No respect

Canada's community newspapers don't get the respect they deserve. I fully acknowledge my bias on the subject, but that's what I believe.

Canada’s community newspapers don’t get the respect they deserve. I fully acknowledge my bias on the subject, but that’s what I believe.

In the course of conducting a feasibility study into a proposed national readership survey (ComBase), it became abundantly clear that community newspapers are far off the radar for most media buyers. Community newspapers are distanced from planners both literally and figuratively, victims of this country’s geography as well as its rural/urban cultural divide.

Most community newspapers are well outside Canada’s Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs) where the majority of research and media buying activity takes place. Well known to readers and the local businesses that support them, community newspapers are largely unknown, misunderstood or downright maligned by those who plan national and multi-outlet advertising.

This, despite a long history and enviable commercial track record. The Canadian Community Newspapers Association alone represents over 680 titles in all our provinces and territories. Those titles have a combined weekly, single edition circulation of 6.8-million copies. Readership, as measured by the PMB, hovers at just under 11 million per week with adults 18+. Total annual ad revenue – almost all local – is approximately $780 million; greater than consumer and trade magazines combined.

Yet, the respect isn’t there. It could be our sector’s business model. In the English language sector, well over 60% of the publications are independently owned (the Quebec community newspaper sector is a very different animal indeed, see ‘Quebec weeklies’ on page 37 for more about that). At least half of them publish in communities with rural postal codes. There is remarkable diversity in formats, technical specs, editorial approach and pricing. It’s the sole remaining media sector where family businesses continue to thrive, and diversity and independence are prized.

Of course, the other way to describe diversity is inconsistency, and that’s how we’re largely viewed in the ad sector. Community newspapers are hard to buy. There are too many of them, the formats differ, quality is haphazard, there is no one place to go to make a single national buy, and they simply aren’t measured credibly or consistently.

Attempts to position community newspapers as a consistent brand have had mixed results to date. Positioning statements such as ‘Community newspapers: we’re at the heart of things’ have managed to communicate a qualitative difference about community newspapers, but few media buyers can spend time on qualitative analysis of the outlets they recommend. ‘We reach across Canada one community at a time’ is another positioning statement that communicates our reality, but probably scares off planners with its promise of a complicated buy.

In the final analysis, everything we hear points to the need for a credible single-source readership study of community newspapers. To quote from one of the studies we commissioned: ‘Community newspapers are operating in a competitive environment. Data sells advertising, and the community newspaper industry doesn’t have the right kind of data to offer.’

Another observation from the same study drove the point home: ‘The farther away you are from the market you’re planning, the more you rely on numbers.’

As obvious as these observations are to those who work in media planning, acting on them is a major leap of faith in the community newspaper sector. Before investing millions in research, the sector’s owners need to believe that developing this research will address most of the barriers they have experienced in attracting national and multi-outlet advertising. Many contend that no amount of research will change current practices; that community newspapers – and possibly the very communities they serve – are not greatly valued, nor will they ever be.

The notion that small is beautiful, that small is economically viable, lies at the heart of the ComBase study we have embarked upon. ComBase is approaching this research in a way that hasn’t been done before: market by market, publication by publication, regardless of size.

The pilot study, due to be in the field this fall, illustrates the approach. The initial five markets are Toronto; Red Deer, Alta.; Yorkton, Sask.; Killarney, Man.; and Campbellton, N.B. Representative of the markets served by community newspapers, the sample sizes for these communities range from 120 to 2,500.

Done properly, the full study will not only give us meaningful data about community newspapers but also about the small, often rural communities they serve. A significant gap in research will have been filled.

We’re betting, in other words, that the future of our sector rests with the increasing need to target advertising. If digital television and alternative papers are niche media by virtue of the type of consumer they reach, community newspapers can be a niche medium by virtue of the specific geography they penetrate. We believe that community newspapers dominate the communities they serve, whether they be cities and towns, rural areas, suburbs or neighbourhoods.

That fact, plus a significant research base, and combined with the very real and very special relationship that community newspapers have developed with their readers, should finally unlock the sector’s potential.

Care to place your bets?

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Serge Lavoie is executive director of the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. For more information about the association, go to www.communitynews.ca. Additional information about ComBase is available at www.combase.ca.