Black Press Media ad sparks discussion about value of community newspapers

White Rock resident hopes front-page note shines light on revenue loss during COVID-19 crisis

A Peace Arch News ad in the April 2 edition of the paper.

A Peace Arch News ad in the April 2 edition of the paper.

In this week’s issue of the Peace Arch News readers will likely notice, in the bottom-right corner of the front page, an ad that is a little different than what you are accustomed to seeing.

The black-and-white advertisement is a note written by White Rock resident Chad Skelton, urging other local residents to purchase space in their community newspaper.

The current economic climate has seen businesses in every community shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which, in turn, has affected newspaper advertising.

A former reporter at the Vancouver Sun, Skelton – who is now a journalism professor at Kwantlen Polytechnic University – said he got the idea for the ad from former Sun colleague Frances Bula, who a few weeks ago on Twitter urged people to take out ads that did everything from thank health-care workers and grocery-store staff to simply saying hello to a grandparent who may be stuck indoors and away from family during this period of self-isolation.

“I just thought, ‘Oh, I could do that. That will make me feel better,’” Skelton said.

“And then I thought, if I’m going to take out an ad anyway, maybe it would be good to take out an ad encouraging other people to take out an ad.

By Friday morning, about a half a dozen local residents had taken Skelton up on his challenge, purchasing ad space in Peace Arch News’ upcoming Thursday, April 9 edition.

“Under normal circumstances, there’s plenty of ads, plenty of flyers and we get to enjoy (community papers) for free, but we’re in this sort of extreme situation where ads are drying up, so if you want the papers to exist today, and want them to exist tomorrow, you kind of have to step up.”

Rick O’Connor, president and CEO of Black Press Media – the parent company of Peace Arch News – echoed those statements, adding that the current economic crisis is difficult for businesses like community papers that rely so heavily on advertising revenue, both in print and online.

Revenue has dropped 40 to 50 per cent in two weeks, O’Connor said.

Though the particulars of each newspaper are different, O’Connor said that, as a general ballpark figure, the cost to print and deliver each edition of the paper is 25 cents per copy printed – a number that does not include overhead or staffing costs.

Peace Arch News’ circulation is 37,000.

“The double-whammy for newspapers is that the government considers them an essential service, and so they should be, but by the same token, good local journalism costs money.”

Skelton said he gets the sense that many people have “quite a bit of affection” for their local media outlets, though there are others who may take them for granted.

“A good way to frame it is, ‘How would you feel if the Peace Arch News didn’t show up next week?’ Right now, we’re in a position where at least in the short-term, that’s a very real possibility (for many community papers),” he said.

“The big provincial, national, metro (news outlets), they do a great job, but they can’t be everywhere. They aren’t covering White Rock city council or Surrey school board on a regular basis. They aren’t covering the debate about dogs on the promenade or talking about raising money for the pier.

“If these papers go away, nobody’s covering (these cities). I think maybe we forget the value of them.”

These days, though, many residents get their news online – from newspaper websites like peacearchnews.com and others – Skelton also points out that the print product is still essential for many, especially on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, which has a higher-than-average senior population.

“In a community like ours in particular, there’s a lot of elderly people, and they’re not on Twitter. So for a lot of them, to know what’s going on in their community, to know how to keep themselves safe, it’s really important. To our most vulnerable citizens, I think community papers are even more important.”

There’s another benefit to them, as well, he laughed.

“I was joking with my wife and said, ‘Where are all the old people going to complain if they can’t write letters to the editor?’”

While not everyone has financial means to purchase an ad on the front page as Skelton did, classified ads – many of which can be bought online – can run for as little as $30-$40, he noted.

“Obviously, (some) people have lost their jobs, and you need to worry about feeding yourself, but some people like me are lucky enough to still have a steady job,” he said.

“The pier is an interesting (comparable). The pier gets washed out… and a lot of people said, ‘I don’t want to live in White Rock without the pier, so I’m going to step up and donate, I’m going to put my name on a plank.

“Well, I don’t want to live in White Rock without the Peace Arch News. It’s a part of the community the same way that the fish-and-chip places down on Marine Drive are.”



editorial@peacearchnews.com

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