Media Monday Edmonton: Righting the ship at the Edmonton Journal

After a year full of change, the Edmonton Journal of 2013 and beyond will be a very different newspaper than the one you’ve come to know. In fact, if the transition goes according to plan, you won’t think of it as a “newspaper” at all. Instead you’ll think of it as “the most valued source of information about our community…accessible when and where our readers want.” That’s the Journal’s vision statement, and its leaders would suggest that the changes made over the last few months were all in support of that goal. While that may be true, there’s also the business reality of being owned by a larger organization that continues to lose millions of dollars every quarter in an industry undergoing dramatic change. With a leaner organization and a greater focus on increasing revenue, can the Journal (and Postmedia) really turn things around?

Edmonton Journal

“Everyone agrees the old business model for newspapers is challenged,” says Edmonton Journal Editor in Chief Lucinda Chodan. “No one has figured out an alternative that allows us to pay a large newsroom full of journalists good wages to continue to do fine contextual journalism that sheds light on important local, national and international issues.” The truth is, we have never really paid for the news. As usual, Clay Shirky sums it up well: “We have, at most, helped pay for the things that paid for the news.” Newspapers produced bundles of content and sold ads against that content, but the realities that allowed that to work in the print world no longer exist in the digital world. “Newspapers, as a sheaf of unrelated content glued together with ads, aren’t just being threatened with unprofitability, but incoherence,” Shirky wrote.

Solving that problem is not trivial, and it’s harder still when the business needs to continue to operate. That has led to the deep cuts at newspapers all over North America. Here in Canada, Postmedia hopes to cut spending by $120 million over the next three years, and it has made changes across the chain in an effort to do just that. In August came one of the biggest yet: all of its newspapers now use shared pages built at a central facility in Hamilton for non-local content. Instead of each newspaper selecting and editing national and international stories, they’ll all print the same thing. The initiative, dubbed OneTouch, meant the loss of 20 full-time equivalent jobs (FTEs) at the Edmonton Journal.

We’ve seen a number of other changes happen here in Edmonton already this year. In June, the Journal stopped publishing the TV Times, which resulted in numerous complaints and the direct loss of 96 subscribers. Starting July 1, the Journal dropped the Sunday edition. As of the end of August, that had resulted in the direct loss of 320 subscribers and many more complaints. And while the impact of the stoppage of rural home delivery is hard to quantify, it could be significant (the paper is still available in grocery stores, gas stations, and other locations in rural areas). In August, the Journal announced it would outsource the actual printing of the newspaper to Great West Newspapers, starting in 2013. A total of 70 full-time jobs would be cut as a result.

In September the Journal’s six-day average circulation was 95,706 (total of everyone who bought a paper, subscriber or otherwise), so while the number of actual subscribers lost as a result of the changes seems relatively small, the impact on headcount has likely had a much larger effect. Both Cam Tait and Nick Lees are no longer full-time employees, though both are writing weekly columns. Ed Struzik is another recently departed member of the newsroom, after he requested a buyout. Those are just the most recent names you recognize to leave, however. Dozens of former staffers are gone, and that has likely had a very real psychological effect both inside and outside the organization.

More changes are on the way. Fortunately, it sounds as though most others will be focused on increasing revenue rather than simply cutting costs. Yes, you might soon find yourself paying for content that was previously “free”. In August, four of Postmedia’s newspapers launched paywalls. “You can’t spend millions of dollars on content and just give it away,” Postmedia chief executive officer Paul Godfrey said. A paywall here in Edmonton is virtually guaranteed, and will launch sometime this fall according to Chodan.

Another big change on the way is “product differentiation.” The key here is for the Journal to stop thinking of itself as a newspaper, and instead as a news organization utilizing a variety of platforms, print being just one of them. That should enable it to take advantage of the opportunities provided by each platform – there are things you can do with a tablet that just aren’t possible on paper. I don’t think the printed newspaper will ever go away completely, just as vinyl records have not vanished, but there are big advantages to this strategy of treating print as just another platform. You might pay more for a tablet application that brings you interactive features, for instance.

It’s an example of how the Journal is becoming more deliberate about finding new revenue streams. This doesn’t mean you’ll see sponsored news articles, however. “We don’t expect our journalists to build revenue into their considerations when they are gathering and disseminating news,” Chodan says. Instead, think of e-books and other non-newspaper products. “Many newspapers are now creating new revenue streams around (often primarily digital) content that has high reader interest, good journalism and revenue attached.”

The Journal took a big step down this path over the summer with the launch of Capital Ideas. The goal is to bring local entrepreneurs together to share what they know, and so far the events have been well-received. Generating revenue from that effort hasn’t been a focus yet, but that’ll have to change eventually. If it works, Capital Ideas could become a model for other Journal-led projects. “We are examining the ways that we can add value to readers’ lives…then figuring out how to make the financials add up,” Chodan said.

Edmonton Journal Building

There’s no guarantee that any of these efforts will bear fruit, of course. We have seen past initiatives fail to deliver, most recently The Bridge. If the new projects don’t turn out well, there’s always the possibility of additional cuts, either to staff or to the six-day print schedule as we have seen elsewhere. For instance, September 29 was the final daily edition of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. It now prints just three days a week, a widely-discussed change that led to a number of protests. It’s a reminder that things could get worse before they get better.

Without question we’ll look back on 2012 as a difficult year for the Journal, with job cuts and other big changes, but there is reason to be optimistic for the future. “If you count all platforms, readership of newspapers has never been higher,” Chodan said. “It’s just a matter of monetizing that readership in some reasonable fashion.”

The question is, can the Edmonton Journal figure out the monetization puzzle before it’s too late?

12 thoughts on “Media Monday Edmonton: Righting the ship at the Edmonton Journal

  1. Very interested to see how their business model shifts.
    I already avoid news paywalls like the plague. In what I would consider our over-saturated local market I can usually find multiple local ‘news’ stories on SM or the TV station websites as opposed to editorials pretty easy. I will not be paying an Edm Journal paywall.

    Also, while I enjoy the Capital Ideas panels I don’t know if there is significant value to warrant a price of admittance.

    The future just may be mobile and I can see a lot of the cash freed from staff, aside from being put against debt, being put into architecture and programming. It has worked on a small scale to drive up the price for TheScore and their great mobile imprint.
    http://business.financialpost.com/2012/09/06/rogers-readies-mobile-sports-apps-following-score-bid/

  2. Nobody wants to see the Journal find its feet more than me – well, okay, almost nobody – but it seems to me that hitching its fortunes to a paywall (the less said about the Edmonton Experiment, the better) is something dangerously close to magical thinking.

    Has a paywall (implemented post-facto) ever worked for a paper of the Journal’s size? From what I can tell, even the big papers with great product and an economy of scale in terms of its readership (which is usually national/international in scope) are struggling to produce meaningful revenues from their paywalls.

    My sense is that a paper like the Journal, given the size of its audience, can’t possibly hope to generate significant amounts of money from a paywall, and risks alienating its already shrinking readership – and eroding its tenuously-held advertising base in the process. Far from saving newspapers the Journal, these ill-conceived paywalls may be the thing that tips them over into the abyss.

    Your thoughts?

    (and, for what it’s worth, the whole “readership across all platforms” chestnut is a misnomer, since there’s almost certainly double-counting taking place)

    1. I agree with most of your points, definitely. I think there’s absolutely double-counting taking place, and I agree that a paywall seems unlikely to be the answer. I’m not a fan of the idea, and I think it’ll create opportunity for others more than it’ll help the Journal.

      I’m not sure they are hitching their fortunes to it though. I think the idea of generating revenue with a variety of projects is a good one. If you have talented people who can produce quality content, I think there’s a market for that.

      1. I agree. Between hacked paywalls and a sizable captured market, the New York Times – arguably one of the western world’s most recognizable news brands – is barely making a go out of paywalls. The Edmonton Journal just does not have the same scale. After being lifelong subscribers, we recently let our print subscription go after a noticeable drop in quality. I realize the vicious circle, of course, that this leads to.

        To its credit, the Edmonton Journal has spent significant efforts developing its own reader and app. While it has given away these items for free, to date, I wonder whether an annual subscription to the EJ App ($20/year) may be a way to monetize access to its content. Nickle and diming customers by the article is a failed approach, in my opinion and experience.

        I also wonder, with the lightspeed pace of news-cycles, whether the Journal should just print Friday/Saturday/Sunday editions – reserving these days for in-depth investigations of local and regional news – and leave Monday through Thursday for digital, “up-to-the-minute” reporting.

        Frankly, Mack, the Edmonton Journal also needs to learn a thing or two from you. Your ability to pick-up on and report stories just like these on a regular basis as a citizen-journalist should create an urgency on its part to start utilizing and paying for your efforts – with an admission that such shifts will continue to degrade “journalism” as a profession, however out-dated that notion already seems to be.

      2. Let me try to put it another way: focus less on “breaking” the news or describing “what” happened and more on “analyzing” the news or describing “why” it matters.

        Whether the Journal is able to make that shift or some other organization comes along to do it, I think it is inevitable!

      3. Part of the problem here is the built-in assumption that a larger news organization is, a priori, better than a smaller one. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, and I think the economics are such that the only way newspapers will exist, much less thrive, going forward is if they’re smaller, less centralized and less bureaucratic.

        I know it’s an uncomfortable thought, and I know people working in the industry don’t want to hear it, but we’re never, ever going back to the way things used to be, and the headcounts in newsrooms won’t ever be what they once were.

        That said, I’m really, really wary of conflating the fate of newspapers with journalism itself. I think journalism will survive, and find new forms of expression, and I think some of those forms will be better than the ones we have today or had in the past.

      4. I would say journalism is stronger today than ever before. The fate of newspapers will do little to change that.

        I generally agree about headcount – we’re never going back to the way things were. I do think if the Journal were not part of Postmedia that it could support a larger headcount than recent cutbacks might suggest.

  3. I have been and Edmonton Journal subsciber for over 30 years but gave up on it a month ago when I realized it took me minutes to read what I wanted. The Globe and Mail seems to have gone to a smaller paper but maintains quality. I hope their model works. I want a paper edition with my morning coffee but worry about the long term chances of continuing to enjoy that treat. I supose I am going to have to get some kind of mobile device for the not too distant future.

  4. I am quite happy to see the ship go down. Smart newspapers have seen the writing on “the wall” for at least a decade. Senior management was rearranging the deck-chairs of their compensation agreements while the ship hit the iceberg alley – and even speed up the ship. Heck Mac you give me more relevant content – ONCE a week. No – I will not miss the vast majority of mediocrity that write in the Ed Journal each day – not Staples, Simons, Pratt, Kent, maybe Thompson but definitely Kleiss will be missed. Couldn’t happen to a better crew.

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