Student newspapers adapt to drop in advertising

Papers from UPEI to Windsor are cutting back on print editions

Canadian student newspapers have been hit hard by the same decline in print advertising that’s hurt many newspapers in recent years and that means big changes are coming this fall to how students will be able to access news and gossip on errant student unions, varsity sports and study drugs.

Queen’s University’s Journal said this week that it will cut down on print editions from two weekly to one, although it’s keeping the same number of staff and adding a weekly digital edition.

Alison Shouldice, co-editor-in-chief, says the declining advertising market is partly to blame. Campus Plus, a company that sold national ads for the Journal and dozens of other papers, declared bankruptcy in June, leaving a hole in the budget. Local advertising has fallen too. While the paper gets a roughly $120,000 subsidy from student fees, advertising generally accounts for two-thirds of revenue. In 2007-08 the paper had revenue of $380,450 and expenses of $314,707. Revenue fell to $271,681 in 2009-10, the year of the great recession, while expenses were $302,399. Ad sales recovered somewhat in 2012-13, driving revenue up to $325,647, but expenses had reached $353,149, pushing the paper back into deficit. Dropping print editions will save money, making the paper, “as sustainable as possible,” says Shouldice. On the plus side, she says, dropping editions will allow more time for digital innovation.

McGill Daily published only twice weekly last year. It will also drop to a single weekly print edition in September. Anqi Zhang, coordinating editor, says the move was made in response to a decline in print ads. She doesn’t foresee an overall decrease in stories, however; more will go only online.

The Cadre, a small paper at the University of Prince Edward Island, went entirely digital last September. Lindsey Handren, then editor-in-chief, says only a few hundred of the 2,000 copies printed each month were picked up and no printer would allow fewer copies. With printing at $5,600 yearly and print advertising bringing in just $1,000, going digital-only seemed an obvious move.

It worked splendidly. The Cadre became more relevant, breaking stories that The Guardian and CBC subsequently covered. Website traffic grew from 2,000 unique visitors in September to 7,500 in February and there was more advertising revenue than ever, says Handren. Ads were purchased by Fireball Whisky, the National Capital Commission, MP Sean Casey and the student’s union.

One paper is responding to the drop in print advertising by bolstering its print product. The University of British Columbia’s Ubyssey won’t cut its second weekly edition anytime soon, says coordinating editor Geoff Lister. “We publish immediately online but we recognize that not everyone reads us online,” he says. “If we want to stay relevant, printing twice a week is the way to do that.”

The Ubyssey is still deciding how to bolster its print product this fall, but will most likely start printing fully in colour and may make both weekly issues a minimum of 16 pages instead of 12 pages. Lister says this will let them compete better with other free papers like 24 Hours and Metro. The Ubyssey is in better financial shape than it used to be due to a recent increase in the student fee it charges, up from $5 to $6.

The Gazette at Western University in London, Ont. has one of the largest student fee subsidies in the country at around $15 per student per year. That’s how it continues to print papers four times weekly. Advertising revenue declined from about a third of revenue in 2008 to about a quarter of the total last year, says editor-in-chief Julian Uzielli. As a result, they cut things like reporter travel.

Erin Hudson, president of the Canadian University of Press, is not surprised to hear newspapers are dropping editions, but insists there’s still value in print. “It’s something you’ll physically see on the way to class, in cafeterias,” she says. Digital advertising may be the future, she adds, but the best case scenario she’s heard is that it would make up 20 per cent of a paper’s total ad revenue.

Hudson says going digital-only may make sense for some smaller papers like The Baron at the University of New Brunswick Saint John, but not papers like The Lance at the University of Windsor, which made headlines well beyond campus in April when its student union, which funds the paper, ordered it to shut the presses and go online-only right after a cover story criticizing student politicians. The student union eventually relented on its order that The Lance stop printing but cut the paper’s budget by roughly 30 per cent, meaning it will publish only 33 issues next year.

The controversy in Windsor shows the danger of relying too much on student unions for revenue. Hudson says it’s inappropriate for student politicians to tell newspapers—meant to hold them accountable—how to publish. Such decisions may be seen as trying to “push the paper aside.”

Hudson is excited to see how papers like the Journal and McGill Daily fare with fewer print editions, she says, adding, “the pressure’s on to see what else they do besides that one edition per week.”