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There’s a Reason Newspapers Are Struggling: Waddell

August 12, 2017 7:44 AM | Columns

By Ken Waddell, myWestman


(Newspaper image via Shutterstock)

NEEPAWA, Man. — Over the years, my experience has lead me to a well-established philosophy about how to run a newspaper. It is fairly simple. Define your coverage area, print news that is relevant to your coverage area, try to only print the facts in the news stories and opinions on the editorial or opinion pages. With that philosophy in mind, it drives me crazy to read our three daily papers in Manitoba. While they have good, well-intentioned staff who may know their coverage area fairly well, they always seem to wander off topic, and quite badly. It has been reported, both in public financial statements and in observational articles, that daily papers are losing strength. It should not come as a surprise.

The Winnipeg Free Press and its sister paper, the Brandon Sun, are struggling financially. That’s not gossip, it is easy enough to determine from their publicly available financial statements. The Winnipeg Sun is part of Post Media and their financial woes have been well aired. The PM group has had a few very rough years. At the same time, many local weekly papers are staying strong and even some are gaining strength.

So why are dailies struggling? Part of their problem is that while they may know their coverage area, they don’t stick to it. Instead of publishing local stuff, they stray off course and publish dubious material. This week, one of the dailies published a story about a man who did an obscene thing to some people at a concert. OK, that wasn’t nice and it might have had local relevance in a Manitoba daily except for one thing. It happened in New Mexico.

This silly habit of thinking the obscure, the obscene and the weird happenings are real news when it happens hundreds of miles from the coverage area is very harmful to a paper’s relevance and local influence.

I can see a daily publishing some national and international news and that’s fine. But why would they see the need to publish stuff that has no local relevance? Oh, the publishers will say, “It sells papers”. Apparently, that isn’t working out all that well for them, as readership numbers and ad dollars are dwindling in the dailies. And as far as printing national and international news is concerned, that may have been OK decades ago, when the local daily was the only source of news a reader might have. What I can’t figure out is why the daily publishers haven’t figured out that people see all the national and international news on TV or the internet as many as 12-15 hours ahead of the papers hitting the streets. It is impossible for a daily paper to be “first” with international and national news.

It hurts all papers when some papers dwindle or fail. It annoys me when any paper falls or fails, as it casts a shadow on all papers. So what should the dailies do? They should do what we weeklies do and that is define the coverage area and stick to it. The big TV networks and the internet news outlets aren’t going to cover the local stuff, but newspapers can and should. The dailies should also encourage and accept local news and photo submissions. It’s a no-brainer.

Daily papers can come back but they have to change their ways drastically. If the large corporate, slash and burn approach continues, whereby financial markets and return-on-shares rule the day, papers will die. Ironically, the last investors standing will lose their investment. Let’s hope that the bigger papers take a look at their smaller cousins and learn some tried and true ways to survival and success.

Ken Waddell is the publisher of the Neepawa Banner, the Rivers Banner and myWestman.ca.