My Newspaper Finale

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I’m not sure why it is that the papers in Canada haven’t done more to survive. Clearly, they have things on their minds other than paid circulation—which is where I have worked for the last fourteen years. From a societal viewpoint, it’s already tragic that newspaper ownership has been allowed to concentrate in Canada the way it has, let alone what that means for those who operate as their vendors.

 Very few people will read this, even fewer will care. So many started their working careers selling or delivering newspapers that it’s worth a mention. It’s the passing of an era.

I’ve heard there are partially publicly funded newspapers in some Scandinavian countries. I’m told these seem to be working well enough, with sufficient legislation keeping the government’s nose out of editorial to allow the fundamental role newspapers play in their societies to continue. Unfortunately, Canada is so close to the US in ideology—with its reliance on letting the marketplace decide the viability of a product no matter its importance—which means it’s doubtful that we’d ever consider moving to that kind of model.

A malevolent stew of ingredients has been slow-cooking this part of the information sector for some time. These include the aforementioned ownership issue, in Canada an almost laughable consequence of precedence.

Detractors like to mention hubris, citing things like decisions made in the 90s to sell yesterday’s news. Though I wasn’t yet working as a full time vendor, having read at least one daily most days of my life, I remember at the time this was pivotal. It signaled something almost ungrateful, something that disconnected people emotionally from newspapers. As far as many were concerned, it was seen as breaking a pact with the public; we no longer shared the same-day news value.

It also was part of what left newspapers open to being beat in the marketplace by faster and more efficient assemblers of information. First Craigslist and later Kijiji obliterated their once great stranglehold on the classified ad, and then a plethora of online news products offering free content watered down the once mighty status of newspapers of all stripes.

The tradition of newspaper ownership insisting on using their platform to sway public opinion by backing favoured candidates during elections has also undermined credibility with a public that expects at least a modicum of neutrality on issues. That’s what customers tell me. I know this because my reps have been knocking on doors across Canada for more than a decade, and people tell us what they want or don’t want, but especially what they don’t.

I know. Editorial stance has a long tradition. I’m saying it was a bad one.

The list of gripes goes on. We weren’t swayed. Trust me when I say as vendors we developed a keen answer to every objection over the years. Despite all this, newspapers are still valued by a segment of the population. However, what I read is that when the market is allowed to determine the true value for newspaper products, the natural price falls to zero. That leaves us in a difficult position. At least in Canada, we have an economically worthless product that commands only a tiny fraction of the loyalty required from the general public to survive.

Speaking of which, I’ve been asking about loyalty programs since before 2009. I’ve talked with every circulation manager from Alberta to Ontario, and got a polite audience each time from well-intentioned folks hamstrung by decisions being made under an increasingly centralized chain of command. Any financial inducement to new subscribers by our sales teams has to be built into the price, making it far more than what your average consumer will pay. I’ve asked about using premiums from local advertisers to provide additional value to the print reader. We saw a short-lived sprinkling of green/organic trial coupons tried in Calgary and it worked very well, boosting sales; Edmonton did even less, and the other markets even less than that.

As soon as the Ipad came out, many predicted the newspaper’s days were numbered. Sure enough, half a dozen years later almost half of Canadian households have at least one. The drop in advertising post-2008-9 recession, the severity of of which had not been seen in more than half a century, ensured the print news at least, if not the whole sector, was in deep trouble.

 

The one day per week print paper might still have appeal, or a bundled print/digital product that came at a very low subscription rate. We’d need to get paid a good rate as vendors for both a weekend order and/or digital edition to survive. The Canadian newspapers responded by cutting our deal for one day orders even more. It seemed at the time as if they were petulantly insisting we give them what they want, or nothing, regardless of what the market demanded. I prefer to think it was just that they didn’t believe they had the money.

That first Christmas when tablets appeared, I picked up two of the first generation Ipads–one for the missus and one for my top account manager. I felt a little guilty about reading newspapers this way after being a loyal print reader for four decades. It took a couple more years before I picked up a Blackberry Playbook and began to read the free online edition of the National Post. I kept my daily print paper coming to the house until two years ago. Now I read the odd print paper out of nostalgia, if at all.

Because of the natural transition from print to digital occurring everywhere, newspapers didn’t see the benefit of paying much for digital customers at the door or kiosk. There was already a migrating wave of e-edition subscription enrolment as readers got rid of print. Perhaps that was sufficient to convince our newspaper clients they were doing well enough in that area, since they weren’t making much money from that type of subscriber anyway. These were readers they could deliver to practically for free online.

However, it also meant we were showing up at customer’s doors selling a format the reader had already divorced themselves from mentally. Many were grateful not to have to recycle all those newspapers, and the comments above represent just a sampling of the public’s negativity. We found that our reps had to be trained to such a high level that we’d soon lose them to competing jobs. Sales anywhere are trendy—we realize that. There aren’t many bible salesman around anymore either.

Regardless, if our newspaper client’s brand isn’t in front of the consumer in as many ways possible, both in print and digital, then I suppose the risk is we lose them to Google forever. That seems to be the case.

What was a fairly easy impulse buy at five or ten bucks a month for three months just ten years ago, rose to almost thirty per month for a six month deal and is now a commitment of twenty dollars per month, six months minimum. To ask a Canadian to fork over more than a hundred bucks for news they can get for free doesn’t fly, no matter how you dress it up.

For the past few years, we’ve been pushing our Canadian newspaper clients to adopt some of the practices of the US markets in which we still have decent sales, where there was enough competition to encourage different approaches. Bright spots emerged as a result of that collaboration. Cities where we sell a one day order bundled with digital for a very low monthly rate retain at 50% or better a year or more out. That’s pretty good for our business. Whether it’s good enough for everyone isn’t for me to decide. I note other markets are asking for our services south of the border. People seem to be willing to tolerate a one day paper with digital bundled in, if it’s priced inexpensively at five or ten dollars per month.

Unfortunately, Canada doesn’t seem willing or able to go that route, at least not yet. Of course, we can’t keep sales teams in the field while they decide. Just a few years ago, I had more than 150 reps working for up to ten managers in seven cities for up to a dozen newspaper clients. We were good at it because we looked after our people. The papers supported our efforts, and we felt more or less valued. We did our best to represent our newspaper clients with integrity and honour, proud to be part of its great history. However, over time, we’ve lost every manager and a steadily dwindling turnover of reps to the forces of creative destruction and an apathetic client who seems to be in the game for the ride downhill. I’m the last crew man standing in Canada from our company.

I, for one, would have been happy to spend the rest of my days flogging a product I believe in deeply. My grandfather had been a reporter in his youth, and my father got his writing start in Halifax as a cub reporter. Our family had the Le Droit, the Ottawa Citizen and, when it was still around, the Ottawa Journal, delivered to the house as I was growing up. I was a carrier for all three, and even did a stint for the Globe and Mail, rising at 5 am and delivering papers by bike all over the south end of Ottawa. I got my start doing doors selling subscriptions on Saturdays after finishing my route.

Every Canadian city where we once held flourishing accounts have now closed: Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Toronto, all gone. Smaller communities we’d often go into once or twice a year to boost circulation haven’t had crews or kiosk visits for years. Though there was some grumbling in the last few years about our service, and about me personally not being able to deliver, I hold no hard feelings towards anyone who was in the business, or the few of them who remain. I’m not a miracle worker and I did my best. My experience working with dedicated newspaper folks all over Canada has been positive, and I still hold many of them in high regard.

Some have left the business like rats swimming away from a sinking ship; some have nobly disembarked with heads held high… and some have been forced to walk the plank. My best to each one of them.

It is the wonderful reps and managers I worked with over the years that were by far the best part of the job. I know I’ve had an impact on many of them, just as each of them in their own way was able to teach me something. I was also proud to represent our company, rising through the ranks to the top Canadian job. I learned so much from my experiences and a lot of us will stay in touch. Recently, one of my old Vancouver managers told me about his girlfriend’s sister’s husband who worked for me over a decade ago. I don’t really remember him but the name is familiar. He says he remembers many of my motivational speeches, with one thing in particular that has stuck: happiness is a decision. A fitting thought to end on.

So it’s with some regret and misgiving that I won’t be in the business any longer. I wish the whole industry the best of luck as it finds its new low, or morphs into whatever it needs to become to survive. I’ll be pulling for this important guarantor of democracy and free speech from the sidelines.

Last person to leave turns out the lights.

 P.S. Need help with something? Check me out at ckwallace.com or fill out this form and we’ll talk.

 

Christopher K. Wallace

 Senior Vice President, Canada
Circulation Marketing Inc.
© CKWallace 2016, all rights reserved
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