Many dailies are balancing online channel and print forms

While growing numbers of Canadians are logging on to newspaper websites to catch up with the latest headlines, traditional print newspapers are here to stay - for now, journalism experts say.

"It doesn't matter to me much where people go to get their news," says Paul Knox, chair of Ryerson University's school of journalism. "If that happens to be on the Internet, then so be it. As a journalist, I'm not threatened in the least."

Knox also isn't worried about the public reporting on news events using their own blogs and websites.

"At the end of the day it will come down to whoever earns my credibility and respect," he says. "It's a free country; anyone can say whatever they want. I don't think there should be any barriers to free speech. The question is more: Who I will choose to listen to and read?" The former Globe and Mail foreign correspondent says North American newspapers play a different role than in Latin America, where low literacy rates have turned them into more of an "elitist medium."

Canadian newspapers are available to a much broader range of people, says Knox.

And as the public has moved to the Internet, newspaper publishers have had to follow.

"It's changing this business radically. Nobody who operates a traditional newspaper can afford to not have a presence on the web," he says. "The web is actually the best tool for what newspapers have been doing for ages - building communities. The best newspapers look for a particular type of niche market and provide ways for readers to get to know each other."

As president of NADBank, a Toronto-based organization that bills itself as the principal research arm of the Canadian daily newspaper industry, Anne Crassweller has been watching national readership trends carefully. She hesitates when asked what might happen to newspapers in the future.

"I haven't really got a crystal ball," she says. "I'm what you might call an older person though, and I still like reading my print newspaper every day. It's a definite ritual for a lot of Canadians."

Crassweller says she may turn to the Internet over print editions if she is travelling outside Canada and wants a quick and inexpensive way to catch up on the headlines back home.

When NADBank first started measuring online readership in 2001, surveys showed 10 per cent of readers were regularly visiting newspaper websites. Their latest survey done in 2006 showed 16 per cent of Canadians living in selected major cities caught up with headlines using the Internet.

The 2006 survey showed residents in Victoria, B.C., enjoyed reading their daily newspaper the most - spending about 36 minutes per day versus 10 minutes each day online, said Crassweller.

She added most online readership occurs Monday to Friday between 9 to 5 p.m.

Readership numbers changed for major Canadian newspapers several years ago when free-distribution publications including Metro and 24 Hours came on the scene. Both newspapers are distributed free every day in major cities, especially to morning commuters on subways.

Amber Ogilvie, publisher of Sun Media Corp.'s Vancouver 24 Hours, says the Vancouver market is one of the most competitive in the country.

In less than two years on the street, she adds, the publication is the third-largest daily in the B.C. market, and the fastest- growing daily.

NADBank's latest readership survey showed Vancouver 24 Hours picked up more than 5,000 new readers, for a circulation of 215,600. During the same reporting period, The Province lost more than 50,000 readers, Ogilvie says.

She says the Internet has sparked the "biggest revolution in newspaper publishing since the time of Johannes Gutenberg" (inventor of the printing press), but "it's a lot harder to get your head around."

"To make the online channel work you need to do more than give reporters a cellphone with a video camera. The distribution of online news hinges on credibility. Here's a secret about the Internet - not everyone blogging and posting information is reliable or honest, or even properly identified ... . It's our job to drive traffic between the online channel and the print product."

There are still signs that newspapers are struggling to find the best formula for success.

CanWest Global Communications Corp. - publishers of almost a dozen major Canadian daily papers including the Regina Leader-Post, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Vancouver Sun - announced recently that certain sections of the papers would be laid out electronically in a central facility in Hamilton.

Union representatives were quick to denounce the move toward centralizing operations, saying local coverage would lose out.

However, CanWest executives said one of its competitors, Quebecor's Sun Media chain, made a similar move last year to centrally produce some content that runs in all of its tabloids.

Len Kubas, president of Toronto-based Kubas Consultants, has worked with newspapers throughout North America to boost readership and advertising revenue. He says Canadians read newspapers much more than their U.S. counterparts, who have recently noticed a 2.5- to three-per- cent decline in circulation.

The Internet is "both a curse and a blessing" to newspaper publishers, he says.

"It's a curse because there is some loss in readership to the Internet. The Internet is not generating as much ad revenue as the print editions, either. But it's a blessing because you are keeping a younger audience involved.

"There are still going to be newspapers in the coming years ahead. I think they are going to be smaller with more detailed content online, and maybe even in thin paperback-book style," he explains. "People will always love to relax on a Saturday with a coffee and their (print) newspaper though. That's never going to change."

Kubas adds that U.S. newspapers are getting as much as eight to nine per cent of their revenue from online advertising with their websites, more than Canadian newspapers.

However, major publishers such as CanWest and Torstar are starting to catch up this year, he says.

When it comes to the price of advertising, the difference between advertising on a newspaper's website and taking out an advertisement in a print edition can be substantial, says Business Edge publisher Rob Driscoll.

Driscoll says that with Business Edge, an average ad can cost about $3,000 per biweekly issue. Meanwhile, a banner ad on the publication's website is priced at $500 per month.

He adds that the website - www.businessedge.ca - attracts about 150,000 hits per month. That number has been growing substantially since Business Edge first launched in Alberta seven years ago.

"The Internet is certainly having an effect on the market," says Driscoll, who has been in the newspaper business for 18 years. "Newspapers are still trying to figure out how to use it to their advantage when it comes to revenue. But it does attract younger readers who have been raised in a generation of cellphones and laptops."

Another issue facing publishers is increased competition, both in print and online. Most major Canadian cities now have three or four daily newspapers, weekly newspapers and daily commuter tabloid newspapers.

Driscoll says newspapers must now scramble to serve their respective markets even better. He compares the situation to the hundreds of television channels now available for consumers.

"There are quite a few newspapers out there that are not putting out a good product or reflecting what their readers want. I think you'll find newspapers that don't put out a good product will eventually disappear."

At Vancouver's 24 Hours, Ogilvie says she watches competitors by looking at their vending boxes near the city's downtown intersections.

If you want a sense of who's winning in the market, she says, look for the boxes that are empty - that's the product people are picking up and reading.

(David Hatton can be reached at hatton@businessedge.ca)