Shoestring ethnic publications say they need federal cash, ads: survey

OTTAWA – Canada’s ethnic newspapers and magazines are struggling financially in the digital age and need federal cash just to survive, says a new survey.

Many of the 22 publishers and editors polled for the Canadian Heritage Department said their budgets are so tiny that even a small amount of red ink can be “catastrophic.”

“Many respondents indicated a passion for government involvement in the sector, identifying government finding as critical to the current and future existence of their publication,” says the report, completed in May.

“Financial challenges were without question the No. 1 concern of virtually all publishers and editors interviewed…. Their main suggestion for alleviating financial and human resource pressure is more government support, through grants, and-or advertising buys.”

At least 400 newspapers, magazines, directories and websites in Canada are considered “ethnocultural,” catering to burgeoning populations of newcomers whose mother tongue is neither French nor English.

Despite a swelling potential readership, most operations barely break even in an age when the Internet carries multilingual, real-time, no-cost news from home countries.

Newsstand and ad revenues are paltry, the report found. Most publications survive as a labour of love, drawing on volunteers with a strong sense of civic duty. Most have an online presence, partly as a way to reach younger readers.

These publications are regarded by ethnic communities as “cultural beacons,” with a special responsibility to educate immigrant populations about how to navigate Canada’s unfamiliar society.

A copy of the survey, commissioned from Connectus Consulting for $33,000, was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

The survey covered publications from British Columbia to Quebec, 19 of them newspapers, and most of them distributed free to readers. Eleven languages other than French or English were represented.

The federal Canada Periodical Fund, budgeted at $75 million annually, provided some $1.8 million this year in grants to 63 so-called ethnocultural publications, or about $28,000 each.

Program rules limit aid to those ethnic publications with at least half their editorial content devoted to Canada, and with paid circulation of at least 2,500 copies annually.

“Government funding — the Canada Periodical Fund administered by Canadian Heritage — is seen as a linchpin by respondents that receive funding, and highly desirable by those that do not receive funding,” says the report.

Ad revenue is limited, partly because large advertisers prefer higher-circulation publications.

“Government advertising is also viewed as an untapped source of potential revenue,” says the survey report.

“A number of respondents suggested that more advertising from all levels of government would provide much needed revenue for their publications.”

Publishers in the sector have complained about the lack of federal advertising over the last five years, though the Citizenship and Immigration Department since 2010 has regularly run ad campaigns for newcomers exclusively in ethnic publications.

Annual spending for the campaigns, though, has dropped sharply, to $1.8 million in 2012-13 from $3.2 million in 2010-2011.

Two long-lived ethnic publications announced their demise this year: the 58-year-old Corriere Canadese in May and the 42-year-old Canadian Jewish News in April.

“The attractions of printed paper are welcome experiences only for an older generation and appear to be things of the past,” Donald Carr, president of the Canadian Jewish News, said at the time.

“Added to this (is) that much of the world believes that news and commentary should be free.”

Since the announcements, there have been revivals of both publications.

Thomas Saras, president of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, said he had not yet seen the study but endorses the call for more federal support.

Saras noted only a fraction of the Canada Periodical Fund goes to ethnic publications, while mainstream publications — such as Maclean’s magazine — receive much more.

The fund needs rebalancing to better support Canada’s linguistically and ethnically diverse press, he said in an interview from Toronto.

A spokesman for Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover said the Canada Periodical Fund has been revamped in recent years, with additional money now going to ethnocultural publications.

Mike Storeshaw also said the new rules, designed to take politics and subjectivity out of grant decisions, also give special access to these newspapers and magazines compared with other publications.

Saras said despite financial pressures on multicultural publications, Canada’s ethnic groups will ensure their survival.

“I believe that a proud community will never allow one of their best … publications to disappear in this way.”