Ed­mon­ton, Calgary, Ot­tawa days num­bered?

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Terry Field is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism in the Bach­e­lor of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­gram at Mount Royal Univer­sity, in Calgary. Troy Me­dia

Maybe com­ing to a city near you — if you live in Calgary, Ed­mon­ton or Ot­tawa — is a new daily news­pa­per called the Her­ald Sun or the Sun Jour­nal.

This new prod­uct would be the re­sult of merg­ing the lo­cal Sun daily news­pa­per in a given city with the other es­tab­lished daily. The best pos­si­ble new name could come in Ot­tawa where the daily Cit­i­zen could be­come the Citi-Sun, as­sum­ing that the wide­spread ru­mour is true.

It is dif­fi­cult, how­ever, to see how such a move would be use­ful to the par­ent com­pany, Postmedia, which owns all the news­pa­pers in­volved and needs des­per­ately to main­tain au­di­ences, not drive them away.

When it pur­chased the Sun Me­dia news­pa­pers from Que­becor in fall 2014, Postmedia’s pres­i­dent and CEO Paul God­frey said there were no plans to “close down any­thing” par­tic­u­larly in “over­lap­ping” mar­kets, though he didn’t rule out lay­offs down the road.

But in Novem­ber, Ot­tawabased Frank mag­a­zine cited a “re­li­able” but un­named source al­leg­ing that Postmedia will soon merge its news­pa­pers in some if not all of Calgary, Ed­mon­ton and Ot­tawa.

Since its own rise in 2010 from the ashes of other Cana­dian me­dia com­pa­nies, Postmedia has fought to re­duce its sub­stan­tial debt and in­crease profit.

God­frey widely char­ac­ter­ized the $316-mil­lion Sun Me­dia pur­chase as be­ing a way to ex­pand Postmedia’s po­ten­tial au­di­ence, par­tic­u­larly in the dig­i­tal world through the ad­di­tion of the Sun news web­site Ca­noe.

There were “syn­er­gies” to ex­plore and ex­ploit in nearly dou­bling the num­ber of Postmedia employees through the ac­qui­si­tion, God­frey said.

For the news me­dia busi­ness, the main prob­lem is the near col­lapse of tra­di­tional profit mod­els.

Ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars are harder to find. Clas­si­fied ad­ver­tis­ing has largely mi­grated to on­line, while busi­nesses are in­creas­ingly us­ing the In­ter­net as an ad­ver­tis­ing tool.

Fewer news con­sumers are will­ing to pay for news. With au­di­ences frag­ment­ing, tra­di­tional me­dia have taken a mas­sive fi­nan­cial hit.

There’s no magic wand to change things for the bet­ter. Me­dia com­pa­nies need to grow au­di­ences. You do that by offering au­di­ences spe­cial­ized and dif­fer­en­ti­ated con­tent op­tions — in other words, some­thing it can’t get else­where. Then they can ei­ther charge for it di­rectly or at­tract enough users to draw in ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars.

When it pur­chased the Sun chain this past year, Postmedia added sev­eral large city com­muter tabloids with catchy head­lines, some­times-cheeky com­men­tary, short and to-the-point news sto­ries, and a fo­cus on sports. They’re dif­fer­ent than the tra­di­tion­ally styled broad­sheet dailies.

The merger would pro­vide ways to com­bine the news­rooms while con­tin­u­ing to of­fer read­ers print and on­line con­tent. Ad­ver­tis­ing teams could be com­bined, as could hu­man re­sources func­tions and IT sup­ports, while main­tain­ing read­ers at cur­rent lev­els.

It was once the case that hav­ing two news­pa­pers in a city fos­tered a com­pe­ti­tion to get the best sto­ries and to get them first. That is much less the case now with the im­me­di­acy of the In­ter­net.

No one is say­ing that do­ing any or all of this would be easy, which is all the more rea­son for Postmedia to give it more than a year and a bit to fig­ure out; and all the more rea­son to doubt the ve­rac­ity of the Frank re­port.

It would be silly to dis­miss the pos­si­bil­ity of news­pa­per merg­ers, but it is chal­leng­ing to come up with the busi­ness case.

If fi­nan­cial pro­jec­tions sug­gest a long-term gain in making the move, or if Postmedia has sur­veyed read­ers and de­ter­mined that they would ac­cept the change, then it could make sense.

It is dif­fi­cult, how­ever, to be­lieve read­ers would read­ily em­brace the move.

How­ever, if Postmedia com­bines rather than merges the Calgary Sun and the Calgary Her­ald for ex­am­ple, and launches a new prod­uct that cap­tures the best fea­tures of each, while re­tain­ing and cel­e­brat­ing their re­spec­tive his­to­ries, read­ers might more hap­pily com­bine as well.

Since its for­ma­tion Postmedia has fo­cused most of its cor­po­rate ef­fort on get­ting costs in line and much less time im­prov­ing its news con­tent. What­ever it de­cides to do with the Sun dailies, the de­ci­sion should be based on the need to de­velop unique con­tent op­tions and as­sume au­di­ences will em­brace them.

Tin­ker­ing with busi­ness “syn­er­gies” is a sta­tus quo ap­proach in a me­dia world that has been walk­ing on its hands in­stead of its feet for some­time al­ready.

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