The future of community news is in capturing the local

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Despite Sun Media shutting down a number of its weekly titles recently, community news experts and editors aren’t buying the idea that print is dead. As Ryan Mallough reports, there may be a number of reasons that print revenues are falling, but a focus on local news isn’t one of them.

By Ryan Mallough

Print is dead, say the experts.

But don’t tell that to community newspapers.

Though six Sun Media-owned weeklies published their final editions in recent weeks, community news editors and experts insist that it is not a sign of the times.

“We’re going through a major restructuring,” Algonquin College journalism professor Joe Banks said of the print journalism industry. “The era of the big fat daily is coming to an end and publishers are having a hard time understanding how to cope with that.”

Banks said that when people talk about the death of print and paper closures they’re referring to the bigger dailies. It’s the national papers that are hurting, because the national model is unsustainable, he added.

“Newspapers need to stop trying to be all things to all people and get back to being about local news,” he said. “Dailies will have to come back to their local audience. They need to be large scale community papers.”

According to Newspapers Canada, as of May 2012 there were more than 1,000 community newspapers across Canada—343 in Ontario alone—publishing 19.7 million copies each week. As well, community newspaper revenue nationwide increased by 3.1 per cent in 2011.

Metroland Media, the community newspaper publisher owned by TorStar, took in $582.4 million in revenue last year, an increase of nearly $40 million from 2010.

In contrast, Quebecor’s 2011 annual report shows that Sun Media saw a 2.3 per cent decrease in revenues from community news papers due to new acquisitions – revenue among existing Sun Media community newspapers was up 3.5 per cent.

The key to being that local institution, Banks says, is keeping everything about the paper local – including staff.

“Community newspapers should be single-mindedly local. The papers should be run like farms – farmers live the life of their career,” said Banks. “It does no good for the staff to be commuting in everyday. Local people have a more personal stake in the success of the paper.”

“[Sun Media] throws that model aside, consolidating managers and employees, parachuting them in. It delocalizes the paper.”

Sun Media and Quebecor communications failed to respond to requests for comment on this story.

For example, the West Niagara News was a consolidation of papers, including the local papers in Lincoln and Grimsby. Now that West Niagara News has been shut down, readers have been redirected to the St. Catherine’s Standard, a publication completely outside of the community.

With the closure of its biggest competitor, the 138-year-old Leamington Post, Southpoint Sun editor Sheila McBrayne expects that her paper is about to see an increase in advertising revenue, which will lead to an increase in stories and coverage.

While some see it as a victory for the upstart Sun, which began production in 2010 and has seen print circulation and online readership trend upward since, McBrayne said that the paper was never looking to take out the competition.

“We didn’t do anything but do our job,” said McBrayne. “We just keep it local. Locally owned and locally operated. It’s more personal that way – we’re the people who have to face the community each day.”

McBrayne credits much of the Southpoint Sun’s success to its independent ownership and believes that the small town newspaper model is due for a comeback.

“I think it’s coming full circle,” she said. “Really small towns all used to have their own papers and I think it’s trending back that way.”

“It’s still a business, but it’s about the community, not some corporate office,” she added.

“Bigger isn’t always better, not in community newspapers.”

Guelph Tribune – owned by Torstar’s Metroland – editor Chris Clark also stressed the importance of keeping the paper local. Something he feels the Sun-owned Guelph Review failed to do.

“In a perfect world staff would be made entirely of people from the community. Not just because they know the area better, but because they’re more connected with the people, they can interact with them on the street or at the grocery store,” said Clark.

Clark also stressed the important role community newspapers play.

“I believe that people should have a connectedness to where they live,” he said. “When people pick up the Guelph Tribune they know that the news inside is one hundred per cent Guelph. People should know the news and politics of the area.”

“I think there will always be a place for a community newspaper in paper form,”

Joe Banks believes that place will be a lucrative one for print journalism.

“I’d bet anyone that [community papers] are doing better per capita than the big glass and brass dailies because they have much lower costs and pretty much no debt,” said Banks.

“You never hear about there being a problem with the print industry where people are making money.”

Banks said that most community papers, especially those in western Canada, are able to fill community needs while still making a modest profit.

“But there’s no modesty in the corporate world,” he said.

“Closures create new openings for entrepreneurs and start-ups,” he said. “A market with 1,600 subscribers is not making a lot of money in the corporate structure. But someone running a paper on their own can make a good living.”

“It’s going back to the 1800s model – small newspapers with small staffs,” he added.

“A community newspaper is one of those local institutions that define a community,” Banks said.  “Through words and pictures it shows the community what the community means to itself.”

At the end of the day, Banks said that it’s about changing the definition of success to fit the modern market.

“For newspapers, survival is success in 2012.”

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