Are the Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa Suns’ days numbered?
By Terry Field
CALGARY, Alta./ Troy Media/ – Maybe coming to a city near you – if you live in Calgary, Edmonton or Ottawa – is a new daily newspaper called the Herald Sun or the Sun Journal.
This new product would be the result of merging the local Sun daily newspaper in a given city with the other established daily. The best possible new name could come in Ottawa where the daily Citizen could become the Citi-Sun, assuming that the widespread rumour is true.
It is difficult, however, to see how such a move would be useful to the parent company, Postmedia, which owns all the newspapers involved and needs desperately to maintain audiences, not drive them away.
When it purchased the Sun Media newspapers from Quebecor in fall 2014, Postmedia’s president and CEO Paul Godfrey said there were no plans to “close down anything” particularly in “overlapping” markets, though he didn’t rule out layoffs down the road.
But in November, Ottawa-based Frank magazine cited a “reliable” but unnamed source alleging that Postmedia will soon merge its newspapers in some if not all of Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.
Since its own rise in 2010 from the ashes of other Canadian media companies, Postmedia has fought to reduce its substantial debt and increase profit.
Godfrey widely characterized the $316-million Sun Media purchase as being a way to expand Postmedia’s potential audience, particularly in the digital world through the addition of the Sun news website Canoe. There were “synergies” to explore and exploit in nearly doubling the number of Postmedia employees through the acquisition, Godfrey said.
For the news media business, the main problem is the near collapse of traditional profit models. Advertising dollars are harder to find. Classified advertising has largely migrated to online, while businesses are increasingly using the Internet as an advertising tool. Fewer news consumers are willing to pay for news. With audiences fragmenting, traditional media have taken a massive financial hit.
There’s no magic wand to change things for the better. Media companies need to grow audiences. You do that by offering audiences specialized and differentiated content options – in other words, something it can’t get elsewhere. Then they can either charge for it directly or attract enough users to draw in advertising dollars.
When it purchased the Sun chain this past year, Postmedia added several large city commuter tabloids with catchy headlines, sometimes-cheeky commentary, short and to-the-point news stories, and a focus on sports. They’re different than the traditionally styled broadsheet dailies.
The merger would provide ways to combine the newsrooms while continuing to offer readers print and online content. Advertising teams could be combined, as could human resources functions and IT supports, while maintaining readers at current levels.
It was once the case that having two newspapers in a city fostered a competition to get the best stories and to get them first. That is much less the case now with the immediacy of the Internet.
No one is saying that doing any or all of this would be easy, which is all the more reason for Postmedia to give it more than a year and a bit to figure out; and all the more reason to doubt the veracity of the Frank report.
It would be silly to dismiss the possibility of newspaper mergers, but it is challenging to come up with the business case. If financial projections suggest a long-term gain in making the move, or if Postmedia has surveyed readers and determined that they would accept the change, then it could make sense. It is difficult, however, to believe readers would readily embrace the move.
However, if Postmedia combines rather than merges the Calgary Sun and the Calgary Herald for example, and launches a new product that captures the best features of each, while retaining and celebrating their respective histories, readers might more happily combine as well.
Since its formation Postmedia has focused most of its corporate effort on getting costs in line and much less time improving its news content. Whatever it decides to do with the Sun dailies, the decision should be based on the need to develop unique content options and assume audiences will embrace them.
Tinkering with business “synergies” is a status quo approach in a media world that has been walking on its hands instead of its feet for sometime already.
Terry Field is an associate professor of journalism in the Bachelor of Communication program at Mount Royal University, in Calgary.