Can digital journalism serve readers who can’t get online?

Chatham Daily News announced it would publish a print edition of its paper one less day a week, along with 10 other Postmedia newspapers, on Nov. 6. Based in the southwestern Ontario municipality of Chatham-Kent, the paper serves a mostly rural municipality, where many residents are still on dial-up. “I’m trying to think back to…

Chatham Daily News announced it would publish a print edition of its paper one less day a week, along with 10 other Postmedia newspapers, on Nov. 6.

Based in the southwestern Ontario municipality of Chatham-Kent, the paper serves a mostly rural municipality, where many residents are still on dial-up.

“I’m trying to think back to when I was still on dial-up and you hear that modem going and you figure there’s a hamster spinning a wheel faster than the way dial-up works,” said journalist Bruce Corcoran, with a laugh.

But Corcoran, who is a local reporter in the area and co-owner of the weekly publication The Chatham Voice, established in 2013, said internet issues are prevalent, with many people still complaining of being on dial-up, or that the 4G mobile communication standard, LTE, is too slow and unreliable.

Rural communities are among the most underserved by not just local journalism, but also access to high-speed internet, often with poor bandwidth and spotty service. While media continues to transform and move online, the digital divide becomes greater, with pockets of readers increasingly at risk of getting left behind.

In 2016, the United Nations deemed internet access a human right through Article 19, “recognizing that the spread of information and communications technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies.”

All medium-to-large population centres in Ontario had access to 25 mbps of broadband service, compared to 68 per cent in rural centres, according to a 2016 Statistics Canada report. Broadband is essentially speed, so the more broadband service you have, the faster data can transfer over a connection.

A report submitted to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology, reflecting on a CRTC 2017 Communications Monitoring Report, states, that “rural communities continue to lag behind urban centers in regard to access and speed of Internet, and are falling even further behind in some regards. This divide negatively and disproportionately affects rural access to government services, education, healthcare and leisure opportunities.”

“It can be problematic especially when the sites you’re trying to access are high traffic sites,” says Corcoran, adding that many news sites – such as CNN and CBC, which host lots of video and photo content – function under the premise that everyone has high speed internet access.

The accelerating shift to digital means that readers may get cut off from access to information about their own communities, and that their informed civic participation is becoming more of a privilege than a right, a concern for journalists and digital rights experts.

Postmedia attributes its decision to reduce print days to “the changing media landscape in North America and our own digital transformation,” according to an identical statement issued in each of the affected papers.

The “cost-based” decision will mostly affect publications located in, and catering to, rural communities across Ontario.

One hundred per cent of Canadians in urban areas have access to high speed Internet, whereas only 85 per cent have access in rural areas, according to the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. Only 84 per cent of homes across Ontario have internet access, according to the Statistics Canada’s Canadian Internet Use Survey.

‘There’s nothing quite as special as a community newspaper’

The Sarnia Observer is one of the Postmedia publications set to publish one less day of the week. In St. Clair Township, a municipality of about 15,000 people in the County of Lambton, lack of internet access and low speeds are known problems.

During the October municipal elections, for example, the issue of internet access dominated all candidates’ platforms.

Sarnia and Lambton County This Week reported that at a mayoral candidate forum held in September, attendees expressed outraged over the lack of high-speed internet in parts of the county. Jeff Agar, a former St. Clair Township councillor who was running for mayor at the time, is reported to have addressed the concern by saying that working with the government to improve internet access has been a frustrating experience, and while there are some options, they are too costly. “We’ve been working on (getting internet) for 12 years,” Agar told attendees at the forum, according to Sarnia and Lambton County This Week’s coverage. “Trying to put pressure on governments takes a long time and a lot of effort.”

Tara Jeffrey, a resident of St. Clair Township, says the print reduction affects her as both a community member and a local journalist. Born and raised in Sarnia, Jeffrey worked at the Sarnia Observer as a summer student, later hired on as a full time reporter. She went on to work there for eight years.

After having her second child, Jeffrey decided to join the Sarnia Journal, where she currently works as a part-time reporter.

When the Monday Sarnia Observer was delivered on Nov. 5, Jeffrey called her parents and told them to keep it. She knew its days were numbered.

“They like to have their paper,” Jeffrey says. “Every morning they sit down, read it together and talk about it.”

That Monday edition is now a piece of history.

Jeffrey says the change is disappointing. “There’s nothing quite as special as a community newspaper, especially for smaller cities like Sarnia,” she says. “This announcement of the Monday paper being cut – I know it’s only one day, but it’s just a sign of the times. A sign of the challenges facing the industry.”

She noted the discrepancies in internet speeds between the larger city of Sarnia and its surrounding areas, such as St. Clair Township. Access changes so much within a few kilometres, she says.

“There are some internet speed issues (in rural areas) that are making headlines in recent years, but everything is fine in Sarnia,” says Jeffrey.

In September, the CRTC announced a new standard to be enforced by 2021 – at least 50 Mbps for downloads and 10 Mbps for uploads. The announcement comes after the government found internet access to be “essential” for individuals to not only thrive, but survive, in the digital economy.  

Southwestern Ontario makes up 10 per cent of Canada’s population, but 230,000 households in that area do not meet the standard connectivity of 50:10, says Helen Hambly-Odame, associate professor in capacity development and rural studies at Guelph University.

“Many folks in urban areas in Toronto are getting one thing: unlimited plans. This is a dream for most of us who live in southwestern Ontario,” Hambly-Odame said.

Phyllise Gelfand, vice president of communications at Postmedia, says the decision to cut the print run is based on the media group’s weak financial state. “We have done that in other newspapers. Sunday editions have been cut, Mondays in others, to try to concentrate the revenues to make the business model work,” Gelfand says.   

With regard to internet access, she says, “I think they are served by internet, I don’t think anything is that remote,” adding, “Certainly it’s not our first choice to cut down days of the week, but there are cost considerations and newspapers and advertisers support it.”  

Whatever its reasons, Jeffrey knows that this is another sign of the importance of supporting local journalism.

“It’s like they say, ‘you’re not going to know what you have until it’s gone.’”  

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 1:55 p.m. ET on Dec. 5, 2018 to reflect that Jeff Agar is a former city councillor for St. Clair Township. We regret the error.