How do you save a local newspaper? Just ask the Prince Albert Daily Herald's staff
The staff have a plan to make the 124-year-old paper, one of Canada's oldest, successful again
The agenda at the Tuesday morning sales meeting at the Daily Herald in Prince Albert, Sask., is pretty simple: sell enough ads in the graduation edition to keep the newspaper afloat.
"It's a keepsake — it's full colour — 24 pages," marketing manager Erin Bergen reminded the staff.
"We have to make sure we make money on it," said Leah Taylor, another member of the sales staff.
Newspapers are dying all over the world, and this past winter the Prince Albert Daily Herald was on the brink.
Star News Publishing, which owned the Herald and nine other papers in Saskatchewan, including the daily in Moose Jaw, announced it would sell or stop publishing all of its newspapers.
But in Prince Albert, something incredible happened.
The paper's employees did the unthinkable — they bought the Herald and took it over.
"That was a little scary at first, but it's actually really exciting," Bergen said. "From day one when I started here eight years ago, I always loved it here. I didn't want to see it going anywhere, that's for sure."
- WATCH: Nick Purdon and Leonardo Palleja's feature from The National about how the staff of the Herald saved their newspaper
Ink in her veins
"Once you start in the paper business it's just in you," said Donna Pfeil, another Herald staffer who admits she's a newspaper lifer. "There's just something about it."
As a teenager she delivered the Herald door-to-door in Prince Albert — her kids did the same.
More recently, Pfeil ran the paper's circulation department.
Then this past winter she spearheaded the hard-fought employee takeover of the 124-year old newspaper. The employees took possession in early May.
And so now, at age 44, Pfeil finds herself the publisher of the venerable Prince Albert Daily Herald, the only daily in town. It currently has nine office staff, 13 people in the mailroom, 47 weekly carriers and 20 for the Daily Herald, plus four drivers.
'It's a big risk'
Pfeil says she still can't really believe what she and her colleagues did.
"There were a lot of moments where I'm like, 'I don't know if we can do this. I don't know if I want to do this,'" Pfeil said. "There was doubt. But deep down, I always knew it could be done."
While Pfeil won't discuss the details of the purchase, buying a newspaper has to be one of the biggest business risks there is right now.
Since 2008, more than 200 local news sources (newspapers, online publications and others) have shut down across Canada, according to the Canadian Local News Research Project.
The question facing Pfeil and the other employees is this: if media corporations are failing, how can a group of everyday employees make a paper profitable?
'It's like a mom and pop shop now'
The first thing Pfeil says they have going for them is that since the sale, everybody does everything.
For example, even though she's the publisher, after lunch it's Pfeil who trains the new sales rep on the accounting software.
Far from being a negative, Pfeil says this is a reason they have a chance to make the paper successful.
"We're not corporate. We don't have all the overhead. It's like a mom and pop shop now," Pfeil said. "You know everybody's in. It's not just jobs; it's our life."
And the Daily Herald isn't just any paper, she says. It's one of the oldest dailies in the country.
The town and the Herald have been together for more than 120 years. And in that time the community of "P.A.," as the locals like to say, has grown to be the third-largest centre in the province, with a population of around 35,000 people.
The paper's current circulation is 26,200 for the weekly edition, and 2,275 for the daily.
Simple idea, high stakes
The other change since the employee takeover is related to the paper's editorial content. Stories have to be more local than ever before.
The theory is that if people in the community see themselves reflected in the pages of the paper, they'll buy it.
It's up to managing editor Peter Lozinski to put the theory into practice.
Around midday he assigns his two reporters to cover a few high-profile local events.
Lozinski admits the past few months have been a whirlwind, particularly when the paper was rumoured to be closing.
"Some days I don't even recall putting the paper together," he said. "But we did it."
Challenge now is keeping doors open
Late in the afternoon, reporter Jason Kerr heads out to the local retirement home where student volunteers are getting awards.
"It's an emotional moment and it is one of those moments that most big media outlets don't cover," Kerr said. "So it's perfect for us."
When the Herald was up for sale and there were rumours it would close, Kerr got calls from other papers.
He chose to stay in Prince Albert.
"I never thought I'd be part of a group that had to buy a paper to keep it alive, but now that I am here it's an exciting opportunity.
"The work isn't done," he stressed. "It's one thing to buy the paper — keeping it open is a completely different thing. Making sure it is viable."
With a reporter's salary, Kerr says he can't afford to invest in the paper yet, but he's doing his bit nonetheless.
"They're planning on taking a little off my cheque every day, so I don't get paid as much as I used to is essentially what happens with me," he said. "But it is worth it."
At the retirement home when Kerr arrives, the event organizers are ecstatic that the Herald sent a reporter.
Kerr, who grew up in Saskatoon and has lived in small towns all over the province, says local papers are more important than people realize.
"I have lived in communities where the rink is gone, the school is gone, the grain elevators have been torn down," Kerr said. "I've been in places where they have lost all this stuff — and they don't recover. To lose something big like a newspaper — it's something you don't want to see."
The new golden rule
Back at the Herald, the latest edition of the paper is being put together.
For years Brenda Juravinski has worked inserting thousands of ads and flyers into the paper. Her hands are stained with ink, but she works so fast they are hard to see.
All winter Juravinski worried about her job. That's safe, at least for now, but she says it hasn't been the biggest change she's noticed since the sale.
Juravinski says she now feels part of something bigger.
"I'm excited. We're gonna do it. We're gonna work as a team and Donna is an amazing leader," she says.
Despite all the excitement at the paper since the employees took over, Pfeil warns the Herald will only survive if they follow her new golden rule. Pfeil gets the reporters together and lays several newspapers out on a desk in front of them.
She shakes her head at one of the pictures on the front page.
"I'd like there always to be a picture of a person on the front," she said, pointing to a picture of the forest fire that burned this spring in Prince Albert National park.
"We need the faces in the paper, right?" she said. "That's our policy."
"We want the community to be involved with their stories, with their sports and the schools. That's how it used to be. That's where it needs to be again."
'It would be like losing your best friend'
The new focus on local stories is working, because later that day a woman arrives at the paper with a story to tell.
"Are you comfortable using your name?" managing editor Lozinski asked the woman.
Gerry Lavallee nods and explains how she won a car in a contest, but she kept being asked to pay up front.
"They said from day one it's not gonna cost you anything," Lavallee said. "I want people in town to know the hassle I went through."
Lozinski finishes his interview and takes a few photos of Lavallee. He says he hasn't decided where the story will play in the paper.
Lavallee says she came to the local paper because she believes in it and has been a subscriber for longer than she can remember.
She says she was worried the Herald would meet the same fate as Moose Jaw's daily paper, which printed its last edition in December.
"It would be like losing your best friend. It's just sad, so I hope it doesn't go," Lavallee said. "We need it. It's important. I am so glad that the employees took it over and kept it open."