Government advertising revenue is a matter of life or death for Canadian newspapers: association head

A report released on Friday from Statistics Canada indicates the newspaper publishing industry took a 20 per cent hit when it comes to operating revenue from 2014 to 2016.

Paper publishing industry reported $3.2B in operating revenue in 2016, down nearly 20% from 2014

Advertising is a driving force behind most newspapers, and Moosimin's World-Spectator is no different. While its owner says it has enough advertising, the head of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association says a loss of revenue from government advertising has hurt many papers. (Submitted by Kevin Weedmark)

The future of Canadian newspapers remains uncertain with some arguing they're in the process of a slow demise.

A report released on Friday from Statistics Canada may support that. It indicates the newspaper publishing industry took a 20 per cent hit in operating revenue from 2014 to 2016.

The decreases, totalling $3.2 billion, were seen across the country, but newspapers in Ontario and the Prairie provinces seem to be struggling most.

This week, Saskatchewan lost a daily newspaper as the Moose Jaw Times-Herald printed its final edition.

Steve Nixon, executive director of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association, says newspapers are suffering from a lack of government advertising. (Submitted by Steve Nixon)
Since 2014, four Saskatchewan weeklies have closed their doors, leaving 71 still in operation, according to Steve Nixon, executive director of Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association.

And he blames that in large part on a loss in advertising revenue — and a couple of major advertisters in particular.

"I think the major problem we currently have is the trend of the government," Nixon said.

Since both the federal and provincial governments have decreased spending on advertising in newspapers, he said the papers have taken a substantial hit.

"I understand that government has to be fiscally responsible to the budget and to the people but what they are actually doing, I think, is labelling advertising as public notice and that's a dangerous thing," he said.

Government response

The Government of Saskatchewan has seen an average 11 per cent decrease overall on advertising spending during the past three fiscal years. This year's budget allotted $22,680,030 to advertising campaigns, not limited to newspapers.

The province wouldn't break down its numbers on where its advertising dollars are spent.

In a statement, a government spokesperson acknowledged the cuts as an effort to be "mindful of taxpayers' dollars being allocated to communications budgets rather than services."

Moose Jaw's daily newspaper, the Times-Herald, printed its last edition this week. (CBC News)

"We do have a role to disseminate important information, particularly relative to health, safety, and changes to public services; however, I do not think government is any different than any other business or organization, when looking at maximizing our audience with advertising dollars spent, nor adapting to new social platforms," said Karen Hill, media relations officer for the Government of Saskatchewan.

The federal government has also let go of print ads, opting instead for cheaper online ads, according to the March 2016 Canadian Heritage report Newspapers in Canada: The New Reality of a Traditional Industry.

"Between 2008-09 and 2014-15, the proportion of ad spending fell by 96 per cent for daily newspapers and 31 per cent for community newspapers while increasing by 106 per cent for the internet," according to the report.

The sweet spot

It's not all bad news, though — at least one of Saskatchewan's weekly newspapers is thriving.

Moosomin, Sask. — 225 kilometres southeast of Regina — is a hub of economic activity. From car dealerships to agriculture, the town provides plenty of advertising opportunities for the Moosomin World-Spectator, the town's weekly newspaper.

Owner and editor Kevin Weedmark says one reason Moosomin's World-Spectator is successful is because writers do not have word limits on their stories. (Submitted by Kevin Weedmark)

"We just happen to be lucky and the people here support us," said Kevin Weedmark, owner and editor at the paper, praising hyperlocal stories and strong journalistic practices.

"If we took the corporate approach just to make as much money as possible, then we wouldn't serve a purpose here."

The town's population might be only 2,550 but it distributes about 4,000 paid subscriptions to the area each week, according to Weedmark.

Staying positive 

Although the presses have come to a halt for many newspapers across Canada, Nixon is trying to remain confident when it comes to the future of print.

"It's the government spending that has to come back to protect the voice in these smaller communities," he said.

When asked if funding will be reinstated by the Saskatchewan government in coming years, the Government of Saskatchewan's Hill said, "print ads may certainly be considered as part of their campaigns, but each ministry and agency will consider their target audiences, and where those audiences are consuming information."