Blog: The great newspaper migration

PHD's Rob Young charts the decline of circulation and advertising for legacy print businesses, leaning on Sakichi Toyoda's five-whys formula for explanation.

By: Rob Young

The great newspaper migration is upon us and reflects the movement of people, jobs, and money from the print homeland to the recently colonized land of the Internet. This migration, like most, was triggered and is sustained by mass disruption.

Evidence of the migration in Canada’s newspaper business has been especially pronounced in recent months; the Star‘s printing plant closed, La Presse+ digitally rose phoenix-like from the ashes of Monday to Friday newsprint, dailies in Guelph and Nanaimo folded, newspaper boxes are on their last legs, some Sun and Post journalistic products have merged, newspaper corporate debt and quarterly losses are mounting and ad revenues are diminishing.

There has been no shortage of commentary associated with these developments: a public inquiry is needed (Lawrence Martin); Canada’s politicians are indifferent (Chantel Hébert); the demise of local news coverage is worrisome (Margo Goodhand); today’s university students can’t read (Peter Denton).

When the migration started

The earliest sign of disruption goes back as far as 2003 when Stats Canada conducted a survey examining favoured sources of news and current affairs. The internet had a surprisingly strong showing. A discussion paper entitled “Finding the News” (Communications Management Inc., December ’15) compared 2003 and 2013 Stats Canada surveys. The chart plots the extent to which the Internet succeeded in usurping the newspaper medium for favored source of news and current affairs status.

Favoured News


Those Stats Canada opinion measures have since been reinforced by several hard cold facts, confirming that all is not well in the “golden city of printed news.”

In the chart below you can see that newspaper ad revenue (red line) is down.

Circulation numbers (blue line) for the major papers consistently measured by AAM between 2006 and 2015 are also down. This AAM circulation trend tracks in lockstep with ad revenue in almost perfect correlation.

CCAB circulation trends for the Star and Sun papers (purple line) display a milder downward direction.

NADbank readership (green line) tracked downwards but has since been replaced with the new Vividata survey methodology (the green dot).

Daily Newspaper ad revenue

What is the problem? What is the solution? The five whys. 

Sakichi Toyoda (founder of Toyota Industries) developed the concept of the “five whys” in order to best understand the source of a problem. In the case of the newspaper business, the problem is ad revenue decline.

Why? Advertisers have detected declines in daily newspaper responsiveness as an ad vehicle or suspect this to be the case given reduced penetration and target reach levels.

Why? A number of Canadians have stopped acquiring newspaper copies in either paid or qualified forms.

Why? Canadians, especially young Canadians, have, for some time now, favoured the internet over newspapers as a source of news and current affairs.

Why? The 18-to-34 year old prefers the internet for everything.

Why? The internet is cheap, mobile, always accessible, and fast.

And so gradually, one by one, certainly not in unison, various newspaper brands began their journey into the “land of the internet.” It wasn’t long before misses and dead ends were encountered. As the migration map below suggests, the internet is a vast land with dry low-cost-per-click deserts, crumbling walls of pay and dragon infested seas of digital design.

It does appear, at least for some newspaper titles, that a new, fertile part of the internet has been discovered and this new home resides at the gates to the “holy sanctuary of apps”.

The great newspaper migration

Given the migration, just what is a newspaper these days?

The newspaper business is a long column of brands stretching between the print homelands to the newly colonized land of apps. As a result, the newspaper medium straddles all three categories of media; legacy (pre-internet media), co-branded (online versions of legacy media) and pure play media (only available online).

This poses a unique set of challenges for agency media buyers and planners because the paper needs to be comparatively shopped relative to other papers while the newspaper’s websites and smart phone apps requires a digital negotiation approach relative to other digital properties and perhaps a programmatic buy approach, while the newspaper app exhibits a paper-like pricing approach and a web-like readership metric. Different buying and planning approaches are needed depending on where the particular newspaper is located along the migration route.

All migrations are chaotic and the state of newspaper audience/circulation metrics is symptomatic of the chaos. Over a ten year period there has also been a retinue of changes and developments in measurement for papers on this journey. Two examples are ABC morphing into AAM in 2012 and Nadbank and PMB giving birth to Vividata. During this period, comScore has also introduced newspaper website measures. There is no 3rd party app metric due to a lack of tracking tags; a moving medium begets a moving metric.

A flotsam and jetsam of bad news is accumulating along the newspaper industry’s migration route like orange life jackets and I find myself asking if perhaps I am, at least partially, responsible for casting journalists out of work. I do feel some remorse over the fact that my planning decisions have contributed to starving printed news vehicles of much-needed ad revenue. And I do feel loss.

I feel a weakened “fourth estate.” I feel the permanency of print disappearing. I feel serendipity, that key characteristic inherent in the newspaper medium’s ability to provide happy accidents of insight and knowledge, dissipating.

All I can do is hope that the leadership collective within the newspaper business, is able to guide their news brands safely to the “promised land.”

 Rob Young is senior VP, director of insights and analytics at PHD Canada.