Heritage Group meeting of January 17, 2019.
by Leslie Walsh
Paul Samyn has been part of the Free Press newsroom for more than a quarter century, working his way up after starting as a rookie reporter in 1988. And if you count his time as a FP carrier as a boy, his connection goes back even further.
As a reporter, Paul wrote for every section of the paper, covered elections, wars overseas and the funerals of a royal princess and a prime minister. The graduate of the University of Winnipeg and Red River College helped lead the Free Press’s political coverage for a decade as its Ottawa bureau chief before being named city editor in 2007.
In the summer of 2012, Paul was promoted to Editor, becoming only the 15th person to hold that office since the Free Press began publishing in 1872.
Paul was asked to present on the Winnipeg Free Press (FP) and the digital age.
What’s happening with the Free Press and the industry? Why should you care?
In 1980, when Paul delivered papers in Silver Heights to homes on Harmon, Fidler and Bruce St., he counted 100 subscribers. Now only 61 homes still have delivery; which isn’t bad. Print readership has declined steadily since 1950, down to only 18 subscribers per 100 homes in 2015. It is projected to be a mere two per 100 before long.
What is the impact? There is a correlation between readership and voter turnout. The 1977 election saw a 75.6% voter turnout. By 2016, the vote had dropped to 50.8%, a significant 25% decrease in little more than a generation.
Voting data from the U.S. indicates that Trump was stronger in areas underserved by newspapers. Ignorance creates all kinds of issues. If the electorate is not kept informed, and there are no common water cooler discussions, then there is no guidance.
Where we were and where we are and finding a way forward
Due to declining readership, 2016 FP revenue had dropped to 73% of 2011’s. The paper is nonetheless faring better than others in Canada and the U.S. Revenue for Postmedia, Canada’s largest media company that includes the Winnipeg Sun and others, is down to 58%. With Le Devoir holding at 92%, the FP lies in the middle of the pack and doing relatively well. All told, Canadian daily newspapers lost 40% of their revenues between 2005 and 2015.
Advertising money has correspondingly decreased. When Paul became editor in 2012, the paper’s budget was 10 million dollars. Now at 6.5 million, the newsroom has gone from 100 to 70 people. They have tried to minimize the impact with efficiencies in other places.
There used to be lots of reporters covering events along with radio and TV stations; now they sit in a newsroom re-writing what comes in from news feeds. Paul asked, “When should the weather lead a newscast unless it is fundamentally altering people’s lives like the tornado in Alonso.” He made the point that when you look outside and see a sundog, you know it is cold. Yet, many news reports begin with the weather.
Though the FP still sends regular reporters into the community, such as to the court house, Parliament Hill, city hall, and the legislature, many media outlets no longer employ dedicated reporters for these areas.
Even though print circulation is down, more people are reading the FP than ever before, with digital subscribers numbering 8,456. However, they don’t pay as much. For example, a print subscription costs approximately $41 a month, compared to $16.99 for digital. Paul stressed that the FP offers good value, costing much less than a $6 cup of coffee from Starbucks. Customers actually enjoy a paper at their doorstep every day for less than the cost of mail. And as adding online customers costs next to nothing, the FP is hoping to grow its digital subscriptions by 30 to 40 percent this year.
Politicians recognise that something needs to be done. A Postmedia bankruptcy, for example, would also drag down the U.S. Hedge Fund that owns it. That would leave its 28 markets, including Ottawa, without a newspaper. Already subsidizing TV and magazines such as McLeans, the feds have announced $600 million to support newspapers over the next 5 years. Five- to six-hundred-thousand of that would go to the Free Press and, in turn, to its newsroom.
Society needs information it can trust. No one knows from where much of the stuff online is coming. A lot of the news in the U.S. during its elections was deliberately concocted to influence voters. The FP is an independent, trusted, homegrown newspaper, whose reporters can canvass local people. Toronto-based sources such as CTV, CBC, etc. cannot do that.
Paul closed his presentation by asserting that FP publisher Bob Cox is very excited about the paper’s future. And after listening to Paul’s presentation, I am convinced there is definitely a future for the FP.
Questions and discussion followed. Some of the highlights:
- Article that reflects a reporter’s opinion are flagged as such. Others that are not flagged are factual.
- Reporters follow the guideline, “Don’t tell what was said, but what it means to you; we are the public’s eyes and ears.“
- The FP is one of the largest independents, with the best market penetration of any in Western Canada. Bob Silver and Ron Stern are the owners.
- The physical size of the paper has changed. It used to be wider and taller. It can’t go any narrower than it is now due to the size of the presses. Lots of papers have slimmed down, both as a cost saving and to better suit commuter readership. Winnipeg doesn’t face that pressure.
- Digital offers more media options, such as video, hyperlinks and slide shows.
- Innovation and technology opens new doors.