WestEnder responds to its audience

A major overhaul in August of 1992 turned around the fortunes of the WestEnder, a stagnant community newspaper before the revamp.Although it was solidly entrenched in its area - Vancouver's populous downtown and West End - the WestEnder was facing a...

A major overhaul in August of 1992 turned around the fortunes of the WestEnder, a stagnant community newspaper before the revamp.

Although it was solidly entrenched in its area – Vancouver’s populous downtown and West End – the WestEnder was facing a number of major problems from increased competition to lack of a clear identity.

Increasingly irrelevant

Its role as a traditional community newspaper was becoming increasingly irrelevant in Vancouver’s highly urbanized inner core, and growth was lagging behind that of the community.

The WestEnder’s readership skewed towards older, long-term, low-income residents of the community.

To be more successful, it needed to shift its focus to attract more readers from the advertiser-desired young, urban adults and affluent middle class that now make up the greater portion of its marketplace.

The newspaper was redesigned along the lines of many successful urban alternative newspapers, such as Toronto’s free arts and entertainment weekly, Now, and the Seattle Weekly.

Cover treatment

Among a number of changes, the WestEnder adopted a magazine-style cover story treatment and increased coverage of the local arts and entertainment scene.

It also abandoned the straight agenda news reporting (a regurgitation of what happened at council and school board meetings) common to most community newspapers, in favor of more in-depth issue- and advocacy-oriented stories relevant to the targetted younger readership.

The reins were taken off reporters to allow them to write in more liberal prose and about more offbeat topics, from the growing trend of body-piercing to some seamier aspects of the area’s street life.

Although the changes were warranted by the market, the newspaper also took a leap of faith.

Black sheep

Owned and operated by the MetroValley Newspaper Group, a chain of successful but traditional suburban community newspapers, the WestEnder, with its adult entertainment ads and urban market, was already the black sheep of the family.

The redesign would further set it apart from the other newspapers in the chain.

There was a risk involved in venturing out of the mainstream, but it was either that or be sucked under.

Before the relaunch, the WestEnder had largely neglected the area’s large gay population.

It is estimated that gays represent as much as 25% of the West End’s 40,000-plus permanent population, while the area is also the main social and business centre of the entire West Coast gay community.

Gay businesses and individuals had always supported the WestEnder through advertising. But the newspaper had only covered gay issues and events peripherally.

Reverse homophobia – fear that too much coverage of the gay community would turn off older, more conservative readers and advertisers – had caused the newspaper to be overtly cautious in its coverage of the gay community.

The lack of coverage had damaged the newspaper’s credibility within the gay community and also limited its opportunities to sell advertising – a significant problem since market research shows gay men are, on average, more affluent and better educated than the norm, making them attractive targets for advertisers.

Gay community

With a new mandate to appeal to a younger, more liberal audience, the WestEnder determined to give proper attention to the gay community.

Since its launch a year ago, the new-look WestEnder has devoted about one cover story per month to issues of importance to the gay community, ranging from the courting of the gay vote by federal candidates to censorship issues and the treatment of gays in local hospitals.

In addition, gay issues are treated as a major news beat with regular coverage carried inside the newspaper on a weekly basis.

The paper also has taken a more active role in the gay community, sponsoring and participating in such events as the Gay Pride Parade and the Walk For AIDS.

The new coverage of the gay community has been well-received.

Gay readers and advertisers now rely on the WestEnder for extensive coverage of their community and have shown their appreciation with increased advertising and readership.

We are often the first to report breaking news stories from the gay community, even though there are two strictly gay newspapers in the market.

Appreciate respect

Gay readers tell us they do not expect the WestEnder to be an exclusively gay newspaper, but they appreciate the respect shown for their concerns by the increased coverage. Meanwhile, the feared complaints of too much gay coverage in the newspaper have been rare.

The new efforts have also delivered results to the bottom line.

Advertising volumes were up between 12% and 15% on average in the first 12 months after the WestEnder’s relaunch.

Readership demand has also increased, leading to a 5% increase in the number of copies distributed weekly.

Retained penetration

Market surveys done shortly after the relaunch show the WestEnder has retained its 80%-plus market penetration, despite increased competition from a rival community newspaper, which increased its publication frequency from bi-weekly to weekly, and the recent launch of Xtra West, the market’s second gay-oriented newspaper.

More distribution growth is planned for next year, along with continued growth in readership and advertising.

Ted Townsend is editor of the WestEnder, the Kitsilano News and the Bowen Island Undercurrent, members of the MetroValley Newspaper Group.