By Megan Devlin for J-Source, the Canadian Journalism Project.
Eric Plummer, editor of the Alberni Valley Times, remembers the day last September when two representatives from Black Press told him his paper was closing.
“They came in, I think it was like 4:00 or 4:30,” he said. “I don’t think that we’d even finished the paper yet, actually.”
The daily paper, which served the 25,000 people of Alberni Valley on Vancouver Island from 1967 to 2015, was one of 11 British Columbia community newspapers that Black Press bought from Glacier Media in 2014.
“I won’t contend that the paper wasn’t losing money,” Plummer said. “I think at that point I was just so hellbent on keeping the paper going that I refused to believe that we were going to be dying just yet.”
On Oct. 9, 2015, Plummer published the paper’s last edition.
Three months later, the Nanaimo Daily News — also part of Black Press’s package of papers bought from Glacier — was closed as well.
The buying and subsequent closing of newspapers is a story that repeats over and over again in small B.C. communities.
Since 2010, Black Press has eliminated 10 papers and Glacier Media has shuttered seven. Several others have had their publication schedules reduced.
Buying and Closing the Competitor
Black Press said no more immediate closures are planned. But according to president and CEO Rick O’Connor, operating two papers in a small market is becoming increasingly unfeasible.
The 2014 purchase from Glacier meant Black Press owned both papers in three different towns. It also meant Black Press now owns all newspapers on Vancouver Island except for the Times Colonist in Victoria.
In Nanaimo and Port Alberni, Black Press shut down its new acquisitions and chose to focus on the papers it already operated — the Nanaimo News Bulletin and the Alberni Valley News.
“Collectively, [the two closed papers] lost $800,000 over the past 12 months and were not economically sustainable…. Unfortunately, this was the condition they were in when we purchased them from Glacier,” O’Connor said.
This year’s closures echoed the shuttering of the Nelson Daily News and Prince Rupert Daily News in 2010.
Black Press bought those two dailies as part of another 11-paper acquisition from Glacier and closed them in favour of operating its established weeklies in both communities.
“In the situation where you have two community newspapers…competing in a marketplace, typically, one paper or both end up losing money,” O’Connor said.
When Black Press acquired its most recent batch of 11 Glacier papers in 2014, O’Connor said only one — the Duncan Citizen — was making money.
He said the competition between Black Press and Glacier papers in their respective communities was driving down advertising rates to unsustainable levels.
“In many cases the rates were below cost…that’s how crazy it was,” he said, adding that his rates were 40 per cent lower than the average for the rest of Canada.
Buying the competing paper was a way of stopping the unsustainable advertising rate race to the bottom.
He also said Black Press and Glacier papers had massive duplication — covering the same stories and getting published on the same day.
“What we tried to do in all of the restructuring with Glacier was to eliminate that duplication,” he said. “At no point along the way did we ever reduce the editorial content of any of the projects.”
A Single Paper Remains
Since the restructuring with Glacier, O’Connor said his remaining papers are doing well — particularly in communities that went from two papers to one.
“Island markets like Campbell River and Duncan and Port Alberni and also Nanaimo…the existing papers are seeing revenue increases north of 25 per cent,” O’Connor said.
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He noted that web traffic has also increased. But some journalists warn creating media monopolies can be dangerous. “It’s concentration of media,” said Don Genova, president of the Canadian Media Guild’s freelance branch.
“It leaves communities without that double voice. It means there’s less competition for stories. It means there’s actually less reporting.”
O’Connor argued that reporters were stretched already because competition for ad revenue made finances tight.
The Glacier papers he bought, he said, weren’t covering things like city council because they didn’t have the staff. He believes a single, better-financed paper in a community could do a better job.
Unions Too Expensive
Plummer thinks part of the reason Black Press couldn’t stomach his paper financially was because Alberni Valley Times workers were unionized. “Reporters were paid $25 an hour according to the union contract,” he said. “But it's actually become very, very unusual in journalism.”
Reporters went on strike in 2014 at the Cowichan News Leader over a proposed two-tier pay system to prevent new hires from reaching the same maximum pay.
“Eventually [older staff are] going to leave and that would leave the paper with a much cheaper operation,” Genova explained. In April 2015, while workers were still on strike, the paper closed.
“It seems to be all about the money and not about caring at all about their employees,” Genova said.
O’Connor said union contracts negotiated at a time when print was “the only game in town” don’t work in the current media landscape. “Nobody wants to lose benefits or take a pay cut or get laid off or lose another member of their editorial team,” he said. “
But they just don't understand that the impact of these two things — the recession and also products like Craigslist…[that] siphoned away the classified business — have been devastating toward the revenue stream of newspapers.”
Plummer said he’s too passionate about his craft to be happy with the way things ended at the Alberni Valley Times, but he acknowledges that getting money behind quality journalism is a conundrum the whole industry — not just community papers — is facing.
“I've found other work that uses some of my skills, but it's not journalism because it just doesn't pay right now.
I hope to god that, somehow, the industry will re-adjust so that a person can afford to have a family and be a journalist.”