Survival of the Richest

One future for newspapers.

By Fred Stenson

The newspaper business has been in trouble for a long time. One of the gaudier proofs was last year, when Torstar and Postmedia traded a bunch of newspapers for the purpose of killing them. That is, they acquired newspapers in competition with their own and put them out of business so they’d have the only newspaper in each community.

Something the two dealers probably knew when they made their swap was that it would do no good. Why? Well, there’s this digital thing that puts news into your home, car or purse. Such news is all but instant. Tsunami on the other side of the planet. I’ve got it in my pocket minutes after the waves hit shore. I’d go so far as to say that if Kim Jong Un or The Donald accidentally starts a nuclear war, I’ll find out on Twitter before I hear a siren—and, as for finding out in the newspaper, maybe never. Newspapers—printed onto paper, wheeled out of a press, put into trucks to travel far distances… If the idea of news is that it be new, the cumbersome daily production and transportation of printed pages is a whole lot more than a small problem.

Whalebone corset, steamboat, stagecoach, draft horse, transistor radio, typewriter, newspaper.

For those of us who grew up with the physical newspaper, this evolutionary trend away from one’s tangible morning friend is a sad business. A little panic-inducing, even. What will I do with that part of morning? But, really, aren’t we being disingenuous? Most of us have already absorbed the fact that when we open the door and grab our freezing newspaper, half of what’s in it we already know. When we go to the coffee shop, no longer is a free newspaper lying there. Nor are we all that willing to be the guinea pig who finds the necessary coins and goes back outside to find the box on the corner, and… What the hell? Bang! Bang! Bang!

Instead, we pull out our computer or cell phone, tap into the free wifi, and find out what’s happening now! Do that enough times and the allure of a digital newspaper becomes real, something we may even be willing to subscribe to.

We’ve got more than a hundred billionaires in this country, many already involved in media. If they want into the newspaper play, they’d better step up.

The truth is I’m not going to go to any trouble to acquire a physical newspaper from now on. It would have to be on a table two feet away and, even then, because it is probably a newspaper whose values do not intersect mine at any point, I would only be reading it to stimulate my bile gland—not with an eye to subscribing or buying it in future.

So what’s the issue, really? It isn’t whether paper newspapers survive that matters; that eagle has flown or is flapping mightily to get away from bankruptcy. The real question is whether iconic newspapers can buy enough time to lure their customers across to a digital platform. That question matters, and the answer is not obvious.

The fate of the truly great newspapers (international and national) is being decided this minute. Consolidations, since about 2008, have not been about making paper editions profitable but about making the most admired brands able to win the race for the digital news market. Witness how hard The New York Times, The Guardian and the New Yorker have been advertising their digital editions.

Also, look at the folks who have been acquiring the best-known newspapers and magazines. Start with Jeff Bezos of Amazon, the world’s most wealthy person according to Forbes. In 2013 he purchased the Washington Post. A person with his business acumen probably wants more than another way to transmit the news that The Donald is off his nut. Truth is, American billionaires have been buying a lot of top newspapers and magazines in the last while. Not long after Bezos bought the Post, John Henry (owner of the Boston Red Sox) bought The Boston Globe. A Mexican billionaire owns the biggest share in The New York Times. And so on.

The legendary newspapers and magazines are probably a good buy for those who can afford them, because those are the brands consumers are most likely to choose when they start paying for digital news. Witness the early success of the digital Guardian. Also interesting are startup entrepreneurs floating new brands (iPolitics comes to mind). These newbies are attracting customers the old-fashioned way: with timely and reliable news, clever analysis, good writers.

The question in Canada is why the billionaire thing isn’t happening here. Or, wait a minute; maybe it is. Note that Woodbridge Co. Ltd., the enormously wealthy Thomson family’s investment company, bought the last 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail (the shares it didn’t already own) in 2015.

We’ve got more than a hundred billionaires in this country, many already involved in some aspect of media. If they want into the newspaper play, they’d better step up. Otherwise their buddies will get there first.

Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday).Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.

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