Money’s getting sucked out of the big players, but independent papers say they’re finding success
As large corporations make headlines showcasing an apparent decline in Canada’s newspaper industry, Kevin Weedmark and the Moosomin World-Spectator continue to thrive.
Weedmark purchased the southeast Saskatchewan weekly paper in 2002, with a circulation of 1,700. Today, that number sits around 5,000, bringing overall circulation to 43,000 when the publisher’s two additional regional papers are included.
“When I bought this newspaper, I didn’t think of it as a business-first. I thought of it as a community service-first,” Weedmark said Monday.
“There’s nothing magical about Moosomin, or what we’ve done here, that you couldn’t do anywhere. I mean, a proper newspaper that’s there to serve its community first is going to be successful.”
It’s a stark contrast to the reality playing out for some major papers owned by Postmedia Network Corp.
The company announced last week it is laying off 11 per cent of its editorial staff, among other changes to printing presses, office spaces and publishing schedules.
Postmedia employs about 650 journalists across Canada, and also owns Saskatchewan’s two major urban daily newspapers: the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Regina Leader-Post.
It’s selling the historic StarPhoenix building and all remaining journalists will work from home. The papers’ printing press will also be moved from Saskatoon to Estevan, Sask., located around 200 kilometres southeast of Regina.
LISTEN | What does the future of newspapers in Saskatchewan look like?
Blue Sky50:02What does the future of newspapers in Saskatchewan look like?
It’s a time of great change for Saskatchewan’s two biggest daily papers and those changes are very alarming for the people who work at those papers and those who depend on them for local news. Today on the show we take a look at what is to blame for the latest Postmedia problems and we talk to weekly newspaper editors across this province who say the future is hyper-local. We heard from Journalism professor Patricia Elliott, Moosomin world spectator Editor Kevin Weedmark, Prince Albert Daily Herald Editor Jason Kerr, and Steve Nixon Executive Director of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association.
Austin Davis, a journalist with the Regina Leader-Post since 2014, tweeted about the changes on Jan. 25.
“It’s more uncertainty for beleaguered, resilient newsrooms and hardworking reporters,” Davis wrote.
“I can’t and won’t defend these decisions. In nine years, I’ve seen dozens of colleagues take buyouts or leave due to burnout, stress and low pay. The survivors are expected to continue publishing the same standard of product. It is impossible.”
‘Maddening and frustrating’
Trish Elliott, a distinguished professor of investigative and community journalism at First Nations University of Canada and an executive member of J-Schools Canada, wrote an opinion editorial for CBC Saskatchewan published Monday and joined Blue Sky later that day to share her thoughts.
“It’s just madding and frustrating. The state of media concentration in Canada has been this like growing train wreck,” Elliott told CBC’s Heather Morrison.
“It seems like every 10 years we have a commission saying that the way media is owned here needs to be better regulated. But nothing ever happens.”
Elliott pointed to the fact her local newspaper in Saskatchewan is currently owned by a hedge fund in the U.S.
“We’re not being protected from foreign ownership, obviously, as the majority shareholders are in the U.S. for Postmedia. And again that is a regulatory failure,” she said.
Steve Nixon, the executive director of the Saskatchewan Newspapers Association, also pointed out the impact large corporations are having on the overall state of print media.
“Good journalism costs money,” Nixon said.
“The money that’s being used to pay journalists is being sucked out, mainly, by two major companies, neither of which are owned by a Canadian entity.”
Independent daily seeing success
Jason Kerr is the editor of the employee-owned and operated Prince Albert Daily Herald, one of Canada’s few independent daily newspapers.
In 2017, a group of employees reached a tentative deal to buy the paper from Star News Publishing Inc., preventing the paper from folding. The deal was completed on May 1, 2018, with the Prince Albert Herald beginning operation under FolioJumpline Publishing Inc.
“It’s definitely been a lot of work, but it’s been very rewarding and the community has responded by backing us,” Kerr said.
Kerr, who has worked at the paper since 2015, said being employee-owned and operated has allowed the paper to focus in on local stories and support community events.
Still, he noted the number of newspapers in northern Saskatchewan has been on a slow decline. He pointed to the end of the La Ronge Northerner, a weekly paper that closed after 41 years in 2015.
“It just left a huge gap, so there’s not a lot if you want to get your news from a print newspaper,” Kerr said, adding the north is often referred to as a “media desert.”
“A place where there’s just a ton of stuff happening, a ton of news, both good and bad, that’s going unreported because there aren’t enough reporters up there.”
The independent publishing company behind the Herald has looked to fill that void. It prints a monthly stand-alone newspaper called The Northern Advocate, which is distributed across northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Kerr said the other great thing about being an independent entity is having the choice to reinvest in the community and support local events.
“There’s really no discussion,” he said. “We just look at and go, ‘Yeah, this is something we want to support and we support it.'”