How are Canadian newsrooms faring as the pace of concentration accelerates?
Port Alberni is a typical British Columbia coastal town. Situated at the end of a deepwater inlet that meanders through the middle of Vancouver Island, it was colonized by MacMillan Bloedel and other logging companies before its temperate climate, surrounding mountains, and salmon drew in tourists who are colonizing it again. And like so many other small cities in B.C., it recently lost a newspaper.
Susan Quinn, the editor of the Alberni Valley News, wasn’t surprised when Glacier Media announced it was selling the Alberni Valley Times, her main competition, to Black Press. Aside from the rumours leading up to the deal, change of ownership at the Times was routine. Before Glacier bought it in 2011, the Times had been owned by Postmedia, CanWest, Hollinger, Southam, Sterling and an independent, non-chain owner. Quinn observed three of the sales from her perch at the News.
“It was just like when we heard CanWest was putting them up for sale, when Postmedia was putting them up for sale,” says Quinn. “It was almost anticlimactic.”
The sale was only part of a marquee 15-newspaper deal. In December 2014, Glacier Media agreed to sell 11 of its community newspapers on Vancouver Island—every newspaper except Victoria’s Times Colonist—to Black Press, its regional competitor. In a separate deal, Black Press sold its four Lower Mainland dailies to Glacier. After the 15-newspaper exchange, a wave of closures and layoffs played out, leaving Port Alberni and other two-newspaper towns with just one remaining publication, halving the diversity of local news, and halving the number of journalists reporting it, too. The 2017 Public Policy Forum report, the Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, makes it clear that Canadian newspapers are at a crisis point — nowhere is that more clear than B.C.
Quinn knows this but nevertheless, she remains optimistic about the future of local journalism.
She isn’t alone. A recent survey of 420 journalists and editors at small market newspapers in the United States found that most were upbeat about the future of local news and their jobs reporting it. Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon and Christopher Ali of the University of Virginia, who conducted the survey and interviews with 60 other industry professionals, presented their work at a 2017 Ryerson University conference on the future of local journalism. Respondents’ optimism, they concluded, was rooted in their connection to their communities, and knowledge that they’re often the only storytellers in town.
That finding—if it can be extrapolated to Canada —makes Heather Thomson an outlier. Thomson, the former editor the Alberni Valley Times, left a year before Black Press closed it. She says leaving wasn’t her choice, but rather the result of disagreements she had with the managing editor about the direction Glacier was taking the paper. She warns: “I’m pretty belligerent about them.”