Employee-owned media outlets weigh in on Prince Albert Daily Herald sale

A longtime Saskatchewan newspaper will soon be joining a list of media outlets in Canada that are owned and run by employees.

CHEK-TV employees bought the station more than 8 years ago

CHEK-TV employees each put in $15,000 to purchase the station from Canwest in 2009. News Director Rob Germain said 2017 was the most successful year yet. (Google Maps)

A longtime Saskatchewan newspaper will soon be joining a list of media outlets in Canada that are owned and run by employees.

The staff at the Prince Albert Daily Herald reached an agreement with owner Star News publishing for an employee buyout this week.

It is not entirely unprecedented for a media outlet to take this approach to stay afloat.

In 2009, Victoria's CHEK-TV became the first employee-owned television station in North America.
News director and digital manager Rob Germain was one of about 30 staff members who got together to buy the station from Canwest, which was selling its smaller stations across the country.
Star News Publishing said on Dec. 9 that it planned to sell or stop publishing all of its newspapers in Saskatchewan, including the Prince Albert Daily Herald. Employees stepped up to purchase the publication this week. (Submitted by Sarah Soloducha)

At the time, all full-time employees were asked to put in $15,000. Other community partners also stepped up to invest. About eight employees decided not to buy into the business and instead went off on different pursuits.

Within six weeks, $2.5 million was raised for the purchase. The actual business only cost $2, but equipment and sets costs more than $100,000. Canwest also required the group have a lump sum together to support costs in the first few months.

Germain gives a lot of the credit to the community.

"They wanted to see what was B.C.'s oldest, longest-serving commercial television station kept on the air and they wanted Canwest to do the right thing and give the employees the opportunity to keep it going," he said.  

A success story

Over eight years later, the station is wrapping up its best-ever year. Not only is it in the black, Germain said it is also reinvesting money to upgrade its technology.

At first, CHEK was renting its space from Canwest, but the building was caught up in receivership and CHEK bought it from the company within a couple of years.

We know that the traditional media model isn't working anymore and this group is actually experimenting with a new model. It's quite exciting.- Diane Dakers

There was no advertising booked for the upcoming season, as Canwest had stopped selling, so the $2.5 million was used for payroll and other ongoing costs until campaigns were in place.

Since the takeover, Germain said the station has changed its model to focus on gaining local advertising revenue. It now has more local clients than ever before.

"It's just great to see. We're supporting local businesses and businesses are supporting CHEK, which is able to provide news and information to the audience," Germain said.

The buy-in for new employees has been reduced and is now $5,000, at most. That money kicks in a year after the person's probation is complete and Germain said it is typically paid back over time.

Author Diane Dakers, a former journalist, wrote about how the TV station adapted in her book CHEK Republic: A Revolution in Local Television.

She admitted that she had doubts the company would find success without a corporate safety net in a field that is already struggling.

Focusing on local

Dakers does see a definite advantage for employees of the paper compared to the station, though — namely a much smaller investment due to fewer equipment needs.

"We know that the traditional media model isn't working anymore and this group is actually experimenting with a new model. It's quite exciting," she said. "It's going to be challenging though."
Author Diane Dakers, a former journalist, wrote about the TV station's employee buyout in her book CHEK Republic: A Revolution in Local Television. (Heritage House Publishing Co. Ltd. )

As media companies teeter between being a business and a public service, Dakers said the paper will have more room to go in its own direction.

"I think the folks in Prince Albert now have a chance to bring that balance back and listen to their community," she said. "It's important to be responsive to the community, not so much just dictate news."

Terry Myers, North Renfrew Times editor, was one of the three full-time employees that bought out their newspaper in April.

In Myers' case, he teamed up with other staff members who had been lifetime residents of the area.

"We know how important the paper is in our community and didn't want the community to lose it," he said.

In the past few months, he said the paper has faced the same challenges as any other — finding ad dollars — but has had good feedback from the community due to the local ownership.

"We're not answering to corporate agenda. The focus is entirely on our communities," Myers said. "Generally, the response has been tremendously positive.

"People have been very supportive of us."

About the Author

Alex Soloducha

Alex Soloducha is a web writer/reporter for CBC Saskatchewan.