My days as a media magnate

The closest I came to the big time was as publisher of The St. Thomas Times-Journal from the spring of 1993 to the summer of 1996. I say “the big time” because it was a daily. The arc of my “career” went from weeklies to a daily, then other things for a few years, then back to weeklies, and now I write for a monthly. Well, not quite monthly, since this publication comes out 10 times a year. But the Times-Journal, which appears Tuesday to Friday is no longer really a daily. We need a new term for it. A four-day daily? A semi-weekly? A quattro-journo?

Back in the 90s, when dailies were dailies, some publishers liked to say, “Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” I may have said it once or twice myself. Not exactly humble, were we?

The internet was active, sure, but newspapers had survived the advent of radio and then television. We had switched from hot lead to cold type and from cut-and-paste to digitally cutting-and-pasting on Macs. Lots of people, 10,000 households or about 20,000 readers six days a week in St. Thomas and Elgin paid for the local daily newspaper. During the 1990s, an executive at a national newspaper conference said, “I don’t see why you don’t just put a quarter page ad next to the story online.” We’d show this internet who bought ink by the barrel.

However, the T-J was losing about five percent of its circulation a year. I ran the numbers on a five percent decline over 20 years and ended up at about 3,200 copies. That proved to be a reasonably accurate forecast. Insiders tell me the current paid circulation is considerably less than that.

The decline wasn’t all caused by the internet.

The popularity of “pennysaver publications” was the first near-fatal blow. Publications like the Elgin County Market were distributed free to every household. The combination of classified word ads, display ads and flyer inserts was like a licence to print money.

Newspaper companies weren’t completely asleep. They bought up these pennysavers or started their own free distribution papers, until …

Along came kijiji, wounding or killing the readership of publications like The Market and the T-J.

Next up Google and Facebook advertising.

As powerful as Google and Facebook are, cracks are already showing. A local retailer, highly skilled in social media, told me she is having trouble tracking response of paid ads over and above her regular Facebook posts.

In her 2019 Happy Holiday electronic newsletter, local marketing consultant Amanda Devries says, “Social media is a fickle monster, and while you should definitely have a social media game plan, you shouldn’t put all your eggs there. Your following is at the mercy of the powers that control the platform and your audience isn’t something you should take for granted, no matter how valuable they are to your business. Consider a mailing list instead, where you own your contacts and can speak to them whenever you want, without being at the mercy of Facebook.”

Email communication is a long way from dead, social media is evolving daily, and print is not dead. Look at the Aylmer Express as one model, and the rise of local magazines, including the one you are reading.

And don’t cry too much for the men who once bought ink by the barrel. Local newspaper presses are silent, the T-J building sits empty, reporters come in from outside. The St. Thomas Times-Journal turned 100 years old on July 2, 2018, and it is still publishing. That’s a long run for any business.