Ottawa loses a community newspaper. Sort of.
It was the yawn heard round the… well, not the world. The city. Or at least the city’s cultural circles. That’s how Ottawa greeted the news that its English-language alternative weekly, Xpress, would cease print publication.
After all, Xpress has been a zombie publication for years.
Still, we mourn the Xpress that could have been, if not exactly the Xpress that was. At its best, an alt-weekly has its finger on the pulse of the city. It, like its community, is vibrant and alive. A good alt weekly both follows and leads those it serves. It is a cultural and political barometer, a flashpoint, and, occasionally, a canary in the coal mine.
For a long time, signs have been pointing to the eventual shuttering of Xpress. Over the course of the 2000s, Xpress fell to an anemic 20 pages a week, then to 16, then to a deathly 12. It also scaled back its print runs; eventually, the paper stopped printing its circulation numbers on their cover, a sure sign of trouble in a business fuelled by eyeballs.
The leadership experimented with cost cutting by eliminating dedicated full-time editorial staff and by translating content from their French-language sister papers. Freelance writers and photographers came and went; few stayed for very long. They even dropped Savage Love, the last reason many had had to pick up the languishing rag.
Bad timing was Xpress’s biggest problem. It was founded in 1993, making it late to the alt-weekly party. For example, Toronto’s Now Magazine was launched in 1981; The Village Voice goes back to 1955. Its delayed entrance made Xpress more vulnerable to market fluctuations than others. Then, the tech bubble’s burst hit Ottawa hard in the early 2000s. That was followed by the introduction of free commuter dailies (Metro, 24 Hours) in 2005, and the financial meltdown in 2009. There’s hardly been a single good year for the paper in the last dozen.
Metro and 24 Hours were bombshells. Those publications – free, stitched together cheaply from national newswires and celebrity gossip, initially boasting 100 percent pick up before 9 a.m. – squeezed alt weeklies across the country. However, they hit mid-sized markets like Ottawa the hardest.
Publications in larger markets can absorb new players more easily; smaller markets are fighting over fewer dollars and are less prepared for competition. Meanwhile, big players often feel compelled to include publications in less-than-lucrative markets in order to secure blanket national vehicles for advertisers. The spectacular train wreck that was Dose illustrates how this strategy can go wrong. Metro, meanwhile, is a success story. But whether big media does it well or does it poorly, the little guys can’t compete with competition that can bleed red ink for years before being required to turn a profit.
But the biggest blow for newspapers – all newspapers, large and small – came with the financial crisis in 2009. Many big players saw their ad volumes drop by 40 per cent in a single quarter. And that money never came back. Instead, it shifted online. Geo-targeting and bargain-basement prices online kneecapped print, probably permanently. You can see evidence of this everywhere, from the increase in television ads promoting other TV shows – essentially in-house filler – to the Globe and Mail‘s decision to erect a paywall later this year.
Although the financial crisis wasn’t confined to Ottawa, or even to Xpress, Ottawa is a uniquely challenging market for alternative weeklies. The city has a shaky cultural identity, operating in the shadows of national institutions like the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery of Canada. It’s bilingual – a cultural blessing but an organizational hassle – and grapples with a large population employed by a risk-adverse federal bureaucracy.
And there are more problems. The City of Ottawa has a bone-crushing, brain-numbing, expensive newspaper box permitting system, which, functionally, keeps new players out of the market while bilking the existing ones.
The publications which survive the financial crisis will do so in one of two ways.
Xpress has chosen to cut costs: it’s moving to an online-only publication. That’s terrain already occupied by online upstarts Apartment613 and OpenFile, not to mention the one you’re reading this on, Thought Out Loud. But this strategy is not without its pitfalls. Sure, costs are much lower for online publications, but so are revenues. Advertisers, while moving online, got a major value boost. They’re now accustomed to paying a fraction of the per-view cost of print advertising. Meanwhile, labour costs remain the same whether you’re online or in print, at least theoretically.
The other model is the one we used at Xtra, where I served as managing editor. Firstly, Xtra is a not-for-profit, meaning that it’s not driven by the same motives as other market players. Secondly – and this is probably the single, most decisive factor for that paper – Xtra has a for-profit arm which subsidizes its print publications. In other words, Xtra can lose money, so long as it’s bouyed by income from its other ventures.
Xtra runs Squirt.org, a gay hookup website. If that sounds off-the-beaten-path, consider that the Toronto Star owns Harlequin romance novels. Or consider that the CBC has another income stream – the public purse. Even student newspapers have another revenue stream – a per-student levy collected by their universities – which has partially insulated them from the collapse in print advertising.
Cutting costs will only take you so far – as Dose‘s readers (whoever you are) can probably attest. All the same, cutting costs is a safe bet compared to diversifying revenue streams. Ultimately, both are risky. In the meantime, we’ll watch to see if Xpress‘s next chapter is happier than its last, not only for its own sake, but for the sake of demonstrating that alternative newspapers can survive – and even thrive – online in a tough media landscape.