For cash-strapped newspapers, COVID-19 presents more challenges — and opportunities

The longstanding decline of print advertising revenue has been exacerbated by the recent crisis, prompting publishers to lay off hundreds of journalists, shutter publications and ask readers for donations.

Publishers say pandemic has exacerbated the decline in ad revenue

Veteran radio announcer Kurt Price, left, is one of hundreds of Canadian journalists who have been temporarily laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic. Price has been streaming a local news show from the Lloydminster Nissan car dealership. Mayor Gerald Aalbers, pictured here, was his first guest. (YouTube)

Canadian newspapers and media companies, including those in Alberta, are on the long list of businesses suffering from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The steady decline of print advertising revenue in recent years has been exacerbated by the health crisis, prompting publishers to lay off hundreds of journalists, shutter papers and ask readers for donations.

Media layoffs are occurring across Canada. Torstar, which publishes the Toronto Star and other newspapers, recently eliminated 85 positions. SaltWire Network, Atlantic Canada's largest newspaper chain, temporarily laid off 40 per cent of its staff.

A newspaper chain in Quebec has temporarily laid off 143 workers and suspended some of its print editions. 

Murray Elliott, vice-president of Great West Publishing, confirmed to CBC News that the company folded the Innisfail Province, a 115-year-old newspaper in central Alberta last month after advertising revenue dropped significantly in mid-March.

Elliott said the Province might be resurrected one day. For now, Innisfail news will be included in the Albertan, a regional publication.

"How long the COVID crisis will last and how many businesses will survive … this is anybody's question," Elliott said.

The pandemic has also made print newspaper distribution more difficult. 

Arnim Joop shows off a copy of the Albertaner, the German-language community newspaper he founded in the mid-1990s. (Submitted by Arnim Joop)

Arnim Joop, who publishes two community papers in Edmonton — the Mill Woods Mosaic and the German-language Albertaner — said he is moving both publications online.

With many small businesses closed, or open only to delivery or curbside pickup, he said getting the papers into readers' hands has become harder and harder.

Radio host delivers news from car dealership

When Kurt Price, a radio announcer in Lloydminster, was laid off by Stingray Media on March 30 due to COVID-19, he was disappointed.

But that did not stop him from engaging with his audience.

After hearing about the layoff, Jeremy Wagner, the general manager at New Lloydminster Nissan, invited Price to produce a radio show at the car dealership.

Streaming daily on Facebook Live, Price is still covering the pandemic — a task he says is more important than ever in a town that straddles the border of two provinces, each with its own public health officials and pandemic response.

His show's guests have included the city's mayor, Gerald Aalbers and Neil Harris of Alberta Health Services, who talked about mental health.

"It's a way for me to stay connected with the community," said Price, who is not being paid to produce the show and has complete editorial control over its contents.

"Does it give me a little bit of advertising? Oh, absolutely," Wagner said. "That's not why I'm doing it. I hope for Kurt's sake that once this whole thing is done, his radio station takes him back."

Free papers ask readers to chip in

Some publishers and newspaper chains, including Black Press Media, which owns dozens of publications in western Canada and the United States, are now asking readers for contributions.

In Jasper, this strategy has helped the Fitzhugh newspaper, owned by Aberdeen Publishing, raise more than $7,000 in donations. Before the campaign, publisher and editor Fuchsia Dragon was preparing to stop producing the print edition to cut costs. 

"I didn't know how people were going to respond to this and it's just been so nice that people have been so supportive, wanting to keep our community with a reliable source of news," she said. 

Dragon said money from the Fitzhugh's reader support campaign will allow the print edition to continue for at least a few more weeks.

"We're adapting everything and just being creative to try and get money in and keep going for as long as possible," she said.

Though advertising revenue has declined, traffic to the paper's website has spiked. Page views were up by more than 400 per cent in March, compared to the previous year.

But their competition, the Jasper Local, has not been able to stay afloat.

It suspended operations last month due to the pandemic. 

"Our precarious balance has been tipped," wrote publisher and editor Bob Covey in a March 24 announcement.

Readers buy ads to support local news

As readers watch their local papers shrink, some have found creative ways to support them financially.

Chad Skelton, a journalism instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia and a former Vancouver Sun reporter, recently bought an ad to support his local paper, the Peace Arch News in Surrey, B.C.

"I was hoping that would lead to other ads," Skelton said, and it did.

Publishers seek 'cash infusion'

In addition to its wage support program, the federal government has announced a $30-million advertising campaign to support media organizations and has moved closer toward implementing previously planned tax credits.

John Hinds, CEO of the industry group News Media Canada, said a "cash infusion" is necessary to keep many newspapers alive, through and beyond the pandemic.

"If there isn't public support from government ... then you're going to see a lot of newspapers close or be simply shadows of their former selves."


Madeleine Cummings is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. She covers local news for CBC Edmonton's web, radio and TV platforms. You can reach her at madeleine.cummings@cbc.ca.