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March 30, 2007

The Sun Sets on Canadian Tabloid Journalism

Sometime in the coming quarter, the Sun chain of Canadian tabloid newspapers is likely to fold. Founded in the early 1970’s the Toronto Sun grew from an upstart blue-collar broadsheet to a national chain of tabloids publishing in most of Canada’s large urban centers. Today, it stands as an early warning to other traditional news publishers, an oxygen starved canary trapped in a coalmine.

The sun will soon set on the “Little Paper that Could” and even for those who opposed its viewpoints and resented its trivializing coverage of major world and national events, its demise is a little sad and more than a little unsettling.
Known for its controversial and often blatantly sensational reporting of events, the Sun was designed to emulate British tabloids. Often pulling its positions from neo-conservative views expressed in American media, the Sun was an ardent supporter of the Conservative Party of Canada and its predecessors the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Parties.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Sun’s influence stretched across the country as it opened papers in Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Brampton and York. It also acquired two of Canada’s oldest independent newspapers, the Winnipeg Sun and the London Free Press.
In 1998, the Sun chain was purchased by Montreal based Quebecor with also owns Le Journal de Montreal and Le Journal de Quebec. Quebecor also publishes a very successful series of free commuter dailies under the name 24-Hours, in Canada’s six largest cities, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton.
Since its acquisition a decade ago, the quality and quantity of news coverage has declined significantly. Much of the reporting, editing, compilation and layout is done in a central location before being sent to its nine English-language papers and the chain of commuter dailies, 24-Hours. Its circulation has dropped significantly over the past decade, down almost by half in ten years. The Toronto Sun sells a mere 200,000 weekday and approximately 400,000 weekend newspapers per edition.
Several external forces have combined with the numerous internal issues to spell the death of professional tabloid journalism in Canada.
Internally, the Sun chain faces sever labour shortages as successive rounds of lay-offs and attrition have reduced its newsrooms to skeleton staffing levels. Its competitor, the Toronto Star, estimates there are only six general assignment reporters, three bureau reporters and three police reporters working from the Sun’s King St. offices. Twelve writers remain to cover a city of almost six million people. Last year, unionized workers at Sun Media have filed several complaints with labour boards relating to massive layoffs and firings and the subsequent increased workloads. Morale is said to be non-existent in what is left of the newsrooms.
Externally, there is little the organization can do to stave off the inevitable. Newspaper publishing is only profitable for a small number of very large outlets. With a weekend circulation below 500,000, the Sun is simply not big enough for major advertisers to bother with. Increasingly, smaller advertisers, such as small businesses and individuals who might use the classified-ad section are abandoning newsprint in favour of eBay, Craigslist and search results.
In 1998 when the Toronto Star was fighting Quebecor for control of the Sun chain, newspaper circulation throughout the world was rising while the expense of gathering and publishing the news was actually declining. Technology had made gathering and sharing news less costly and the nature of corporate conglomeration made economies of massive scale possible. Since then however, costs for newsprint have risen dramatically while revenues from advertising are in sharp decline.
In 1998, consolidation spelled convergence, a magic word for publishers in the days before the dot-com crash of early 2000. Quebecor, which also owns several television broadcast licenses and the aforementioned affiliated chain of 24-Hour commuter dailies, has cut costs by compiling news, sports and political coverage across the second largest nation-state on Earth into one small national news office.
The concept of convergence is deceptively simple. Assuming the Internet can publish news in video, audio and text based formats, large information organizations combined their efforts in order to compliment each other’s specialties and cut costs. One reporter could theoretically gather material for publication in three types of media all of which could be reproduced over the Internet. Apparently convergence is more complicated in real life than it is on paper.
While the public and financial markets for mass-published newsprint are in sharp decline, news gathering organizations have faced stiff competition from smaller, more focused online news gathering organizations, including this one. With much lower production and staffing costs, online journalism has grown into very real niche industries.
The death knell for traditional publishers who have based their success on convergence has been the rise in popularity of user-created video sites such as YouTube. The production and distribution of news and entertainment in video format was the last protected bastion of what was once the traditional media. Now that the cost of producing video is virtually nil and users have the ability to self-distribute their own content, the large, cumbersome corporate news outlet is on its way to extinction.
The Sun chain is about to set in Canada and its demise should stand as a warning to other large media chains. Based on their editorial content, many in Canada thought the Sun was written by dinosaurs. What we didn’t fully realize until recently was that it was also managed by dinosaurs. We all know what happened to dinosaurs that failed to evolve.

Author:  Search marketing expert Jim Hedger is one of the most prolific writers in the search sector with articles appearing in numerous search related websites and newsletters, including SiteProNews, Search Engine Journal, ISEDB.com, and Search Engine Guide.

He is currently Senior Editor for the Jayde Online news sources SEO-News and SiteProNews. You can also find additional tips and news on webmaster and SEO topics by Jim at the SiteProNews blog.

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