Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Newspaper orphans can do just fine

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This week has brought another spate of items in the news predicting the death of daily newspapers.

I’ve gotten used to these over the years. Such predictions have long been a favourite of online commentators, who gleefully predict people will be reading only them in the future.

The main thing such writers have in common – apart from massive use of self-serving arguments -- is that they have little knowledge of the complex nature of newspaper business models or of how these models are being transformed. Attend a newspaper conference these days and you will be overwhelmed by the sheer number of new ideas being developed around the globe.

Admittedly, I was a bit alarmed to see David Carr, the respected media columnist for the New York Times, write a piece headlined: "Print Is Down, and Now Out."

Carr and others were commenting on a recent series of moves by large American media firms to spin off their newspapers into independent companies, separate from their more lucrative TV and digital properties.

Thus orphaned, so the thinking goes, these newspaper companies will wither and die.

Well, I have a message for the spun off newspaper firms: "Welcome to the orphans’ club!"

The Winnipeg Free Press was an orphan in 2001 when it was sold by the Thomson Corp., which was divesting itself of its newspapers to focus on electronic information services.

Ron Stern and Bob Silver had confidence in the newspaper’s future and purchased the Free Press and sister paper the Brandon Sun. In 2002, 49 per cent of the company was made into a publicly traded entity, which is now known as FP Newspapers Inc. Ron Stern remains the majority owner of the company.

Over almost 13 years, FP has performed steadily as it has adapted to what are undeniably challenging and changing times for newspapers.

We’ve grown to encompass two daily and eight community newspapers and many related digital businesses. We help advertisers reach customers in print, certainly, but also through many other means such as online ads and social media. Our digital developers produce websites, mobile apps and much more for customers. We print the daily Metro newspaper for Torstar as well as many community and ethnic newspapers owned by others. Our carriers now deliver not just the Free Press and Brandon Sun, but other publications as well.

You may recall that in 2001 the big media company in Winnipeg, owner of multiple Canadian daily newspapers, was Canwest. It went bankrupt and has disappeared.

Our most recent quarterly financial results were released today. They show us holding up better than most public newspaper companies. Revenue for the second quarter was down 5.6 per cent on a year over year basis, but expenses were also down – by 3.5 per cent before restructuring costs are considered – the result of careful management and prudent responses to drops in revenue. A bright spot was a 4.7 per cent increase in internet revenue, a continuing growth area as we develop how we serve our growing digital audience.

At our board meeting, I presented facts on the Free Press and how its audience has changed over the past five years. It went something like this: "In 2008, our readership was 391,000 adults, in 2009 it was 412,000, in 2010 it was 419,000, in 2011 it was 410,000 and in 2013 it was 405,000 adults."

In other words, our audience size is stable.

Those figures alone contradict anyone predicting the imminent demise of the newspaper.

Are times challenging for conventional newspaper companies? You bet.

We have to adapt to the shifting reading habits of our audience – about 10 per cent of them look at our content only digitally, for example. But we are adapting, we will continue to adapt and we’ll await the day when people start commenting on the rebirth of newspapers.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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