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Did the real estate bubble kill the Georgia Straight?

In my Workshop series I bring you behind the scenes of V.I.A., sharing stories of how we operate and also offering my take on other local media outlets.
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In my Workshop series I bring you behind the scenes of V.I.A., sharing stories of how we operate and also offering my take on other local media outlets. My aim is to pull back the curtain and show you how the sausage is made and tell stories that might not otherwise be told. Some are less awesome than others, but it’s all part of our journey and I hope to bring you along on it.

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Today the Georgia Straight, Vancouver's entertainment weekly, let go their theatre critic, Colin Thomas. A post he wrote on his personal blog begins with "I just got fired from The Georgia Straight. Thirty years. No warning. No compensation.". He goes on to say that editor Charlie Smith sat him down and let him know that "the paper is experiencing financial challenges" and that they weren't keeping him on to write reviews. It's an outward sign of something that I, as a competitor and as an ally (we've offered our readers a weekly preview of each issue of theirs since February 2014), have seen coming for a while.

The most recent indicator that something might be awry at the paper showed its face last week when their Best Of issue was released and the longstanding Best Local Blog category was an obvious omission. I reached out to Charlie, inquiring if the exclusion had anything to do with the fact that the winners of it every year are now (and have been for a couple of years) in direct competition for advertising dollars with the Straight as we have mostly all grown into legitimate publications beyond traditional "blogs". I reached out twice and didn't get a response from him so I had to assume that somebody at the top finally caught wind of the fact that they were awarding the competition visibility, further legitimizing us, and that it had to stop. Though some of the winners take issue with being called "blogs" we at V.I.A. have taken whatever we can get and have always been thankful that the paper included a category for us, and that people voted us into the top three spot for the past 7 years - present year excluded of course, as the category is now gone.

If you've been reading the paper for 20 years or so (heck, even 3 years) you'll have become used to (even immune to) seeing double page spreads for new condo developments in town. Over the past two decades the paper has been one of two papers where developers hocked their wares to the population who could afford them, making the paper thick with these ads and also, presumably, flush with cash to make the paper even better. However if you pick up a copy of this week's Straight you won't see that; there are a mere 3 condo ads in the current issue (which we previewed here), the other week there was only 1. I see there being 3 factors at play here:

1. Real estate sells itself in Vancouver in 2016. While some of the levers that the government has pulled recently might slow the pace of sales the truth is that you don't need to take out a sexy advertisement to sell a unit nowadays; you simply need to list it. In the past year the percentage of our revenue from real estate advertising was roughly 1%. The year prior it was 9%. Prior to that it was 13%, and even when it was that high we weren't bursting at the seams with real estate the way the Straight has at times.

2. Changing demographics. As the price of real estate gets higher and higher, there are fewer who can afford to get into the market, and the younger demographic of the paper are feeling the affordability pinch. For the developers who are still advertising in print media, their money is better spent in the Vancouver Sun which definitely has an older, richer audience interested in investing in real estate.

3. Digital. Not to say that the Straight hasn't done a great job of going digital and populating their site with content that's in the paper and original web-only stuff, but as a paper-first publication their online presence is still an afterthought and not their main focus. With advertisers now, finally, going further into the digital realm with their ad buys (and spending a lot of that on Facebook, and not with publications), the hurt is on for print... and not just from the real estate industry.

Letting go their theatre critic who's been around for 3 decades says to me that the loss of a cash cow that once supported the paper and much of it's fantastic arts coverage is really starting to hurt. In the meeting where they let him go he was told that "there’s a lot of pressure on editorial to find fresh ways to do things", which is a common sentiment in newsrooms across the country. For the sake of this paper which has done a hell of a lot more for the arts in this town than most, and is built into the very identity of Vancouver, I hope they can find a fresh path.