Waddell: They only have themselves to blame


By: Ken Waddell


Giant newspaper companies are cutting jobs, sometimes by the hundreds. Every few months, another headline pops up, usually gleefully, first reported by a competing newspaper chain, that such-and-such media giant has cut some more jobs.

Many chains are bound by union contracts, so the cuts come to the younger, less experienced employees. However, it’s those very employees that are the future of the news industry, be it at that company or somewhere else.

In rural, southwestern Manitoba, there are still some independently owned newspapers: the Neepawa Banner and the Rivers Banner being two. There’s also the Killarney Guide, Glenboro Gazette, Boissvain Recorder, Minnedosa Tribune, Crossroads Today, South Mountain Press and the Cartwright Review.

The rest are corporate owned. Glacier, which is based out of Vancouver, owns the Neepawa Press, Westman Journal, Melita New Era, Deloraine Times and Star, Reston Recorder, Souris Plain Dealer, and the Virden Empire-Advance. FP owns the Brandon Sun and the Carberry News-Express along with the big daily paper, the Winnipeg Free Press. FP also owns about seven weeklies in and around Winnipeg.

The independents have been slowly but surely selling out to the corporations. Quite bluntly, that move hasn’t been all that good for newspapers, for readers and for advertisers or the communities they serve. It hasn’t been apparently all that good for the corporations either as they have made numerous cuts in order to improve their bottom line.

Corporations blame their reduced income on the internet. That’s not actually true, as the internet income isn’t that realistic. Very few companies make very much on the internet news business or ads for that matter. The internet presence is very real but very little of it generates any money.

The owners of eBay may be making some money somewhere -- Google perhaps -- but a lot of the news and classified ad stuff on the web is free. Little or no money there.

Regardless, the internet is not to blame for newspaper woes. The newspapers have only themselves to blame. The large corporations centralize billing, page lay-out, sales and news coverage. They centralize everything in their race to the bottom. Now after years of cuts and centralization, newspapers need to take a hard look at themselves to see where the problem is.

Independent newspapers, for the most part, figured it out a long time ago. Lack of local ownership is to blame, as lack of local content, lack of local ad sales effort and lack of local knowledge is where the corporate newspapers go wrong. They won’t hire enough local people to get the job done.

Certainly all newspaper offices are smaller than they used to be but just as the only three things that count in real estate are location, location, location, in the newspaper business, it’s local, local, local. The news, the ads and the staffing has to be local. Former US house speaker, Tip O’Neill used to say, “All politics is local”. So it is with news.

Just as a further illustration, a few years back, a publisher did a quick on-line review of 26 big daily papers. Twenty-four had the same lead or front page story. That’s nonsense. It only goes to prove that in journalism, be it newspapers, TV, radio or the internet, we have too many repeaters and not enough reporters.

On the down and dirty, nuts and bolts side of things, it’s only in local ownership where you get the top-level buy-in by the owner/publisher. And if the cash runs a bit short, it’s the owner’s pay cheque that goes un-cashed for a while, so the salaries and bills can be paid. There’s some great advantages to owning a business, but there’s some very real pitfalls too and that’s one of them.

Corporate papers may not survive. They can only cut back so far until viability is completely gone. They will either split up into smaller, more local entities or they will be squeezed out of the market place by smaller, more locally-owned and operated papers. Corporations can’t keep cutting 500 jobs at a time and still survive, especially if they do nothing to improve their news content.

Needless to say, as an independently owned paper, I have no sympathy for the corporate giants. They try to bully in the market place, they try to bully the newspaper associations and they have no concept of what it means to be a locally sensitive entity. What they should do is break up their ownership into local or at least regional news organizations and perhaps they could survive.

And they need to stop blaming advertisers and the internet, they only have themselves to blame for their decline and demise. It’s not the first time an industry has had to adjust to changes and it won’t be the last.