Paper Tigers

Allan Cho, executive editor of Ricepaper Magazine, outside of his home in Vancouver where the Ricepaper team have met during Covid. Photo by Ryan Ng

Several once-mighty print publications have gone digital-only in the past five years. But according to one prominent BC publisher, it’s too soon to count out print

By Ryan Ng

Ricepaper magazine was launched by Jim Wong-Chu as a small newsletter for the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop back in 1994. Within two years, Wong-Chu had turned Ricepaper into a full-fledged magazine—and 25 years later, it counts as the longest-running literary publication focused on Asian-Canadian literature. The magazine features creative writing, such as fiction and poetry, along with feature stories, reviews and art from Asian writers from across Canada.

But with its February 2016 issue, Ricepaper made the difficult decision to go digital-only. “Ricepaper had a 20-year run as a print magazine,” says Allan Cho, the magazine’s executive editor, who took over from Wong-Chu after his death in 2017. “That is an eternity in the publishing world.”

Ricepaper is one of several former print publications that made the switch to digital-only in recent years. Others have introduced digital products while maintaining a print presence—with the hope of finding appeal with multiple audiences.

According to a 2020 study by Vividata, Millennials and Generation Xers are more likely to read a magazine’s digital content than are Baby Boomers. A report in 2019 by News Media Canada found that 90 percent of all print readers also use digital platforms.

The decision to switch Ricepaper to an online format stemmed from rising costs and declining advertising and grant revenues, says Cho, who, along with his work at Ricepaper, serves as the executive director of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, co-founder of the LiterAsian Festival and an academic librarian at the University of British Columbia. “It is a constant juggling act for a non-profit to balance the costs of printing, staff, rent, distribution, and writers’ fees.”

That said, Cho has also seen certain positives since the switch five years ago from a quarterly magazine. “The digital format has become quite liberating in some ways, as Ricepaper is not restricted to a number of pages,” he notes. “In the past, we had to turn away quality writing because we simply could not fit them all into one issue … It felt demoralizing at times at just how much we had to let go in the print world.”

Getting out of the quarterly publishing cycle has also allowed Ricepaper to focus on other projects, including a print anthology of some of the best writing from their website. Ricepaper is also now sharing stories through podcasting, YouTube and social media.

“Within the digital paradigm, we (are able to) reach a more global audience — one that we probably could not have done with the print edition.” Cho says he has received submissions from as far away as India and Japan.

“In the end, our goal is still the spotlight on Asian Canadian arts and culture,” says Cho, who studied modern Chinese history at UBC. “So whether it’s in print or in digital, we want to ensure it continues and flourishes. If we are reaching beyond Canada, then it’s a real bonus.”

Similar to Ricepaper, Dance International made the leap to digital in recent years—this time after over four decades of publishing. The last issue of the quarterly magazine was published in the winter of 2019.

“I feel that we were very lucky that we went online, just before Covid started creating an even harder environment for print publications,” says Kaija Pepper, editor of Dance International, a non-profit magazine, based in Vancouver, that covers contemporary and classical dance from Canada and around the world. “It was extremely hard to make the decision. I loved working with my designer and working with wonderful professional design programs that make the magazine and the stories so beautiful and lively.”

The decision to go digital, says Pepper, was a result of several factors. While the magazine had a strong international subscription base, newsstands started cutting smaller titles from their stock, including Dance International. Along with distribution problems, printing and mailing costs were constantly increasing. And revenues were shrinking.

“Slowly the advertisers were moving online,” Pepper says. “That was becoming really difficult for us because we did really rely on our advertisers for a lot of our budgets.”

Looking back, there are things Pepper doesn’t miss about being print-focused—especially the distribution problems. “Sometimes issues that would go to places like Singapore or Thailand, where we had subscribers, would take two months to arrive. It was very stressful because we would get letters saying, Where’s my copy? And because we are a very small arts publication, a lot of that fell on me to deal with.”

Still, with paying subscribers came established revenues; with its online magazine, Dance International does not charge readers to access the website or read its articles—relying instead on grant money and donations.

Pepper is unsure at this point whether the current model is sustainable as a business—or whether the Dance International reader of today will be with them tomorrow.

“I miss having that established subscriber base—people who want that quarterly magazine,” says Pepper. “And maybe some issues interest them more than others, but they’re happy to get it four times a year, as opposed to constantly having to drive people to the website based on the Google algorithms.”

Black Press—a Victoria-based publisher with both digital-only and print-first titles—is an example of a media company that’s hoping to have it both ways. With over 170 publications across Canada and in parts of the United States, Black Press uses both platforms to reach the widest possible audience.

“People have been predicting the end of print for a couple of decad at least, and it hasn’t happened,” says Andrew Holota, editorial director for Black Press Media BC. “There’s been a tightening of the market—there’s certainly been shifts in business models—but for us, in terms of a community newspaper (publisher), that hasn’t changed dramatically.”

He sees print and digital working together, with one feeding the other—not replacing it. “We use the print product and refer to our digital sites—inviting the audience from one platform to the other platform.”

According to Holota, having a digital format has allowed Black Press newspapers to have immediacy and connection to a readership that was not accessing print, or just preferred having news delivered digitally. And the immediacy and connection goes both ways: online stories are easier to monitor, in terms of activity and revenue potential. Holota notes that Black Press tracks, in real time, how the market is responding to its content, through its websites and social media platforms. “You can see—very, very quickly—what is being accessed and what is being consumed and at what rate.”

Black Press uses software such as Google Analytics to regularly monitor web traffic in order to see how well a story is doing. “So we post something at 10:00 a.m., I can tell you at 10:08 a.m. how many times it’s been accessed, how long people spent with it, whether or not they stayed on the site, whether or not they clicked into a link—all that kind of information.”

Beyond what’s getting clicks and views, however, Holota sees a tremendous opportunity for community newspapers, like the ones Black Press publishes, to succeed online by covering news that big online portals aren’t interested in.

“Community newspapers can be extremely successful and competitive in the digital market because we are still doing something that no other news agency does,” he says. “And that is providing hyperlocal coverage of communities. We’ll get it first—and when you get it first, you start the digital conversation. You’ll own the story.”

This digital-first advantage allows Black Press to turn its online readers toward their print products, where additional information and details are rolled into the story by the time the newspaper is published.

“The market has become far more sophisticated than it was before,” Holota says. “And the market now has so many more choices.”

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