Valley newspaper, the “perfect storm”

By Erin Delorey
The Valley Today struggled to survive as a daily newspaper, but strong advertising competition, a weak start, and inexperience plagued the paper. After only three months of making newspapers, the Valley Today capsized, sending some talented reporters to stand in the unemployment line.

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Samples of reporting by Carole Morris with the Valley Today

Results of the National Newspaper Awards for 2006

Results of the 2006 Atlantic Journalism Awards

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By Erin Delorey

The sign still hangs on Gerrish Street, a few doors from Jim White’s office. The Valley Today’s logo was a sign of White’s dream. A dream that was reality for three short months.

“I’m still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” White said. “To want something so badly, and see it screwed up. I’m still in mourning.”

White is a lawyer who dabbled in journalism since high school.

On Oct. 16, 2006, White launched a daily newspaper out of Windsor Nova Scotia. The Valley Today prided itself on being, “the independent voice of the Valley.” Readers from Windsor to Digby could pick up the paper each weekday afternoon.

The National Post was established in 1998, the last daily started in Canada before the Valley Today. Only two other daily papers have been launched in the past 30 years; the Whitehorse Daily Star in 1985, and the Alaska Highway News, founded in British Columbia in 1976.

The Valley Today shared the market with four Transcontinental weekly newspapers including the Hants Journal. The paper faced off with two Halifax papers, the Chronicle Herald and the Daily News, for local coverage and readership.

White worked full time for a year to start the Valley Today. He collaborated with Hugh Roddis, his main financial backer. They devised a business plan and hired a company to test the market.

The results showed the community would support a new paper. The market seemed capable of sustaining the news outlet, and local advertisers encouraged White to pursue his dream.delorey1_01.jpg

According to Statistics Canada, the Valley Today’s circulation area was home to more than 80,000 people.

White had the support of a California software company, Advanced Publishing Technology. The company invested in the Valley Today, offering their newspaper software for free, potentially saving the paper several hundred thousand dollars.

The evening paper was taking shape.

“There was no compelling reason why we had to do a morning paper,” White said. “We thought there were significant marketing advantages in doing an afternoon paper. Also, we weren’t exactly keen to go head-to-head with the Herald.”

Printing an afternoon paper meant the Valley Today could have more up-to-date information, and students could deliver the paper after school. The Chronicle Herald would print the Valley Today on its presses in Bedford, which also print their own paper for morning delivery.

Of 31 employees, just four had significant experience in running a daily newspaper: three editors, and the circulation manager, who quit after two weeks, citing personal reasons.

Julie Carl, who had worked at the London Free Press, was one of those editors. She was the only person hired from outside the Maritimes.

“They had a genuine and noble desire to hire local people,” she said.

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As Oct. 16 neared, Carl and other editors worried that lack of experience and organization would hurt the paper’s premier edition.

“We thought, ‘these people are not ready to go, and they don’t know that they aren’t ready.'”

Twelve thousand copies of the Valley Today’s first issues were printed; most were given away.

Dean Jobb, assistant professor of journalism at the University of King’s College, and a former resident of Wolfville, was keen to see the first issue. He was surprised the lead story was coverage of an event from the previous day.

“How would you have the courage to say, ‘Well whatever happens Sunday will be our lead story?'” Jobb questioned.”It didn’t start with much of a bang, so I didn’t become a constant reader.”

You get one chance to make a good first impression, Jobb said, expecting to see features or investigative reporting that showed the Valley Today was worth reading.

October 15 was the annual pumpkin boat race across Lake Pesaquid, in Windsor.

Kim Kierans, a journalism professor at King’s, said the Valley Today failed to offer something new or insightful.

“To have a picture of the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta on the front page . . . everyone had that picture.”

Carl didn’t argue.

“The first edition was pretty bad. It was two weeks in before we started putting out great papers.”

Andrew Rankin worked as a reporter with the Valley Today. He graduated from St. Thomas University’s journalism program two years ago. He was impressed by Carl, and quickly realized there were high expectations at the Valley Today.

“It was kind of crazy. I was working 10, 11, 12 hours a day,” Rankin said. “It was exhausting, but I never thought, I’m getting fed up.”

But, hard work and long hours did not guarantee success.

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Carl described the Valley Today as the perfect storm. The paper struggled to distribute copies without a circulation manager for two months. The free technology never worked properly, and online content suffered. The inexperience of some staff showed through, and at times weeks passed between ad sales.

“The interesting thing about the newspaper business, from my perspective is, that it’s like a symphony,” White said. “All parts of the orchestra have to play together in order to have a successful concert. It’s not just editorial. It’s advertising, circulation; all of these things have to come together at one time to produce a paper.”

After three months, paid circulation reached 2,000, but White said that number should have been 5,000. Sales were slow to start, but during the last week of the paper, subscriptions sales were up to 50 a day.

“The investors took a look at what their burn rate was,” White said. “They just couldn’t justify further investment. So they turned off the tap, and that was it.”

The news startled some staff members.

Rankin said he went to a meeting expecting to talk about deadlines. Instead he was laid off.

“Jim White said the first day the paper went out was one of the proudest days of his life,” Rankin said. “And, basically, that it was no longer feasible to run the paper.”

Rankin believed the paper needed more time to dig its roots.

“If you’re going to start a paper you have to look long term. You don’t get into making newspapers to make a profit right off the bat. It’s an investment. Three months didn’t seem like a very long time.”

Carl believed if they had a year to get organized they would have “kicked ass left and right.”

Looking back, Carl said she would have pushed harder to delay the launch until they had it right. She added that hiring experienced people might have saved the paper.

“Hugh is a very smart man, motivated,” she said. “It meant a lot to him to be able to provide good jobs to local people.” But, she said, the paper needed the right people to get off the ground.

Rankin said the paper itself was good. The reporting was great and the editing was superb. He was amazed by the stories they put out.

As a reporter with the Valley Today, Carole Morris was nominated for a National Newspaper Award and an Atlantic Journalism Award (AJA) for her coverage of the mysterious disappearance and death of local youth, Chris Parks. The Valley Today news team was also nominated for an AJA.

delorey2_01.jpg“We had something special going there,” Rankin said. “I was really learning a lot.”

He believed the fatal error was lack of a strong, narrow focus.

Kierans agreed.

“I think it goes back to the concept of what this paper was, and how they were going to do it. There needed to be a real sense of focus. ‘Who’s our audience, what are we doing and why are we doing it?'”

Roddis gave everyone eight weeks’ pay, and was emotional over the failure, Carl said.

Many Valley Today reporters found jobs within two months. Carl currently works for the Fredericton Gleaner, and Rankin is a reporter at the Guysborough Journal. White went back to practicing law full time.

One year after the paper shutdown, the sign still hangs on Gerrish Street, two streets over from the local Tim Horton’s. Seven out of 12 people outside the coffee shop had never heard of the Valley Today.

Deanna Snair, of Lower Vaughan, near Windsor, said she heard of the paper, but could not remember reading it. She used television and radio to get news.

Nicole Pace, of Windsor, read the paper, but her main source for news remained the Hants Journal.

“I can’t imagine what studies ever supported a daily newspaper in that market,” Kierans said. “There just aren’t enough readers. There’s a limited amount of advertising.”

However, Kierans said, the Valley Today did some good things. She said the paper had great reporters and provided new competition.

“It scared the Transcontinental weekly newspapers, and they launched a website,” she said.

The managing editor for the Transcontinental Valley division, Fred Sgambati, said the Valley Today was good for his newspapers.

“Anytime there is a competitive element it requires you to be on your game, to refine your focus. You need to understand the market that you serve.”

After he heard the Valley Today was entering his market, Sgambati was curious to see what it would mean to his papers. He said the Valley Today was in the ring with other dailies over readership, but would be vying for the same ad dollars as his weeklies.

“We thought ‘this is great.’ We may end up pursuing similar stories, but our perception was, we can do it as well as anyone,” Sgambati said.

The weekly papers combined their content and posted it online at novanewsnow.com.

Sgambati said the idea for the website was conceived before the Valley Today arrived.

Transcontinental launched the website in mid October.

“It was so astounding to us, to see the profile it received almost immediately from the launch,” Sgambati said. “It grew exponentially after that . . . The idea was, in many ways, visionary. It gave us an added dimension to what we do as a company.”

Kierans said she reads the weekly papers as research for a column she writes, Community News, in the Chronicle Herald.

“Their papers have become far more newsy than they had been. Competition is a great thing.”

She hoped the competition would last longer.

“It’s very sad that a paper with such promise didn’t survive,” she said. “I’m just sad that I’m still not reading about it.”