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Come On Kids, Let’s Start Our Own Daily Newspaper

As the Sun sets, a look at the dollars and sense of starting a new Vancouver daily.

Darren Atwater 18 Oct

Darren Atwater was the publisher of alternative papers Terminal City in Vancouver and Snipe in London and a co-founder of the Street Corner Media Foundation, publisher of Megaphone Magazine. He lives and works in London, England.

For anyone who thinks that the people who own newspapers actually read what their journalists write, the last provincial election may have been an eyeopener.

While pertinacious reporters had covered the inadequacies of the Christy Clark regime in excruciating detail, for some reason the Vancouver Sun, the Province and the Globe and Mail all suggested that their readers vote Liberal. It’s like facts didn’t matter, but keeping the pinkos out did.

Because of this, I have heard — mostly drunken and ill-informed — comments that maybe what we want is another, better, daily paper. One that respects the reader and reflects the real values of British Columbians, not those of rich nimrods.

Ownership in the public interest isn’t just the purview of Vancouver Island hemp collectives or East End pachouli co-ops. Actual newspapers that you have likely heard of are owned that way.

Probably the most famous example is Britain’s Guardian. It started out as a rich guy-owned publication, but when his family was threatened with losing control in order to pay death taxes, it was transformed into a trust. Maybe the idea was for the family to retain control through the trust, or maybe not, but 80 years on the Guardian remains free to report and editorialize without a traditional owner. A member of the Scott family, however, remains on the board.

In 1975, another rich guy donated the Tampa Bay Times to a journalism school so that the school would have a regular source of income. The Poynter Institute now finds the newspaper a money pit that must be subsidized, but it persists in providing Florida with a proper daily.

Much more interesting, and more relevant to Vancouver, is the Philadelphia Media Network. The Philadelphia Inquirer, a quality broadsheet, and the Philadelphia News, a scurrilous tabloid, were both owned by the same rich guy owner. Sound familiar?

That rich guy owner decided to donate the two not just to a non-profit society, but to one owned and controlled by the Philadelphia Foundation, analogous to our Vancouver Foundation. The genius of this is not only the noble good citizens of the city watching over the paper, but that they also happen to be very good at fundraising.

This would be all very good information if Postmedia was interested in selling or donating the Sun and the Province. But it’ll be at least another 18 months before they are that desperate.

So what would it take to start a new paper here, now? To create a brand new daily that had the heft and resources of a real newspaper. Not just some snot-nosed jerks throwing spitballs-to-power in a poorly printed weekly, but a real, honest-to-goodness daily high circulation paper.

Luckily for you, I have done the math.

First, my math tells me that starting a new daily newspaper in 2017 is an idiotic move. Your money would be better spent by withdrawing it from your ATM, taking the SkyTrain to Waterfront Station, then tossing it off the SeaBus in the middle of Burrard Inlet.

But you didn’t read this far for the smart move, did you? So let’s work it out.

What I’m proposing is a six-day-per-week newspaper, tabloid-size, 48 pages Monday to Friday and 104 pages on Sunday. Let’s say 100,000 circulation to start.

We’ll skip suggesting a name because a good title is going to make all the difference in the world and that can be left to the geniuses in the comment section below. It would be tempting to disinter a great old B.C. newspaper name like the Mainland Guardian, or the Columbian, or the Vancouver Herald. But for a working title, I’m going with the Daily Skookum. It has the benefit of making us, the locals, snicker slyly while making the folks back East say, “Why’s that funny?” Pitting British Columbia against everyone back East is always good business and, as they say, sells newspapers.

But that brings us to our first real cost. Designing the templates of the new paper and all its sections, the logo, the website, the petty cash requisition forms and such is going to run at least $100,000. You could easily add a zero to that, so $100,000 is a bargain, and no, your cousin the graphic artist can’t do it cheaper. Have some respect for the graphic arts, they have universities and everything for it now. At least this is a one-time cost.

More expensive are the digs to work out of. Last June, the Sun and the Province moved to East Vancouver and into the Broadway Tech Centre. This does seem like an excellent location, with easy transit, coffee shops and a gym on campus. There is no information out there about what the Sun and the Province are paying for their 29,000 square feet, but a Google search showed me another office on the same campus as $22 per square foot plus $15 per square foot for operating costs (this usually means heat, light, communal area cleaning and the rest). Take the combined cost of $37 per square foot and multiply by 29,000 square feet and you get $1.1 million rent per year or, $89,416 per month.

But who wants to be in the Broadway Tech Centre? The only place this newspaper truly belongs is 128 West Pender, otherwise known as the Sun Tower, born the World Tower, and soon to be the Daily Skookum Tower. It’s a snip at only $8 per square foot plus $15 operating costs, according to a recent listing. So assuming we need the same space as the Sun and the Province, it’s $667,000 per year or $55,000 per month.

If you are really more of a Daily Province fangirl, their beautiful former headquarters still exists at 198 West Hastings, but it’s fully occupied by the Vancouver Film School. As for the old offices of the Vancouver Herald at 426 Homer St., they are also fully used by an erotic massage parlour.

Now that we found our tower, we need to work out the print bill. We’ll run the paper with 60 per cent editorial to 40 per cent ads and everything else. I figure a 48-page daily paper, with a 104-page Sunday edition, fits the sweet spot. Large enough to substantially cover the news, small enough to read.

My proprietary back-of-the-envelope calculations figure that a 48-page full colour tabloid at 100,000 circulation would cost about $30,000 per day. The Sunday edition is about $75,000 each. So five days a week at $30k, plus $75k for the Sunday is $225,000 per week, and $11.7 million for the year. Let’s make it $12 million.

I really have no clue how much it costs for all the adult carriers to drive around and deliver the papers and, their supervisors. I delivered the Globe and Mail as a carrier in 1994 and they paid me about $700 per month. I suspect it’s more now.

But here’s a workaround: Postmedia’s annual report, for all its newspapers mind you, states they paid $39.9 million for distribution and $31 million for production and newsprint. The costs are linked, so let’s use that ratio to set our distribution costs at $15.4 million per year.

Now it’s time to staff up. The combined Sun and Province newsroom is the largest in Western Canada at 109 staff. Let’s staff up the Daily Skookum with 110 reporters, photographers, artists and editors. The Media Union of BC website shares the contracts of all the publications that they represent. Here is the one for the Sun and the Province.

You’ll see reporters get paid $1,673 per week, for a twice-the-B.C.-average-wage of $86,996. Editors get $103,584 per annum. The editor-in-chief isn’t union, but let’s give her $103,000 as well. So let’s start with 10 editors and 100 reporters and columnists and photographers. That gives us a yearly editorial wage bill of $9.7 million.

We’ll need about half that number in advertising people, admin staff and such, for another $4.9 million.

Total staff wages, $14.6. (We’ll cover benefits out of the salary pool for now.)

That’s a big number. That’s ignoring the student loan people for 10 years then finally cracking open their letter big.

We’re going to need a bunch of computers and pens and stuff, let’s say $1,000,000.

Let’s regroup. It’s…

Design: $100,000
Equipment: $1 million
Rent: $667,000
Printing: $12 million
Distribution: $15.4 million
Staff: $14.6 million

That’s $42.6 million to exist each year, plus $1.1 million for startup costs. We haven’t considered insurance or coffee stations or bus passes, so let’s round it up to $45 million per year to run the Daily Skookum.

Let’s also assume an inaugural subscription campaign went perfectly and 100,000 people subscribed, paying $20 a month for professional, high-quality journalism. That’s $24 million.

That covers half the cost, the rest must be made up in advertising. We’d need about $72,115 per day. At 40 per cent advertising, we’d have about 7,100 pages to sell a year, so we only need about $3,000 a page. But with a quality newspaper and great audience, we can do better. Let’s assume eight pages per day of ads at $10,000 a page. Hudson’s Bay and Stong’s Market can expect a lot of cold calls.

So there you go, I’ve done the hard math now someone just needs to put together a Kickstarter for $22.5 million to cover the first six months until we build circulation and advertising.

What do I get out of all this work? All that I ask is that you let me pick the strips on the comics page.  [Tyee]

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