The Chatham Daily News operates with three reporters. Screenshot by J-Source.

Inside a small town newsroom in a time of news poverty

At the The Chatham Daily News and Chatham-Kent This Week, reporters have had to change with the times. Continue Reading Inside a small town newsroom in a time of news poverty

When you walk into the newsroom of The Chatham Daily News and Chatham-Kent This Week, there are empty desks and a total of three reporters, Ellwood Shreve, Trevor Terfloth, and Tom Morrison.

According to Shreve, who has been in the business since 1990, the newsroom perched above a busy downtown intersection used to look much different when he started at the Daily News in the summer of 2002.

“When I started at the Daily News, I think we had five reporters, two photographers, and an editorial assistant who worked from seven till noon. We also had a managing editor, assistant managing editor, a sports editor, two day editors, and a sports reporter,” said Shreve. “Today, we have two news reporters and a sports reporter. Our paper is laid out in London, and printed in Windsor.”

According to the 2017 Shattered Mirror report, from the Public Policy Forum, the Canadian Media Guild has been tracking layoffs and buyouts for the past few decades. They estimate a total of at least 12,000 positions have been lost,  more than 1,000 of them in 2016.

Out of a time of struggle and cuts, the Canadian media industry has had to change its ways with innovation and strategy.

Shreve and the Daily News are a part of the Postmedia Southwestern Ontario newsroom – a network made up of 29 reporters and 19 newspapers that work together as a regional newsroom as opposed to separate entities. Through communication and applications like Slack, Shreve and the rest of the staff in Chatham stay in constant contact with editors at The London Free Press and the Woodstock Sentinel-Review whose coverage spans seven counties.

But, despite innovation with a regional focus, and communication platforms, Shreve feels as though some of the collective efforts of a traditional newsroom can get lost.

“I think the biggest change for us has been just working on our own a lot more without that direct input from an editor. That makes a difference because you can be going down the wrong path, and it’s good to have an editor with another set of eyes or another opinion to say ’You know what, I think the focus should shift to here, rather than where you’re at,’” said Shreve. “Collaboration has always been a great thing in the newsroom and you lose some of that when you’ve got to work on your own.”

One of the editors who works alongside Shreve is Bruce Urquhart, a 20-year news veteran at the Woodstock Sentinel-Review. According to Urquhart, the regional approach for Postmedia is one that, despite challenges, allows them to still serve their readers.

An example fitting of Southwestern Ontario is the coverage of the maple syrup season. Instead of sending out a reporter from each newsroom to cover the story, they send out one and allow them to widen the scope so the story can run in all papers in the region.

“We’re trying to stretch our resources as much as we can because there has been a profound difference in the number of people we have in these newsrooms. Woodstock, for example, when I started there were 12 people in the newsroom and now, including me, there (are) four,” said Urquhart.

Despite efforts to stretch themselves out as much as possible, both Urquhart and Shreve know they can’t  serve their communities the way they once did.

In the days of a more staffed newsroom, the Sentinel-Review could staff township council meetings and have a couple of local sports pages – now, they often can’t cover certain events, and have the issue of picking and choosing, which Urquhart blames for the possible lack of depth in their coverage.

“I think that because of the need to fill that news hole, some of the depth that we once had isn’t there. I think there are areas where, since everybody is a generalist, people are lacking the expertise,” said Urquhart. “You don’t have a city hall reporter anymore, so you know the person covering city hall might not pick up on certain things or might not know who to call, and we lose a little bit of that [depth].”

For Shreve, the lack of time and available hands in the newsroom becomes more apparent and frustrating when he sees a story that desperately needs more coverage, but there just isn’t the time. He would like to write a story about well water quality and the North Kent Wind project.  

“We have a situation in North Chatham-Kent where there are these water wells that have been impacted. The wind developers say it’s not them and the Ministry of the Environment  says it’s not the wind turbines, but something is going on there,” said Shreve. “If I didn’t have to do two other stories a day, if we had a staff of five reporters, chances are I would be able to dig into that story.”

This lack of in-depth and investigative reporting is what Urquhart and Shreve say has had the most significant impact on Canadian journalism, not just at a local level but at larger dailies such as the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. According to the Shattered Mirror report, polling done by the PPF showed this as a worry for Canadians in the time of a declining traditional news landscape.

“We definitely play an important and sometimes undervalued role. People don’t realize how much information we provide, or how we serve as watchdogs or guardians,” said Urquhart. “In this era where there are so many suspect news sites where people can reinforce their prejudice through that echo chamber, the value of legitimate journalism is more important now than it ever has been.”

For Shreve, the investigative and in-depth reporting that has become endangered in Canada is absolutely crucial and in need of protection for the sake of Canadians.

“When media can get involved and let the people know what the truth is, and the government can’t hide the truth, they have to act,” said Shreve. “That’s what good journalism is all about – getting to the truth of what’s going on.”

Fallon Hewitt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, NOW Magazine and Canadaland. You can find her writing about city politics and social issues.