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Could a ‘mini-paper’ nip at the heels of mainstream press?

By Nick Fillmore

January 21, 2010

Author's Note: This series is expanding, again! This is now the fifth of seven articles that address the need to develop independent media – print, broadcast and Internet-based – in Canada. All seven articles will appear on Connexions.org. The first three articles explored the reasons why traditional media no longer provide reliable news and information to the Canadian public, and can be viewed here, here and here. The fourth article discussed what independent media could be like and how it could benefit communities across Canada. It can be viewed here.

This fifth article suggests a few ways in which independent print news media projects could be set up in Canada; and the sixth article will explore how independent Internet-based media could be developed. The seventh and final article will explore fundraising opportunities for independent media projects. We hope that this series of articles will encourage public-minded groups to look into setting up new media projects in their cities, towns, or regions. Interested groups and individuals are invited to send us their comments and questions: fillmore0274@rogers.com

While I have many criticisms of traditional, corporate-owned newspapers, I am still saddened to some extent by their decline. I’m one of those people who prefer to get my news the old-fashioned way – sitting in my favourite chair early in the morning, a cup of tea close at hand, and being able to cuss The Globe and Mail’s business section!

But the cost of producing a Globe and Mail or any other traditional paper is quite staggering. Media corporations and other businesses, mainly in the United States, are spending millions of dollars trying to come up with a new business model that will allow them to have both money-making newspapers and Internet-based news operation. For my part, for several weeks now I have been trying to come up with an idea that would make the cost of publishing some sort of newspaper more manageable.

Traditional daily newspapers are extremely expensive to operate. The technology is stuck in another era. Newsprint has become very expensive, and the companies need to be able not only to maintain a huge printing plant and staff, but also cover the cost of distributing tens of thousands of copies of a paper by trucks and delivery staff. They have to cover the high salaries paid to executives and sales staff. On top of all this, investors expect profits of 20 per cent-plus.

The idea I finally came up will not save The New York Times or the CanWest dailies, but it could nevertheless provide communities with a manageable, inexpensive small newspaper.

What I will call the “mini-paper” would have small pages – 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches – just about the same size as a magazine such as Maclean’s. After the content and news have been determined, it could be laid out using PageMaker or a similar layout program. These programs allow full-colour, quality production. Cost: about $600 for the program.

A mini-paper would not be bound together like a magazine or folded like a newspaper. Instead, the individual pages would be brought together in a Word attachment and e-mailed to readers and subscribers. From there, it would be equally as simple. Subscribers would open the attachment and then print out their newspaper, affix a simple binding they would be provided with and read it at their convenience.

Does this sound rinky-dink? Perhaps. It is not modern and high-tech like an iPhone or Twitter, but it could perform the basic job of distributing much-needed news and information at a time when the traditional media are seriously failing us.

All of the articles and other information published in the mini-paper would be posted on a website. Unfortunately – because the project needs to be paid for in part by subscriber fees – this material could not be made available to the public for free, at least immediately.

The “mini-paper”: inexpensive to publish

A mini-paper would be incredibly inexpensive to publish. There would be no requirement for newsprint, a huge printing plant or large delivery system.

The mini-paper is definitely not the right vehicle for publishing a daily newspaper. But I could see it being used to produce, say, a twice-weekly paper, consisting of perhaps 18 or 24 pages. Still, a single edition could include as many pages as the sponsoring organization wants to publish.

The keys to ensuring the success of a mini-paper would be defining a target geographic area, determining what kinds of important information are not being delivered by other media, and then focusing on publishing exclusive information to satisfy that need. I believe people would pay for such a service. (I will discuss how the mini-paper and other media projects could be funded later in this series.)

Given how cheaply the mini-paper could be produced, such a publication could break even financially and compete on some levels with a daily newspaper.

What are the disadvantages? Are readers willing to go to their computers and print out their copies every morning? Would the quality of reproduction from their printers be good enough? Would subscribers balk at the prospect of using their own paper? It would take time and a certain amount of investigation to come up with the right formula.

I welcome feedback on this idea. If anyone would like to seriously look into the possibility of establishing a community mini-paper, please get in touch with me.

Entertainment weeklies could add news supplements

Before moving on to discuss how people could set up a group to look into establishing an independent media project, I would like to offer one other newspaper idea.

Canada has at least 18 well-established weekly and bi-monthly entertainment newspapers in cities across the country. With daily newspapers performing so poorly, there could be an opening for some of these papers to develop larger news section or publish newsmagazine inserts.

Here's a list of the ones I know about:

St. John's: The Scope
Halifax: The Coast
Montreal: Hour
Montreal: Mirror (owned by media corporation Quebecor)
Montreal: Voir
Montreal (French language)
Ottawa: (X)press
Toronto: NOW
Toronto: EYE WEEKLY (Owned by media corporation Torstar)
Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph: Echo weekly
London: SCENE
Niagara region: PULSE NIAGARA
Winnipeg: UPTOWN (owned by the same company that owns the Winnipeg Free Press.)
Saskatoon: Planet S
Edmonton: SEE magazine
Edmonton: VUE weekly
Calgary: fast forward weekly
Vancouver: Georgia Straight
Victoria: Monday magazine

This project might be accomplished in one of two ways. The newspaper owners could add special news sections on their own; or a number of people could come together as a group, develop a proposal for a news section, and negotiate a contract with the owners to have a supplement appear in the middle of a paper. A tabloid of, say, eight pages could carry a lot of news and information.

The good thing is that editorially these papers seem to be less susceptible to the corporate agenda followed by mainstream news media.

Research would have to be carried out to determine whether either of these ideas would be viable. But it seems to me that if a publisher increased the size of the paper's news section, even more people would now pick up the publication because of its double whammy – news and entertainment.

Assuming that a community group is able to raise funds to back a semi-independent project, the community-owned supplement would probably be more financially viable than something added by the paper itself. The project would be operated on a non-profit basis, and organizers would be able to draw on a number of sources of income, such as memberships, subscription fees, donations from individuals, foundation grants and special fundraising events.

Carefully assess the need for a project

I have a number of ideas for anyone who would like to look into the possibility of setting up an independent media project. The first step would be to bring together 15 or 20 people who represent a cross-section of your community. At this meeting you could informally discuss whether there is a real need for a new media organization.

If a group decides to proceed, members could conduct a survey to determine, among other things, what people in the community feel they are not getting from the for-profit media, and what form of media – print or Internet-based – they would prefer. You also could try to find out to what extent they would be prepared to help support a new citizen-owned media outlet over a two-year, start-up period.

Any group – left, right or politically centre – could launch such a project. The enterprise could be owned or co-ordinated by a group of citizens, a university, a journalism school, an association of faith-based groups or any one of a number of independent community organizations.

A note of caution: once you do determine that there is a real need for a new media project, don't allow discussions and plans about editorial content to dominate the process. A lot of promising media projects have collapsed or failed to reach their potential because they were dominated by journalists who gave too much attention to content – and not enough to business development.

The excitement of getting involved in a new media project

The corporate media have fired about 2,000 Canadian journalists over the past few months – which means that a lot of highly skilled editors and reporters are out there looking for work. For some journalists there is nothing more exciting than getting involved in the launching of a new media project, particularly if it is a bit of an underdog. I speak from personal experience.

Over the years I have worked in every major area of media, but what I have enjoyed most, and found the most rewarding, was the opportunity to work my butt off for seven years, seven days a week most of the time, as publisher of a spunky weekly newspaper in Nova Scotia that regularly challenged the establishment.

Frankly, I think journalists who don't have a mortgage or a family to help support should consider kicking the “corporate media habit.” Instead, they could get involved in creating journalism projects that can help improve people's lives and help change our communities. They would be much happier, and they would be making an important contribution to society.

The possibilities are endless – and a group forming a new media project may not move ahead exactly as I am outlining here. But I will mention a few other necessary steps.

* Early in the process, set up a non-profit corporation. This would mean that any surplus at the end of the year would go back into the project. Restricting the use of any surplus in this way also removes the temptation for group members to switch their priorities to focusing on making money.

* The group should establish a structure best suited to its needs. I suggest a core development group of no more than 10 people, backed up by a larger group of general members who could be called on to perform various tasks, such as help conduct the survey. The core group should include, or have access to, people with a number of skills: project planning, research, financial management and budgeting, marketing and fundraising.

* After a group has obtained funding (see next article in this series), you could consider hiring a person who could implement the decisions of the management team. You will want to avoid getting into a situation in which volunteers are unable to provide the time needed to keep a project moving.

The creation of even one new sustainable, independent newspaper project anywhere in the country would be a huge, unprecedented accomplishment. It could be the forerunner of other projects that would challenge the corporate media’s control of our news and information.

The e-reader offers traditional media some hope

Companies in many parts of the world are spending millions of dollars perfecting the e-reader – a device that allows people to download newspapers and books that can then be read on a portable tablet. Media corporations in the United States pray that the device will save their industry: a total of 142 daily and weekly U.S. newspapers closed during 2009 alone. More than 90,000 people in the print publishing industry in the United States lost their jobs.

When Amazon introduced its Kindle e-book reader last year, there wasn't much excitement in the newspaper industry because its screen was only the size of a mass-market paperback novel. But when Skiff unveiled its new e-reader earlier this month, there was tremendous reaction across the industry. Measured diagonally, the Skiff touch screen is a whopping 11.5 inches.

Skiff did not reveal its price for the e-reader, but it will probably cost several hundred dollars. Amazingly, 52 e-readers are coming on the market this year, and the products that survive will be affordable. The papers are so desperate that they may pay for the devices themselves. The New York Times said last year that it was losing so much money on subscriptions that it would be better off financially if it gave every customer a $252 Kindle to enable them to download the paper directly from the Internet.

The e-reader could bring significant changes to the newspaper business. Some U.S. papers are finding that readers are prepared to pay subscriber fees to get their newspaper via an e-reader instead of reading it online. If the e-reader becomes the next piece of technology that everyone must have, and if people are prepared to pay subscriber fees, this transformation could well be the final nail in the coffin of the old newspaper business model.

If the e-reader is successful in a big way, there will probably be much less free news and information from the traditional media on the Internet. If for-profit media end up operating to a much greater extent from the Internet in the future, the corporate media companies that continue to produce newspapers will become more reliant on subscriber fees and less reliant on advertising. This could mean that the news pages of traditional papers might become more balanced and not so corporate-dominated.

Mr. Fillmore was an editor and producer with the CBC for 18 years and has been involved in several print media projects. A freelance journalist and media fundraiser based in Toronto, he was a founding member of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). He can be reached at: fillmore0274@rogers.com


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