From pay cuts to layoffs, print reductions to closures, thousands across the industry are hit hard by the pandemic

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More than 100 media outlets in Canada have made cuts in 11 provinces and territories in a six-week period, with nearly 50 community newspapers shuttering. Upwards of 2,000 workers have been laid off.

Everything from local journalism outlets to broadcasting, independent papers and community radio have seen dramatic shifts as the coronavirus pandemic precipitates a slow-motion crash across the news business.

The moment municipalities in Canada went under lockdown, reports of labour and coverage cuts started to snowball. 

COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada — a joint project of J-Source, the Local News Research Project at Ryerson’s School of Journalism and the Canadian Association of Journalists — collates available data on cuts across the country based on news articles and worker accounts confirmed by our own reporting. The map and a fact sheet summarizing the data are prepared by the LNRP principal investigator April Lindgren and project research assistant Christina Wong.

What we found won’t surprise many who have been following the news. Still, the constellation of cuts is sobering. While these data aren’t absolute – our project will be updated regularly – we do know that at local and hyperlocal levels, the pandemic is accelerating what some are describing as a mass extinction event.

The COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada is a project of J-Source, the Local News Research Project at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, and the Canadian Association of Journalists. Cuts sourced through news reports, company statements and our own reporting have been used to create each marker. For large companies, in many cases it is not clear from the information available which divisions, publications or programs have been affected so we have mapped the changes to the head office location and the specific outlets where there is known impact. As a result, the number of news organizations affected by COVID-19 are underrepresented on the map. For more information, visit the LNRP’s website.

CAJ vice-president Brent Jolly says taking a snapshot is critical to ensure that when the health crisis abates, there’s documentation to ensure these conditions don’t become “the new normal.”  

As of April 29:

50 outlets have temporarily or permanently closed. Of these, 48 are community newspapers.

19 newspapers— 11 community and 8 daily papers — have cancelled some or all print editions.

78 outlets have reported layoffs or job losses.

2,053 editorial and non-editorial workers have been laid off.

Journalists and media workers across Canada are suffering from the labour impacts, as are other sectors. Despite challenging employment conditions, they are sourcing and delivering  crucial information on a protracted, history-defying news event. The stakes are as high as ever for figuring out how to serve the public and its right to know. The reality of news poverty is a specific concern in smaller markets without their own reporter where audiences are increasingly receiving more regional news. 

Source: COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada

While criticism of earlier announced tax measures persist, media unions, lobby groups and some news managers have intensified calls for government support of journalism. The Canadian Press said in a memo to staff that it was investigating its eligibility for government assistance amid declining revenues. Postmedia had warned of impending cuts before shuttering 15 community newspapers and laying off 80 staff on April 28.

Whether you live in a community too small for government agencies to release place-specific COVID-19 infection data for privacy reasons or local concern about safety is brewing, a local news outlet – let alone an ecosystem – is essential.

Lindgren, who leads the LNRP, has been mapping local news closures that have taken place since 2008.

“To put the damage to the community newspaper sector in perspective, we know from the Local News Map that 215 community papers have been shut down in the last 12 years,” says Lindgren. “For almost 50 papers to close in just the last six weeks is unprecedented. It shows just how seriously residents’ access to local news is being undermined.”

Lindgren says that research, most of it done in the United States and Europe, shows that regular local news consumers are more likely to participate in civic functions, better able to advocate for themselves within political systems and less likely to vote in incumbents.

While a new crop of digital outfits have emerged to fill information needs for target audiences, ongoing research shows that loss of local news services continue to outpace the gains. The LNRP’s latest analysis of data from the Local News Map shows that while 87 communities are now home to new outlets since 2008, 214 have lost one or more.

Despite the hemorrhaging and unresolved systemic problems wrought by grandfathered business models, policy and external interventions, all signs point to peak levels of news consumption.

“Canadian journalism, especially during the pandemic, doesn’t have a readership problem,” says Jolly. “It’s about fixing the business model to ensure that communities have access to the news they need.”

StatsCan data on where the public is going for its COVID-19 information shows 51.3 per cent are relying on traditional media, trailed by the 12 per cent who get their updates primarily from provincial announcements and 11.2 per cent from public health agencies. A Comscore report from March shows “an explosion on engagement with news and information sites.”

Analysts have long predicted the bottom will fall out. While we’re rapidly approaching that event, the pandemic has accelerated the rate of demise.

So far the majority of the layoffs — announced by 78 different organizations and include both editorial and non-editorial staff — are being framed as temporary, as well as some of the print reductions. But with so many unknowns surrounding the potential of local advertising revenue to bounce back, hyperlocal coverage has a high hill to climb.

Even as the pandemic unfolds in spring 2020, the Canadian government is still working through years-long plans to improve broadband access in rural communities. 

COVID-19 lockdowns have amplified some conversations around internet access as a human right, as workers lucky enough to be able to translate their office lives to home adjust to new realities. 

But poor internet access has long been a wrench in news shifts to digital only, both for residents’ access to information and publishers’ abilities to reform their own business models. 

“I think there were some real questions about whether these publications will ever reopen or go back to having the printed editions,” says Lindgren. “It’s not like this is going to end abruptly on a particular date and all the advertising is going to flow back to community newspapers…they rely on that advertising by the local bar, by the local furniture shop, by local businesses, and local businesses are only going to slowly come back to life and even then maybe not have much of a budget.”

An April 3 report from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses indicates that 32 per cent of businesses surveyed aren’t sure they’ll be able to reopen. 

“We’re not talking about a short term pain here for a lot of these news organizations,” says Lindgren.

This map will be updated regularly. If you’re aware of a new cut or have additional knowledge of a previous one, get in touch at info@j-source.ca or fill out the form COVID-19: Impacts on media in Canada.

Steph Wechsler is J-Source's managing editor.


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