It's the Little Newspaper War on the Prairie.
For the first time since the Sifton family merged the Daily Star and the Daily Phoenix into the Saskatoon StarPhoenix in 1928, readers will be able to choose between two local newspapers on Monday when Metro floods the city with 20,000 of its free papers.
Already a mainstay in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, the chain of commuter papers owned by Torstar Corp., The Toronto Star's parent company, is betting it can win over advertisers and attract upwardly mobile readers who are moving to the province to take advantage of a booming resource-based economy.
In the battle for eyeballs, Metro pushes its papers toward younger readers who want shorter, more sensational news hits. The StarPhoenix, now owned by Postmedia Network Canada Corp., wants to prove once and for all that an army of reporters and a thick daily paper can compete in a world of limited attention spans.
"We own the province," says StarPhoenix publisher Marty Klyne, who is also publisher of the Regina Leader-Post, which will also have a new Metro to deal with on Monday. He adds: "We don't take any competitor lightly and we're not surprised they want to come here. We've been quite busy formulating new strategies and new products."
The fact that a new player wants to compete for readers and advertisers is a glimmer of hope for an industry that has been bloodied in recent years. Readers and advertisers have increasingly turned to the Internet for news, and the recession (coupled with the rise of social media) has caused big national advertisers to find alternative ways to reach consumers.
But while popular opinion holds that Canadians prefer to find their news online, the stats tell a different story. A study by NADbank reported last week that despite the amount of content available on the Internet, 58 per cent of all news-reading Canadians only read on paper. Only 9 per cent of Canadian readers surveyed relied solely on the Internet for news.
That's good news for Metro, which NADbank said counts on print to reach 99 per cent of its readers.
But there are obvious stresses in the industry – a recent Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism study found that for every dollar that newspaper companies such as Postmedia are gaining in online advertising they are losing $7 in the printed editions.
Metro plans to print 20,000 copies in Saskatoon and another 20,000 in Regina. Each paper will have three local reporters, who will fill in the front of the paper while the national, world and entertainment sections are managed from a head office in Toronto.
"The reporters we've hired know how to write for the younger demographic and understand our model," said Bill McDonald, president of Metro English Canada. "They write shorter stories, they are able to do multiple stories a day."
While the cities lack the subways that are the backbone of Metro's distribution system in most of its other markets, the company has sprinkled each city's core with newspaper boxes and will have employees standing on downtown street corners to get papers into hands of readers through the morning rush hour.
It's an approach the commuter paper has used successfully in Halifax, which also lacks a rail-based transit system. Despite the lack of light rail, the paper there enjoys the deepest market penetration of any paper in the Metro chain. "I was dead wrong about Metro when I said it wouldn't work here," said Kelly Toughill, who runs the journalism program at University of King's College in Halifax. "There's no commuter base and [the paper]doesn't have any content partners. But it's grown into a major player in the Halifax market."
Postmedia says it's ready for the challenge. Between its two papers, the chain publishes 100,000 copies a day in the province and employs a combined staff of 70 journalists. It recently launched a weekly arts-focused magazine in each paper and plans to increase its business department staff to better cover the province's booming resource-based economy.
It also plans to venture back into Sunday publishing, something many dailies gave up years ago to cut costs. The papers will deliver a "Best of Postmedia" section to 90,000 doorsteps in the province each Sunday, containing the best features from the chain's 10 daily newspapers.
It's a bold move, but there are no rules in an old-fashioned newspaper war.
"We don't intend to give up our market," Mr. Klyne says. "We have loyal readers and advertisers built on a history of more than 100 years. We're not just going to give that up."