. The port city has had a rough few years surviving a substantial drop in population, and jobs, as the result of pulp and paper mill closures. He says the community is slowly bouncing back largely because of activity in relation to its port.

Black Press is sending some senior staff to Prince Rupert in the days ahead to share plans for its weeklies with the mayor and others, and O’Connor believes the community will be better served by weekly papers that are stronger financially.

Mussallem is also concerned that the number of “local articles with a local focus” will be lost with the demise of the daily newspaper, a concern that is shared in Nelson as well; as is the question of the quality of the news content that will produced now in markets where there is no competition.

Terry Field is an associate professor and program chair for the journalism major in the Bachelor of Communication program at Mount Royal University, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.