On the surface, the closure of eight weekly community newspapers is cause for concern for those interested in serving rural Canada; but under further scrutiny, it appears the residents of these areas will continue to get their news from local sources. Yet, digging deeper still unveils a more complex series of questions needing answers. Robert Washburn says these answers may hold the keys to resolving larger issues within the newspaper industry.

By J-Source innovation editor Robert Washburn

On the surface, the closure of eight weekly community newspapers is cause for concern for those interested in serving rural Canada; but under further scrutiny, it appears the residents of these areas will continue to get their news from local sources.

Yet, digging deeper still unveils a more complex series of questions needing answers. These answers may hold the keys to resolving larger issues within the newspaper industry.

Several questions jump out immediately. First, what is impact of losing a news media source in a small community? Second, what message this sends the industry?

More importantly, does anyone really care? And, why or why not?

Sun Media Corporation reduced its staff by 360, along with closing the weekly newspapers, along with three free urban dailies. The community newspapers were The Midland Free Press (Ontario), The Lindsay Post (Ontario), The Meadow Lake Progress (Saskatchewan), The Beausejour Review (Manitoba), The Lac du Bonnet Leader (Manitoba), Le Magazine Saint-Lambert (Quebec) and Le Progrès de Bellechasse (Quebec).

The job losses are as significant as the closures. The Southern Ontario News Media Guild, which represents 13 Sun Media papers in Ontario, said 15 of its members lost their jobs.

The Toronto Sun cut five employees, as did the St. Catharines Standard. The Ottawa Sun and London Free Press each lost one person. Smaller newspapers like the Brantford Expositor cut three positions; Northumberland Today cut one reporter, as did Kingston This Week. These are just a few examples. In many of these cases, the newsrooms are already understaffed and resources stretched thin.

There is a mountain of literature and endless studies showing the importance of community newspapers. This kind of journalism not only serves the informational needs for its residents. It is also crucial to sustaining a community’s identity and enriches social capital. They make significant contributions to culture, communication and life in small cities, towns, villages and hamlets, helping individuals, institutions and organizations make sense of themselves and their peers. It provides context for a community in its relationship to the rest of the region, the province, the country and the world.

A 2009 study for the Ontario Community Newspaper Association showed 74 per cent of Canadian adults read their local community newspaper; a majority of them said local news was the main reason.

While the immediate reaction might be to bemoan the loss of these newspapers for their respective communities, all English-speaking communities will still be served by local news media. The Clipper Weekly covers the village of Beausejour*; Midland residents will have the Midland-Penetanguishene Mirror; Lindsay This Week will continue to serve that town; Northern Pride will still publish in Meadow Lake; The Winnipeg River Echo and The Lac du Bonnet Clipper will still deliver news to Lac du Bonnet.

On the surface, it does not seem so bad. It is a bit of a mixed message that is consistent with a number of trends.

For example, in Ontario, the number of independent and corporate owners of community newspapers shrank by 19 per cent between 1999 and 2011, according to the Ontario Community Newspaper Association. During this same period, the overall number of titles went up by 22 per cent. While the expansion of titles demonstrates the growth of publishing community newspapers, it also denotes a shift away from autonomous ownership.

In the case of the Sun Media closures, some communities are left with Metroland competitors as the only publisher with the exception of Northern Pride, which is a weekly independent.

But, these recent cuts are only part of a larger picture within the 200 community newspapers and publications Sun Media owns.

In 2012, The Dunnville Chronicle (Ontario), West Niagara News (Ontario), The Montreal Mirror (Quebec), Capital City News (Ontario), Guelph Review (Ontario), Kitchener-Waterloo Review (Ontario) and Markdale Standard (Ontario) were all shut down, along with 500 jobs being cut.

That was preceded by the layoffs of 600 staff in 2008, followed by the closure of the Jasper Booster (Alberta), Pelham News (Ontario), Morinville Redwater Town & Country Examiner (Alberta), Leamington Post (Ontario), Windsor This Week (Ontario) and InPort News (Ontario).

It is difficult to track all the small community newspaper closures. Headlines focus on job cuts and the impact on major urban centres, as compared to the losses in villages of less than 5,000 people.

Each time jobs are lost, fewer reporters are left to cover the news, meaning newsrooms are stretched and the quality of news comes under even greater pressures. It further cripples the newspapers, causing more layoffs. Then, the cycle repeats itself. The solution for Sun Media and other chains is to simply roll these newspapers into regional publications. 

These larger trends confirm movement away from a multiplicity of voices and types of coverage as described by the Standing Committee on Transportation and Communication’s study of news media released in 2006. Centralized news coverage and greater diversity in editorial and opinion pieces were a particular concern that is coming to fruition.

A far more serious problem

While there may still be newspapers, radio stations and possibly regional television newsrooms to cover these communities, there is a darker trend, which represents a far more serious problem rarely, if ever, examined.

The closure of community news media is often argued in the context of social capital or democratic deficit, but the decisions made last week are primarily economic.

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Rural Canada is facing huge economic pressures coming from global restructuring, loss of manufacturing, stresses on natural resource-based and agriculture-based industries.

Independent small business owners are being replaced by franchises or big box stores, where advertising decisions are being made in large urban centres rather than by the locals. This leaves community newspapers scrambling for revenue as large advertising agencies deal with head office, not the local publisher.

These large retailers, who often represent the majority of regular advertising found in community newspapers, are less interested in supporting community newspapers and far more interested in distribution networks for flyers — a preferred method of reaching audiences. Without the flyer business, community newspapers face a serious problem.

As new and emerging technologies provide advertisers with highly targeted advertising opportunities, such as point of purchase ads, downloadable coupons, customized advertising based on Internet activities, the future of flyers is in serious jeopardy.

It is similar to the impact of Craigslist, e-Bay and Kijiji on classified advertising — once a cornerstone of revenues in newspapers. When these new models took off, it drained important sources of income.

The competition for limited advertising dollars is fierce in these rural places. Where community newspapers were once the only vehicles for advertising, it is no longer true.

This means using new approaches to fund community newspapers, such as non-profits, subscriber-only publications and hyperlocal news websites, among others.

Technological change, particularly online news, is often cited as a major pressure on community newspapers. However, a 2012 PEW report on the state of American local news demonstrates a sharp difference between how people living in urban centres consume news compared to those living in rural areas.

Urban residents are far more likely to access local news and information from digital activities and platforms, like news websites, blogs and social media, than their rural counterparts. People living in towns, villages and hamlets rely more heavily on traditional news activities and platforms, such as television and newspapers.

Failure of the public service mandate of journalism

So, what does all this mean?

This loss of these community newspapers is significant, even though there are alternate news sources available to residents. It confirms fears about reducing social capital in these communities, while also concentrating news and information into fewer hands.

In cases where a community is left without a newspaper, it is far more serious and should raise alarms. Despite the best efforts of news media chains to regionalize coverage, it leaves a serious gap. The impact means less accountability for local politicians and institutions, as well as vital forums for community discourse and debate, creating a potential democratic deficit. It is a failure of the public service mandate of journalism.

The changing rural economic landscapes deserve further investigation, as the question of feasibility and sustainability are paramount, if news media hopes to survive in these places.

Community newspapers as a testing ground for innovation

So, why should anyone care?

These newspapers affected by the closures and staff reductions are a canary in the coalmine for the news industry. As major urban news media continuously holds the attention of the public, academics and journalists, the issues facing rural Canada are both unique and universal.

The importance of news coverage in a small municipal town hall is no less important than the Canadian parliament to the people living in that community. Urban news media attracts attention more easily. To lose a national newspaper would create a national debate – rightly so. The closed community newspapers feel far away. The communities are small and seem insignificant. Hence, no flags are raised.

The questions facing urban and rural news media related to new and emerging technology are the same, as are issues of economic feasibility and sustainability.

Exploring these issues within the context of rural Canada may provide important clues for the future of the news industry. The potential to find new and innovative approaches could be more easily facilitated because of community interest and relative scale. Rather than making huge investments of resources, time and money necessary to transform major urban news organizations, community news media offers an opportunity to pilot innovative and creative solutions that can be drawn upon in defining what is to come. But, it will mean a major paradigm shift in attitudes, news culture, resources and strategies within major chains or the re-emergence of more independent owners and entrepreneurial journalists willing to see the potential and exploit it.

 

*Correction: A previous version of this article stated Beausejour would no longer be served by local news media. This has since been updated.