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Librarians can help create inventories for community news access in Canada

A not-so-modest proposal for an annual census of local news outlets and a news poverty index Continue Reading Librarians can help create inventories for community news access in Canada

It is impossible to randomly choose a Canadian municipality and then find a current list of  radio, TV, newspaper and online news outlets that produce local coverage for that community. No such searchable, all-inclusive database exists.

This is a major headache. The dearth of readily available, reliable information on local media ecosystems makes it more challenging for governments and charitable foundations to identify where the need is greatest as they explore ways to support local journalism. At a time when Meta is blocking news in Canada on its platform and Google is threatening to do the same, there’s no easy way for residents in a community to find out where they can go for direct access to local news. And researchers in Canada are hamstrung by the lack of comparative local data. 

Studies in the United States have linked the availability of local news to election turnout and other forms of civic engagement. American research also shows that affluent communities tend to have more local news providers than lower-income communities. 

We don’t have the necessary data to determine if the same scenarios are unfolding in Canada, where there has been significant local media churn: Since 2008, 511 local news outlets have closed in 342 communities while only 212 have launched in 150 places. Are there more local news outlets in affluent versus lower-income places? Is there a link between the number or type of local news outlets in a community and voter turnout? Where are Canada’s news deserts — places where there is no local news available?

Assembling a comprehensive, searchable local media directory for all communities in Canada is no easy task. Some local news outlets are difficult to identify from afar because they don’t have an online presence. Some may claim to cover local news when they really do very little local reporting. News outlets come and go so any list published now will quickly become outdated unless funding is available to track changes over time. 

The CBC attempted to solve this problem with a digital Local News Directory that allows users to type in the name of a place and get a list of local news providers. The directory, however, relies upon industry associations to provide updates and that’s just not working. A case in point: As of Sept. 1, 2023, the list of local media for the eastern Ontario town of Prescott included the South Grenville Journal, which ceased publishing at the end of 2020, and didn’t include the South Grenville Beacon, an independently owned newspaper launched in early 2021.

There are industry-specific listings in Canada but they all have limitations so simply combining all of their data into one directory is no solution, even if there was a way to keep it up to date. Provincial and national newspaper industry associations, for example, have lists of daily and weekly publications in different communities, but non-member newspapers aren’t included. The Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission website allows you to search for over-the-air and paid television services in different communities. The search results, however, say nothing about how much local coverage there is of far-flung communities in a station’s viewing area. Global Lethbridge, for instance, has a newsroom in Lethbridge, Alta., but the CRTC also lists it as a provider of over-the-air television service in Brooks, Alta., more than 150 kilometres away. 

There are encouraging developments related to directories of online news outlets, but again, they have their own constraints. Researchers at the University of British Columbia are building a list of digital-born journalism organizations that they plan to share publicly and update regularly. The list, however,  does not include Quebec publications. Project Oasis, a Google-supported university-industry initiative in the United States, recently identified 270 independent digital publications in Canada that report on a specific topic or geographic area. The database is searchable by place name but it will rely upon news organizations and the public for updates and new information so currency is likely to be an issue. 

There is, however, a way forward. 

Preliminary investigations by Toronto Metropolitan University’s Local News Research Project, which I run, suggest a census involving local librarians could bridge the data gap. The census, conducted once per year, would involve asking librarians in every community to fill out a form listing the names of all local broadcast, online and print media organizations that supply residents in their municipality with timely, verified local news.

To test this idea, the LNRP identified seven municipalities in Canada with between 4,000 and 5,000 residents. Using a list of keywords to conduct online searches, we built our own inventory of media that provide local news coverage in each municipality. Then we contacted the local librarians and asked them for their list of media outlets serving up local news. The librarians were enthusiastic collaborators. In all seven cases, their lists were as good or better than the information we compiled from afar.

Further proof of concept can be found in the work of Tyler Nagel, a journalism instructor at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. He recently built a community-by-community list of local media for his doctoral research by surveying librarians in Alberta. Nagel said he reviewed a provincial government list of 326 library branches and realized “there’s hardly a community in Alberta without a public library,” including places with fewer than 75 residents. Librarians, he discovered, are almost everywhere.

In May and June 2022 Nagel, whose findings will be presented in a forthcoming research paper, sent his survey to librarians in 256 rural Alberta branches (libraries in major cities were excluded) asking about providers of local news in their communities. The 88 who responded supplied lists of local news outlets that included some Nagel had never heard of. Librarians, Nagel’s experience suggests, are a way to access detailed local knowledge from a distance.

The survey also helped Nagel identify three communities where there is no local news coverage at all. “There is no news media in our area, nor is there likely to ever be,” one librarian wrote in a survey response. Tapping into librarians’ expertise, the survey revealed, makes it easier to pinpoint true news deserts.

The census could start modestly as a pilot project in one or two provinces. It could also focus initially on smaller population centres until a modus operandi is established for larger cities like Toronto, where the public library system has 100 branches. 

In addition to asking librarians to identify local news providers, census organizers could ask them to count the number of locally relevant stories that each news outlet publishes on census day or in the most recent newscast or print/digital issue available. This would paint a picture of overall local news availability and also clarify which news outlets are significant providers of local news content and which are “ghost” publications that produce little or no locally relevant coverage. 

Beyond creating a much-needed searchable directory of local media, information from the annual census could also be used to build a news poverty index. This would involve generating a single index number for each community by combining census data on the number of local news media, the total number of locally relevant stories produced on or around census day, and information on the distribution of stories among outlets. The index numbers could then be used to rank places according to how well or poorly they are served by local media. News deserts would represent news poverty at its most extreme.

Recruiting library participants for the census and the creation of a news poverty index will take time. Ideally, regional and national library associations will embrace the cause and encourage librarians to participate. Ideally, the number of librarians filling out the census form will grow each year as the initiative becomes better known. And ideally, the census will help residents find and directly access local journalism and make it easier to understand and monitor the evolving state of local journalism in Canada. 

The directory won’t be perfect. But at a time when local news coverage is becoming increasingly scarce and more difficult to find online, it will be much better than what we have now.