The past several years haven’t been much fun for publishers of newspapers and magazines. Declining circulation and plunging ad revenues have ravaged bottom lines.

Some newspapers — the Seattle Post Intelligencer, the Christian Science Monitor — have shuttered their print editions and become solely online publications, while other major names like the Boston Globe have been threatened with shutdowns. Last year, 367 U.S. magazines closed. They were mostly small local and regional publications, but the list included a few venerable names, like Gourmet and Editor and Publisher.

At least the decline was an improvement on 2008 when 526 magazines closed for good. Even in Canada, where newspaper readership remains remarkably stable, profits have been pinched and costs (most often in the form of editorial salaries) are being ruthlessly pared.


The aging of the print generation is one reason for the overall decline, and recessions don’t help either. But the big problem is the Internet. Every publication has a website and, while they generate some ad revenues, in most cases content is being given away.

Publishers are dying to find ways to make the Internet pay, and now they have some measure of just how hard a sell it’s going to be. A recent Nielsen Company survey of more than 27,000 consumers in 52 countries found that 85 per cent think Internet content that’s now free should stay that way. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free, right?

While many would consider paying for certain types of content, in particular, movies, music and games that are professionally made, newspapers and magazines are a different matter. People are more reluctant to pay for them because their online content has become a commodity that’s readily available from multiple sources.

There is, however, a solution for publishers, even though it will be distasteful for most of them. They can invest in quality content, the kind that’s intensively researched, well reported, and diligently edited. Thoughtful and reliable content can give readers depth and understanding they won’t necessarily find somewhere else.

There’s a reason why people pay for full access to sites like The Economist or the Wall Street Journal. It’s because they offer content and analysis that’s qualitatively better than most of their competitors’ free offerings. For a generation of Canadian publishers who have operated on the premise that editorial content costs are, at best, a nuisance to be tolerated, this could be a revelation.

Charles Davies is a veteran business writer who has worked for Canadian and international news organizations.

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