In the early 1960s, John Campbell and his brother Sandy, an editor for Maclean-Hunter in Montreal, went back and forth discussing why Cape Breton’s local media was so poor. The CBC didn’t have much of a presence and a lot of stories, like those about racial justice and the labour movement, didn’t get much coverage in the Cape Breton Post.

Eventually Campbell decided that he would do something about it. In 1963, with Sandy and another brother, Donald, he launched the Cape Breton Highlander, an independent weekly newspaper with a mission to offer alternative coverage to the Post. It became a true family affair: seven of the nine kids in Campbell’s family worked for it and his wife wrote a regular column.

Writer Silver Donald Cameron commented to the Halifax Examiner in 2015 that it was “a wonderful paper, always getting into trouble.” But in 1976, it printed its last edition.

Sitting in a bustling coffee shop in downtown Sydney, N.S., more than 40 years later, Mary Campbell, John’s daughter, explains her own foray into independent news. Though the spirit of the Highlander was in her, she had a more traditional journalism career. Campbell spent 14 years in Prague, living and working as a business journalist. This included a stint with a New York-based financial publication, for which she continued to work upon her return to Cape Breton in 2010.

But when Campbell started freelancing, she found herself “getting in trouble” with provocative, local journalism. She noticed that coverage of a potential port development wasn’t very critical and that bold promises were being made and taken at face value.

This led Campbell to sift through news archives and write a detailed, almost 1,800 word freelance piece for the Post that ran online and in print in January 2016. She examined the history of the port’s ownership and how similar development promises over the years never came to pass.

Campbell remembers the shares being “crazy” on the piece and that people even got out of their cars while she was shoveling snow to shake her hand for writing it. There were also critics — a Cape Breton University professor emeritus wrote that she coloured local business people as “being a kind of business mafia.”

Later that year, Campbell started the Cape Breton Spectator, an online subscription-only news site. She’s been doing local journalism her own way ever since.

“Honestly, I think I have a bigger (potential) audience out there,” Campbell said. “It’s not that I can’t get to (them) — it’s that I wear too many hats.”

First and foremost, she says is writing and researching, followed by the technical maintenance of the Spectator’s website.

“Third is marketing,” she said, “And so marketing is where I’ve really fallen down.”

One idea that’s been suggested to Campbell is using a one-time print edition to promote the website, though she said that “kind of feels like a copout.”

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality, a former steel and coal mining centre on Canada’s Atlantic coast, has been enduring a population decline for years. At 98,722, the 2016 population of Cape Breton County — which includes the CBRM and the Eskasoni and Membertou First Nations — was the lowest since 1931. The CBRM’s population alone declined by 3.2 per cent from 2011 to 2016.

Local media have also declined, but amid wider turmoil in the industry, changes in smaller markets – far removed from Canada’s media centres – aren’t noticed as widely.

A recent Tow Center study found that “change is coming to smaller papers, but at a slower pace” than larger papers due to a lower audience take-up of digital news. A similar report in Canada from the Local News Research Project and the National NewsMedia Council found that, despite dealing with the industry’s tough economics, smaller outlets still have the trust of their readers.

But in a place like the CBRM, where citizens rely on a limited number of outlets to tell local stories, the quantity and quality of those stories has been in decline for years. That creates communities where people might not even realize how little they know of what’s going on in their own backyard.

Losing its edge

Steve MacInnis, a journalist at the Cape Breton Post and president of the Sydney Typographical Union, said he’s seen union membership drop from a high of 80 down to about 50 members.

“The biggest change for me is just seeing the numbers of people that are available to actually get out there and do the work,” he said.

The print edition of the Cape Breton Post has become smaller over the years, along with its staffing. MacInnis said that only about 15 people currently work in editorial and reporting positions at the paper. Operations are now compact enough for the Post’s parent company to sell the paper’s prominent downtown building. But that doesn’t mean there’s not still an appetite for print.

The Radio Building, home to MBS Radio’s CJCB 1270 AM, The Cape 94.9 and Max 98.3 FM at 318 Charlotte St, Sydney, N.S. on Friday, April 12, 2019. Photo by Rob Csernyik

According to 2019 Vividata information provided by its parent company SaltWire Network, 61 per cent of the Halifax Chronicle Herald’s print readers provincewide are over 50 years of age. Though digital and print readership rates are similar from ages 50 to 65, 31 per cent of its print readership is over 65, while only 19 per cent of its online readership is. Nova Scotia’s older population — one in five Nova Scotians is over 65 years of age, according to the 2016 census — means this has an outsized effect. In the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, that number jumps to 32.6 per cent, or about one in three residents.

MacInnis, who has worked in journalism in Cape Breton for about 35 years, said one of the biggest changes he’s seen is the decline in regional political coverage, in a market where he said residents “eat, sleep and breathe their politics.”

He said the closure of the Post’s district offices in Glace Bay, New Waterford and North Sydney had an impact on political coverage, because those reporters “would certainly be in more contact with the MLAs and the MPs.”

He also said that a challenge of chain ownership is that a certain sameness starts to develop between papers.

Though many papers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were owned by Montreal-based Transcontinental, in April 2017 they were purchased by the Chronicle Herald and folded into a new company called SaltWire. This acquisition allowed content sharing between smaller papers — like the Post — and the Herald, the province’s dominant paper of record, for the first time in their histories.

In the not-too-distant past, you could get five daily newspapers in the CBRM. But the National Post and the Globe and Mail stopped distributing in Atlantic Canada and Halifax’s tabloid, the Daily News, closed in 2008, transforming into the free local daily currently known as StarMetro Halifax, owned by Torstar. The Cape Breton Post and the Chronicle Herald are both still available, but are under the same ownership.

“I don’t think that gives the paper any more community identity,” MacInnis said. “If anything, I think it takes it away because some people here obviously subscribe to both the Herald and the Post, so they’re seeing similar pages, similar stories, similar photos and they’re saying, well what the hell am I doing here?”

Campbell also sees overlap between the two papers, but feels there’s just enough “non-overlap” to differentiate them.

“The Post doesn’t seem to care much about provincial reporting, like legislature stuff, which it should,” she said. The Post doesn’t have its own legislature reporter, and sifting through the paper’s local coverage, court briefs and personal interest stories take prominence.

Cape Breton Post II

The Cape Breton Post building at 255 George St. in Sydney, N.S. on Friday, April 12, 2019. Photo by Rob Csernyik

MacInnis said one of the changes is that in the past, more reporting from the legislature — especially from the Herald and the Daily News — resulted in follow-up stories that took a local angle.

Both Campbell and MacInnis point out that the Post relied a lot on the Canadian Press for legislature stories, so Cape Bretoners knew what was happening with the provincial government.

Now that SaltWire has switched from using the Canadian Press to the Postmedia newswire, those CP stories are lost to not only print readers of the Herald, but also other local papers like the Post.

Colette O’Hara, the chief strategy officer at SaltWire, previously told J-Source that the number of other media sources using CP was seen by the company as a challenge.

“For us to spend a pretty significant amount of money on that newswire to only get commodity content that other people can get for free seems crazy,” she said in March 2019.

But it was a vital link to keep print readers informed about provincial politics. By email, CBC reporter and Nova Scotia legislative press gallery president Jean Laroche said that in May the Nova Scotia legislature’s press gallery had between four and eight members covering it “on an ongoing or semi-regular basis.” Only one was from SaltWire.

“The Herald put someone there last sitting after having relied on CP almost exclusively for a couple of years,” Laroche said.

He added the number of reporters at the legislature has been in flux for the last decade and that recent cuts at CP’s Atlantic bureau “may further complicate matters.”

Campbell said coverage of marginalized communities in Cape Breton has improved — feature stories about the various ethnic groups now increasingly calling the area home regularly appear in the Post — but such improvements in coverage aren’t universal. In her view, there’s been a lack of news coverage that holds local institutions to account in recent years.

“It’s not as hard as it needs to be,” she said, adding that it feels like local news has lost its edge.

Campbell sees the problem as mirroring the one her parents faced.

“In 2016 (I was) asking the same questions,” she said, regarding how to improve coverage. “And it’s a different situation but it’s a lot of the same problems.”

The Spectator posts five pieces a week, including investigative articles on topics that the Herald and Post don’t cover. SaltWire invests in investigative journalism, but Campbell doesn’t think it uses its resources effectively.

Recently SaltWire papers, including the Post, published a report on climate change in Atlantic Canada. But Campbell wasn’t impressed with the depth of the project, especially considering that four reporters were assigned to it.

She’s also critical of recent coverage of the local, provincially-run correctional facility.

“Reporter Sharon Montgomery-Dupe managed to explore every corner of the Cape Breton Correctional Facility without encountering a single inmate,” she wrote at the Spectator. “It’s actually pretty damn impressive.” (Montgomery-Dupe did not respond to a comment request via email.)

Campbell said she gets accused of being negative, but she sees it as part of her role as a journalist.

“It’s like I’m kicking the tires of a car you’re going to buy,” she says, “if the car falls to pieces you don’t get mad at me.”

A ‘grim landscape’

Phil Thompson remembers a time when a single commercial radio station in the CBRM had 12 people working in the news department, even a daily call-in news show.

But when Thompson, who started with CJCB 1270 AM in 1976, left commercial radio, there was just one person in the news department.

“Once he was gone at 12 noon, there was no one in the newsroom,” Thompson remembers. Halifax-based MBS Radio, which counts among its properties CJCB and two other local stations, gutted their newsrooms almost a decade ago due to “people reading news off the World Wide Web,” according to Fred Denny, Cape Breton Radio program director.

By then. Thompson said what was once locally-produced newscasts became a mix of stories from company-owned stations across the Maritimes and others pulled from online sources.

During the 1980s, the CBC employed about 70 people in Sydney and had its own building on Alexandra Street. As of August 2019, there are 12 CBC employees working out of a downtown office, according to Information Morning host Steve Sutherland.

Despite being the population hub for a distinct region of Nova Scotia, Sydney doesn’t even have its own television news show. CBC, Global and CTV produce their television newscasts for the province out of Halifax.

Videojournalists live in Cape Breton “and other similarly sized communities,” filing reports into regional newscasts, Renee Dupuis-Macht of CTV News told J-Source in an email.

Global, however, produces local newscasts in some markets comparable in size to the CBRM, such as Kelowna, B.C., Kingston, Ont., Peterborough, Ont. and Lethbridge, Alta.

At Thompson’s workplace, community radio station the Coast 89.7 FM has a news staff of three. It’s decidedly old school with news at the top of the hour and an hour-long weekly recap that’s available to download as a podcast.

Thompson is generous about the state of local news, but there’s a caveat. He said that overall the CBRM’s different players “are doing a good job, considering what we have.”

Campbell is more skeptical. She’s had people contact her and say they cancelled their Cape Breton Post subscription because they didn’t think the paper was doing a good enough job covering local issues.

She said it’s really damning criticism “when you’re the only (local daily) in town and people still think they can get along without you.”

Parker Donham, a retired Cape Breton-based journalist, admits the local media market is a “grim landscape.”

For him, the consolidation of news properties into the SaltWire chain doesn’t make it worse though.

“I actually liked the fact that they bought the (Transcontinental) properties,” he said. In his estimation, SaltWire has improved the Post. But a lawsuit recently filed by SaltWire alleges that the deal was made based on Transcontinental providing inaccurate and inflated earnings.

Transcontinental claimed otherwise in an April press release.

“We are confident that the sale of our media assets in Atlantic Canada was conducted based on fair, accurate and timely information,”

Donham isn’t shy with opinions — he recalls the later years of the Highlander as “hardly radical, let alone subversive.” The blog he writes is titled, appropriately, Contrarian.

In his view, Cape Breton’s journalists haven’t covered certain issues critically enough for many years. One example is equalization payments — the size of the share of federal transfer payments that Nova Scotia allocates to Cape Breton — or health care. As a result, he said public debate in Cape Breton has become similarly uncritical.

“I think that if the campaign for equalization fairness had arisen 30 years ago, the coverage of it would have been much more balanced, much more probative. And it would’ve been much easier for people to know that it was mostly a crock of shit.”

Donham also cited local journalists doubling down on negative, national coverage of local stories instead of questioning it as a problem that’s hampered progress in the region. For instance, Donham, former spokesman for the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, points out how much press was devoted to Sydney’s tar ponds being “the most toxic place in Canada.”

“Instead of devoting every scrap of community capacity toward reinventing the place and figuring out how Industrial Cape Breton could have a future, we spent 20 years in an extremely ugly, nasty debate about a large, but fairly routine, industrial cleanup.”

Another example, he said, is focusing on Cape Breton University’s low standing in Maclean’s rankings instead of its successes with Indigenous and international students.

Donham, like others interviewed for this story, also mentioned the rise of misinformation that comes from local Facebook groups like the Cape Breton Rant Room, a private group full of local gossip and personal grievances. The largest local rant room group has about 32,000 members. By comparison, 36,000 people like the Cape Breton Post’s Facebook page.

Donham cited the negative influence of these groups when criticizing the recent reporting by a Herald journalist of a car accident that left one person dead. The reporting, which Donham found to lack balance and rely on dubious sourcing, was shaped and amplified in part by social media like the rant room.

“In over 60 years of watching media, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of the reporting.

In a time where misinformation is already a concern, particularly among older populations, this is one more issue local journalism will have to grapple with. It’s only a recent phenomenon that local gossip networks like Cape Breton’s rant rooms have had almost the same online reach as actual news outlets.

And Campbell doesn’t think the push to digital will have a significant impact on readership.

“My cohort is the next one that’s going to be seniors, and we’re digitally literate,” she said.

She added there are seniors who might be expected to be interested only in the human interest stories or obituaries in the Post. but also subscribe to the Spectator. A standard personal subscription to the site is $100 a year, or $160 a year for a joint subscription to the Halifax Examiner.

Campbell’s own experience with her subscription-funded site suggests there are enough digitally literate readers in Cape Breton interested in old-fashioned reporting.

In her words the number of subscribers is “good” — though not yet great — but she’s able to pay the bills and pay for freelance content, while supporting herself.

“I make a living and have for three years running an online publication.”

What’s next for journalism in Cape Breton is anyone’s guess, but what’s clear is there is a coverage gap that is unique to the particular media makeup of the CBRM. Campbell’s found an audience willing to pay for local news, but for legacy companies who have an audience already, there’s less urgency in a declining market to get back to basics like local and provincial political news. Especially because it’s rare that readers demand harder, bread-and-butter news coverage, instead of quietly changing their media habits.

Thompson said his news team is trying to fill in gaps where they can, but there’s a limit to how much they can understand how successful they are at it.

“The feedback we get tells us listeners do appreciate that,” he said. “However, are there enough people that really appreciate that? I don’t know.”

This piece was updated to include hyperlinks and to clarify Parker Donham’s affiliation with the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency.