Tuesday, 13 June 2017

I can write hot takes, my friend has an old barn, my aunt has a quarterly dividend from a hedge fund limited partnership she's not using - let's put out a newspaper!

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

While earnest and dogged reporters have covered the inadequacies of the Clark regime in excruciating detail, for some reason the Vancouver Sun, The Province, and The Globe & 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 coops. Actual newspapers that you have 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 editorialise what it likes free from any 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. These days, the Poyner Institute finds the newspaper a money pit that must be subsidised instead of a cash cow, but it persists on providing Florida with a proper daily.

Much more interesting, and 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 are the noble good citizens of the city watching over the paper, 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 no, it’ll be at least another 18 months before they are that desperate.

So what would it take to start a new daily here, now? To create a brand new daily newspaper 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. You’d get a better return on investment by investing in soon-to-be legal marijuana shares, and by that I mean taking your money, buying pot, and smoking it in rolled up $10 banknotes.

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

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

We’ll skip suggesting a name of this imaginary newspaper because a good title is going to make all the difference in the world and that can be left to the geniuses on Twitter and Facebook. It would be tempting to disinter a great old BC 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 the locals, snicker slyly while making the folks back East say, “Why’s that funny?” Pitting British Columbia vs 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. This month, the Sun and the Province will move to East Vancouver and into the Broadway Tech Centre.

This does seem like an excellent location, with easy transit, coffee shops and gym on campus. There is no information out there 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, snow blowing, lawn maintenance, etc). You figure out a commercial rent by adding the rent plus the operating cost fee together ($22 + $15 = $37) and multiply that by 29,000 square feet ($37 × 29,000) for $1,073,000 rent per year or, $89,416 per month.

But who wants to be in the Broadway Tech Centre? The only place this newspaper and its glorious history 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 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 Street, they are also fully used by an erotic massage parlour, which, hint hint to Postmedia, may be a way to use up some of that extra space in your office that once contained staff.

Now that we found our tower, we need to work out the print bill. We’ll run it 60 per editorial to 40 per 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 $11,700,000 for the year. Let’s make it $12,000,000.

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

But here’s a workaround: Postmedia has published their annual report here. Mind you, this is for all of hundreds of newspapers, but they state they paid $39,997,000 for distribution. They also state they paid $12,795,000 for raw newsprint and $18,246,000 for production, so I am assuming that printing costs $12,795,000 + $18,246,000, or $31,041,000. Since printing and distribution are intrinsically related, I figure it’s $39,997,000 divided by $31,041,000, meaning distribution is 1.28 times the print bill, or $15,360.000 per year.

Now it’s time to staff up. The combined Sun and Province newsroom is the largest newsroom 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 conveniently publishes on their website 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 $1673 per week, for a twice-the-BC-average-wage of $86,996. Editors get $103,584 per annum. The editor-in-chief isn’t union, so she’s not listed, but let’s give her $103,000 as well.

So let’s say, ten editors and 100 reporters and columnists, that gives us an yearly editorial wage bill of $9,735,440. We’ll need half that amount in advertising people, credit control people, human resources, etc, so $4,867,720. Total staff wages: $14,603,160.

Wow. That’s a big number. That’s ignoring the student loan people for ten 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: $1,000,000
Rent: $667,000
Printing: $12,000,000
Distribution: $15,360,000
Staff: $14,603,160

That’s $42,630,160 to exist each year, plus $1,100,000 for a few start up things. We haven’t considered insurance or coffee stations or bus passes, so let’s round it up to $45,000,000 per year to run the Daily Skookum.

Let’s assume an inaugural subscription campaign went perfect and 100,000 people subscribed, that would be $450 per subscriber per year. Break that down to monthly and it’s $39. That’s a bit high – most people won’t pay that. Let’s say it’s $19.99 per month for paid, professional, high quality journalism.

That covers half the cost, the rest must be made up in advertising. With 312 editions a year, that leaves $72,115 per day that must be covered in advertising. If we assume $10,000 per page, that’s eight pages per day (figuring in commissions and such) needed. Hudson Bay and Stong’s Markets are going to be getting 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 $22,500,000. That should cover six months worth of printing while the advertising kicks in.

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