By Mike Davies
The future of community journalism is no longer just about social responsibility or democracy or advertising, wrote J-Source.ca innovation editor Robert Washburn, “It is about the economic survival of towns, villages and neighbourhoods.”
He wrote that local news media “can and should be seen as playing a critical role if rural communities hope to be resilient in the face of economic upheaval.”
If journalism is vital to the economic survival of small and rural communities, we need to figure out not only how to save but strengthen it or we risk the survival of these communities that these organizations are a part of.
“To me, the role of the media in the community is twofold,” said Tim Shoults, B.C. Interior divisional manager for Glacier Media. “Obviously, to inform, educate and entertain the community in local matters (in that order) and to serve as a forum for civil discussion and debate on local issues.
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“Done properly, those two functions mean that local media is holding up a mirror to the community to let itself know how it looks as well as what needs changing,” he said.
Kyra Hoggan, publisher and sole journalist at The Source, a popular online-only media outlet based in Castlegar, B.C., agrees with Shoults. She sees her role as a sort of replacement of the old “public house” model of community discussion and civic engagement.
“We want to be where the conversation starts,” she said.
People are bombarded by so much content these days that they haven’t built trust with community news organizations like they used to.
“There’s a tremendous amount of media illiteracy out there,” said Shoults. “People don’t know what they’re reading, where it comes from, how to read it critically and with understanding.” He said local media should foster that and encourage people to think critically about the world around them.
So how do they do that? How does an organization hold a mirror up to the community to reflect its values and ideals, be the hub of discussion to encourage civic engagement and get people considering the world around them in a more critical way?
Whose fault is it when local media fail?
“We do a terrible job of telling our own story,” Shoults said of how media engage with their communities. “It’s an old chestnut, but it’s true.”
Dale Bass, associate editor at Kamloops This Week (KTW) and chair of the board of the Canadian Association of Journalists, agrees. “Media needs to do a better job of educating the public on how to engage with us, rather than just assuming everyone knows. Reporters need to stop doing the here-are-my-three-questions-goodbye and take some time to talk and listen to people.”
This reliance on surface-level coverage and an unwillingness on the part of news outlets to engage with their communities are some of the major deficiencies that Chuck Bennett, regional publisher for the Kootenay region of B.C. for Black Press, has noticed.
Bennett oversees 16 small-town newspapers with different business models (free weekly papers, paid subscription dailies, etc.) but sees similarities in their engagement levels, regardless of the pay structure and frequency of publication.
“Reporters have stopped digging and getting behind issues,” he said. “Having reporters in the field is important, but not if they’re just going to show up at something, take a picture and leave. We need to be part of the solution.”
So it’s the fault of reporters that their organizations are failing to perform their role?
Not so fast, Bass said. While that may be true, the unwillingness (or inability, due to willful ignorance) of the community itself to engage with their local media is another factor.
“I think one of the first things the community can do to improve its own sustainability, promote itself and provide meaningful and interesting stories to media is to first figure out what they're about and why people should care,” she said.
“They think we want to [cover] cheque presentations; that’s the last thing we want,” said Bass. “People don’t know what a story is and have no idea how to promote the work they do to the media."
Robert Murray, sports reporter for Today in Fort McMurray, Alta., said that in his attempt to engage with the local sports community he often encounters obstacles.
For example, when he asked four high schools for their team rosters, one refused his request, even after Murray offered to sign a release to ensure privacy issues were acknowledged. In the end, he was unable to cover that school’s sports for the year because of its refusal to provide the basic information required for him to do so.
So, the media aren’t telling the community what it needs from them and the community isn’t telling the media what they need from them (or sometimes flat-out refusing to give them the information).
This may get at the crux of the problem, or at least one of them: both sides of the issue want the other to take more responsibility for their relationship.
The future of community journalism
There is some good news, however.
According to a 2012 NADBank report, almost 80 per cent of adults in Canada read a daily newspaper at least once a week.
The study also showed that while the move to digital platforms is certainly taking place, people are still reaching for print, and free papers still do well in many markets.
Small digital organizations and non-dailies are thriving in smaller centres, as well.
“If there's been one theme I've heard from the dozens and dozens of people I've talked to since Jan. 6 [the date of the KDN closure],” wrote Bass in this J-Source article, where she discussed KTWs expansion, “it's this—they might get some of their news online or from broadcast, but they still want to get up in the morning and open up their newspaper to find out about their community.”
The key going forward is this: Media organizations need to teach their communities about how to engage with them and then create a place for that engagement to happen.
They also need to create a place for readers to debate and discuss the issues they read about within those pages. The nature of our instant-gratification culture, spurred by Twitter and Facebook, means letters to the editor sections no longer cut it in terms of fostering discussion and promoting personal expression.
Hoggan’s site does this better than most. The Source has well over 3,000 followers on Facebook, where there are regular and lively discussions bringing the community together on issues of importance to them. For a community of about 16,000 people, that’s a pretty broad reach and an exceptional level of community engagement.
“[Readers] feel like they know me; that we have a relationship, which allows them to take ownership of The Source, makes them feel invested in it,” said Hoggan. “Many have come to distrust mainstream media, and the sense of knowing me personally and that I'm deeply committed to them and the community makes them feel safe.”
Mike Davies is the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Omega at Thompson Rivers university (TRU) in B.C., a freelance golf writer and full-time advocate for community engagement. This piece is a compact version of his final journalism research paper completed as part of his studies at TRU. Contact him at @PaperguyDavies on Twitter if you'd like to read the full piece, and he'll be happy to send it to you.
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