Despite continued revenue losses and the recent closure of the print edition of one of its oldest publications, Metroland Media Group says consumer interest in its print and digital products remains strong.
The Torstar business unit has released the results of a comprehensive study conducted by research firm BrandSpark International that suggests nearly three quarters of Ontarians have read at least one of the past four issues of the company’s more than 100 community newspapers, which stretch from London in Western Ontario to Kemptville in the east and as far north as Parry Sound.
The Community Newspaper Readership Report is based on phone and online surveys of more than 13,000 Ontario adults, with the results considered accurate within plus or minus 0.94%.
It is Metroland’s first comprehensive readership study since 2010. The company also plans to release further updates pertaining to consumer perceptions of the Metroland brands and their advertising effectiveness.
Michelle Digulla, vice-president of marketing at Metroland Media, said the study dispelled some common assumptions about the newspaper industry, particularly as it pertains to the “hyper-local” coverage offered by its community newspapers.
“Community newspapers remain really strong – the business model seems to work,” said Digulla.
The study found readership of Metroland products was particularly robust in the markets that surround Toronto, with readership topping 88% in Mississauga, Ont. The company also tracked readership in the various regions it serves, with readership of Metroland products hitting 87% in Peel Region, 86% in Halton and 85% in the Kawartha region.
BrandSpark VP and partner Mark Baltazar said many consumer and advertiser perceptions of print are “blanket” generalizations that fail to acknowledge the importance of sub-channels like community newspapers. “There are very few formats that provide such localized content,” he said.
The study found 87% of people between the ages of 18-35 are reading their community newspapers as much as, or more often, than last year. That number jumps to 92% for all adults.
A typical issue of a Metroland publication is read 2.16 times and is kept in a household for almost four days, while readers spend an average of 22 minutes reading the community newspaper and enclosed flyers.
Digulla said the study also helped dispel the common perception of community newspapers serving as nothing more than flyer delivery vehicles. Digulla said of the 22 minutes spent reading newspapers, only seven minutes is spent with flyers.
“We knew people were reading the flyers, but people are engaged with local content because it’s in their backyard,” said Digulla. More than three quarters of respondents (77%) said they read a community newspaper for local news coverage, followed by local shopping information (58%) and local politics (57%).
The challenge for Metroland is converting that readership into revenue. Parent company Torstar said revenues at Metroland fell $8.4 million or 7.3% in the third quarter of 2015, reflecting an 8.8% dip in print advertising revenue.
The company said the decline represented a “modest improvement” over the year-to-date trend, the result of a “slight moderation” in the rate of decline in national advertising revenues.
Yet Metroland’s products haven’t been entirely unscathed by changing reader and advertiser habits. Earlier this year, the company shuttered the print edition of The Guelph Mercury after 149 years, with publisher Donna Luelo telling Marketing via email that a lack of ad revenue made it “impossible” for the print publication to remain profitable.
Torstar said the Mercury’s weekday circulation had slipped to less than 9,000 from just over 12,000 in 2013, as readers continue to turn to digital sources for news and information. “It was so disappointing,” said Digulla of the Mercury’s closure. “You can just imagine the life it lived, so to speak.”
She said another Metroland publication, the twice-weekly Guelph Tribune – which entered the market in 1986 before being purchased by Torstar in 2004 –continues to thrive, with weekly reach of between 40,000 and 45,000.
“We need to be mindful of what our consumers are reading, and this research indicates that [our] business model, particularly in very small markets like that, works.”
Digulla said Metroland had “no plans” for future closures or consolidation of its community publications. “Community newspapers have a viable business model,” she said.