Aerial view of Osoyoos, B.C.
David Wise, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Pandemic field notes from small market media 

Low pay, high demands, racism and isolation go with reporting jobs in smaller and rural markets. The conditions raise questions about how to keep local news alive and attract the journalists needed to report it Continue Reading Pandemic field notes from small market media 

Content warning: Mental health, racism and harassment 

When Neha Chollangi relocated to Osoyoos, B.C., for a reporting job in late January 2021, life at a small town paper was far from quiet. She watched from her bedroom window as wildfires rolled in apocalyptic waves as they made their way to the Okanagan border town. The week of one of the worst fires in the region, Chollangi’s small newsroom — about six people total and three editorial members — was short staffed. 

“It was insanely hectic, and that’s because I’d never been in this situation before. Wildfires and stuff are things I saw on the news,” she said, adding that seeing the fires every morning from her bedroom and reporting on them left her feeling like she couldn’t escape. 

For Chollangi, the experience of moving 4,000 kilometres away from everyone she knew in  Mississauga, Ont., where she grew up, was exciting and taught her a lot, but it was also initially isolating in a way she couldn’t understand before she arrived.

Chollangi lived in a motel for the first month and a half after she moved to Osoyoos. And when she found a place, she didn’t know whether she would be able to keep it — her room was originally intended for service workers that were coming for the summer season and the massive influx of tourists that came with it.  

And as a young racialized journalist in a town with a predominantly older and white population, Chollangi says she also had to learn to deal with microaggressions and grow a “thicker skin.” “(It was) definitely not something that I dealt with on such a regular basis in Toronto or Mississauga,” said Chollangi. 

Some community journalists across the country echo Chollangi’s concerns, and describe life in local news as a revolving door where local reporters are systematically burned out, their work under-resourced and where they’re subject to an industry mentality that small towns are a training ground where local reporters often leave shortly after they arrive. 

Additionally, entry-level journalists, many of whom are dealing with added isolation relocating to small communities during overlapping crises, may be discouraged from taking small-market positions at the same time research shows that the majority of small-market reporters in Canada are approaching retirement

Research shows that workloads have increased for local reporters while pay has not kept pace, and sources say the pandemic devastated already precarious revenue streams at the same time it highlighted the crucial nature of hyper-localized reporting.

Since March 2020, 41 of the 53 outlets that have closed permanently in Canada were community newspapers, while 15 of the 16 outlets that reopened after temporarily closing were also community newspapers. But in the early months of the pandemic, local outlets across the country also saw a COVID-19 readership boom, with a reported increase in clicks on articles about the crisis’s local impacts. 

Michelle Ferrier, media researcher and principal investigator for U.S. Media Deserts Project, wrote in 2018 that focusing on only the content side of news “masks other dynamics across the local media ecosystem.”

Ferrier’s project looks at media deserts instead of news deserts, which includes access to and delivery of local information, “not just whether (there’s a) newspaper or not”. This is because outlets can “die” while still producing news like nationally-syndicated content that isn’t representative or relevant to their communities.

For community journalism publications that survived or even started during the pandemic, sources say the way forward must include more sustainable employment practices that reconsider click-based revenue strategies and reforms to government funding to consider publications with a broader range of impact. 

But those priorities don’t take into account how editorial practices have harmed community members and whether or not there’s equal access to employment for non-white reporters.

Reporter Aaron Hemens says he tried to put particular care into rebuilding relations with an Indigenous community in Creston, B.C.,  before he was driven out of town due to harassment. When he arrived in the small town in southeast British Columbia, Hemens says he set up a meeting with the local band’s chief, and heard the relationship between the paper and the community had been all but non-existent in past decades. 

“It was important for me to go in there and try to re-establish that relationship,” Hemens says, adding that he introduced himself, listened to the stories and concerns the chief shared and heard about their community’s own experiences with racism. 

But Hemens ended up staying in Creston for just eight months. After reporting on a local anti-mask protest, Hemens received a harrowing call from a speaker including threats to “metaphorically lynch” him, which set off a series of events that left Hemens fearing for his life. He says it was particularly hard to leave, having just built that relationship back.

“I am a person of colour. I’m half Filipino. And you can see it. I stuck out like a sore thumb,” he says. “I don’t think I would have gotten a lynching comment if I was a white reporter. To have that was just … terrifying. My parents were freaking out every day… (they) wanted me to get out of there. I’m glad I did.”

Hemens had been feeling uneasy in Creston for a while before the call, and had received racist harassment in the Facebook comments of his earliest columns as well as “nasty looks” from people in public, even before people in the small community knew him as a journalist. And Hemens says the harassment intensified as the pandemic worsened throughout the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021. 

In March 2021, a stranger in his car followed Hemens  for roughly 10 minutes, shouted his name then pulled up beside him and handed him a conspiracy-pamphlet-filled envelope with Hemens’s full name and employer written on the front. 

Hemens went home that day, terrified: “I was so scared … I told my boss, I don’t feel safe walking on the street. I’m afraid someone is going to kill me. They threatened to lynch me. There’s a guy following me. I gotta get out of here.” 

“I had a target on my back whenever I walked because people know who I am and I would have no idea who they are,” he says, adding that he was considering quitting journalism altogether, but that he was transferred to Kelowna, B.C. He has since joined independent outlet IndigiNews. 

Details of Hemens’s experience were published in a December 2021 New Canadian Media article, which was later the subject of a National NewsMedia Council complaint. In March 2022, NNC upheld the complaint about specific allegations against Hemen’s employer and lack of time to respond. The decision stated that “neither party casts doubt or aspersion on the journalist’s personal experiences and feelings about the situation described.”

Hemens adds that when he gave the next reporter in his position a rundown of the job, he included the trust-building aspects he had learned with the local band. He says he felt guilt for not having enough time.

“He was upset to see me go,” Hemens says of telling the band’s chief that he was leaving town. “I was upset to go, but he understood.” 

Leaving Creston marked the end of Hemen’s second major job in journalism, and the second time he felt he was forced to relocate for his health and safety. In 2019, Hemens worked as the sole reporter for a community newspaper in Inuvik, Northwest Territories. The experience of reporting the eight-page paper completely on his own was fulfilling but utterly exhausting and isolating, Hemens says, and he had to leave seven months into the job after admitting himself to the hospital for his mental health. He remembers being diagnosed with situational depression and experiencing suicidal ideation due to stress and trying to but being unable to return to work. Within days of his visit, he was on a plane home. Hemens again says he felt guilt for months afterwards at having to leave so abruptly. 

During his time in the Northwest Territories, Hemens says there were moments when he heard about mistrust between the paper and the community because he was seen as another temporary editor/reporter, which he says made leaving the position for his health even more difficult. 

In hindsight, Hemens says remembering his time there is complicated — he’s grateful for the experience, new perspectives and the community connections, but the dynamic of journalists going into rural communities for experience (or using the Canadian North as a “training ground”) is something that he says he became increasingly uneasy with. And “everything and everyone” he knew was so far away.

“It was definitely not a good way to go out, and for a good year afterwards I was dealing with a sense of guilt of abandoning my job and letting people down in the North (and) not saying goodbye,” he says, adding that he took a few months break from journalism when he returned to his hometown of Ottawa and considered quitting altogether. “I was not in a good headspace. I was pretty burned out.” 

The impact of high turnover rates 

It was the search for sustainable and satisfying work that could support his family that motivated B.C.-based reporter and editor Tyler Olsen to leave his newspaper of five and a half years during the pandemic. 

Olsen, who was working in Abbotsford, B.C., says COVID-19 magnified already existing resource pressures at his then-company, which led to a sharper decline in the once-fulfilling nature of his work. 

The pandemic “made working at a community newspaper, which was always something that had to grow on you … less fun, less interesting, less rewarding and more demanding in terms of trying to meet online news quotas and chase online production,” he says.

Olsen says he felt the decline even before the pandemic in an editorial push to increase online metrics, like reporters being asked to write stories that would attract clicks. In late 2019, he raised concerns about under-resourcing and how it might  affect the paper’s ability to “retain reporters long term and keep the quality of product high,” in turn creating risk for both employees and the business.

By 2020, Abbotsford had one English-language newspaper with three reporters — plus another that split its coverage between Abbotsford during the week and another town during the weekend. Then, when the pandemic hit, Olsen says the newsroom switched to a job-share program that cut 40 per cent of their pre-pandemic hours. This meant that by the time Olsen left, there were essentially 1.8 reporters for a city of over 150,000. 

Olsen says fewer reporters with fewer hours means “there’s an insane amount of news that needs to be covered … but which can’t be covered at certain employment levels,” while under-resourcing also contributes to a decline in editorial guidance and mentorship when editors can be as overworked as reporters.  

“As you’re trying to deliver the most essential and timely coverage, then your ability to take on larger, more fulfilling projects … decline(s),” Olsen says, adding that fulfilling work is particularly important, especially at smaller news organizations, because there’s not much else keeping people in journalism.

“Reporters have skills that can translate to other fields, and those other fields often pay better, and sometimes those other fields have better job quality and better work-life balance,” Olsen says. “The intangibles aren’t just a side benefit, they are the things that people come to journalism for.”

Olsen is now managing editor of the Fraser Valley Current in B.C., a publication that he helped start with Overstory Media Group to provide more in-depth coverage of the area.

Olsen and others say a repetitive and simplistic workload full of re-writing press releases also contributes to high turnover. 

But he adds that burnout and the subsequent news vacuums they create aren’t a reflection of workload alone — it’s also about support to do that work, especially because pandemic stressors like childcare or school cancellations can be as much about future unknowns and the flexibility needed to navigate them.  

Olsen, who’s been working in local news in B.C. for over a decade, says that he thinks there’s a growing realization among employers that they need to provide that balance and flexibility to hire and retain reporters.  

“You see people talking about it being hard to find workers, and if you can’t increase how much you’re going to pay a worker, then you really have to look at the other benefits and intangibles that (you’re) offering them to come to your company, but also offering current employees to stay so you don’t have to find somebody new to replace them,” he says.

“The more people who leave, that increases pressure on the people who remain, and it just keeps going unless you can break the cycle in some way and create jobs that fulfill those intangibles while paying people a salary they can survive on.”

Local news publishers trying to address hiring and retention challenges 

Brandi Schier, publisher of Sun Peaks Independent News in British Columbia and a journalism model researcher, says the pandemic has underscored the need for localized news at the same time COVID-19 devastated advertising. Schier says her publication saw a 90 per cent drop in revenue in a week when the pandemic hit. 

“It showed everybody that the major model that we’re all still relying on, which is advertising, is even less reliable than we thought it was,” she says. “People have known for a long time that digital advertising isn’t taking the place of print revenues, and we’re all pretty familiar with the problems. But I think that the pandemic really exacerbated all of those underlying issues in regards to the revenue model and the high cost of producing quality journalism.”

The pandemic upended in-person reporting requirements, as several news outlets across the country have closed their physical offices for good during the pandemic in an effort to save money

But Schier says that reporting during lockdowns has been especially challenging for her and other small-market publishers in part because in-person community connections, like “running into people at a coffee shop, or talking to people after a municipal council meeting” are the source for a lot of local news leads and context for stories.

A lot of smaller newsrooms are struggling because as bigger companies swallow up smaller and more rural news organizations, sometimes those reporters leave and the reporting actually gets outsourced to somewhere else,” Schier says. “So what suffers is those relationships, and the really good reporting that comes out of those relationships.” 

A 2019 study by the Local News Research Project at Toronto Metropolitan University and the National NewsMedia Council of Canada detailed how chain ownership and the subsequent rise in syndicated or wire service content was compromising local reporting across the country. 

It was that compromise in coverage that Lana Meier, owner of Interlakes Graphics, a small chain of newspapers covering the regions surrounding Winnipeg, is stepping in to address. 

Meier launched four weekly community papers in the early 2010s, and started another in May 2020 for the town and rural areas surrounding Carman, Man. They published their first issue just a week after the town’s previous paper (which was owned by Meier’s competitor Postmedia) permanently closed due the COVID-19 revenue losses, alongside eight other Postmedia-owned community papers in the province.  

But Meier says there wasn’t much competition even before the launch of her new paper, The Carman-Dufferin Standard, because residents said local and relevant coverage had been lacking in the area for a while. Meier says Carman was one of five regions covered by the previous paper’s sole reporter, so “by the time they closed their doors, they had one reporter writing in a market where I had five.” 

In fact, it was a difference in corporate strategy that Meier says caused her to leave her previous company in the first place, because of a lack of on-the-ground reporting and a focus on “how much money they could take out of the community without putting back into the community.” 

And Meier, who has worked in the newspaper business for decades now, says that national and provincial advertising was suffering before the pandemic. Her main revenue comes from advertising, like grocery flyers distributed through the paper. 

In 2018, Manitoba passed legislation that meant provincial and municipal public notes only had to be published in local newspapers once, not twice. Meier says this was frustrating because it resulted in small market publications losing more key advertising revenue, while governments  still relied on media to report provincial and municipal news — a need that was only furthered during the pandemic. (An April 2020 survey found that 51 per cent of Canadians relied on local, national and international news outlets for their main source of information about COVID-19.

Another small market challenge exacerbated by the pandemic was hiring and retention of staff in smaller markets. Respondents from the same 2019 local news research from LNRP and NNC expressed “difficulties attracting and retaining qualified staff.” 

Sources say one issue is that salaries for small market publications often can’t keep up with the cost of living. Starting salaries for local reporters can range from roughly $32,000 to $43,000 per year, with many positions requiring access to a reliable vehicle and a driver’s license. Last September, the average cost of a used car in Canada was $29,376 — a 14 per cent increase compared to 2019. 

And housing and rental prices remain unstable across the country and in small towns, where demand increased due to a pandemic-induced exodus of urbanites. (In Canmore, Alt., a town with 13,992 people near the resort town of Banff, the 2021 living wage was $37.40. For comparison, it’s $22.08 in Toronto.)

And while a small market often means small salaries, staff often need to do more than reporting. Meier says to get the paper to print it’s all hands on deck, from collating flyers to staying late for evening school board meetings. 

Or if a truck driver calls in sick, for example, a full time staff member or reporter might be delivering papers that day. And if a reporter can’t cover an odd job, it’s often Meier herself — she works “easily eight to 15 hours seven days a week.” 

Meier says she tries to address retention by covering health benefits and flexible hours. She estimates there’s roughly a 50 per cent turnover in two years, and that the other half stay anywhere from five to 10 years. She adds that she’s had two vacant positions at her newspapers for two and a half years.

Schier has also found hiring, especially hiring people with local expertise, to be difficult during the pandemic, and says she’s had trouble filling a position for the first time in six years. In an effort to address hiring challenges, she included a housing credit in the wage last contract she negotiated, and is looking at a potential relocation credit for the future.

“It’s not something that we’ve done before, but it was something that I felt that I needed to do to help them deal with the high cost of living in the resort,” Schier says. “As a small independent business, that’s incredibly hard for me to do financially.” 

Schier says that the most successful publications moving forward will likely be the ones with a diversified revenue stream, like grants and sponsorships, not pay-per-click advertising and reader support alone. 

In February 2022, Sun Peaks Independent News was acquired by The Discourse. Schier also became CEO of Discourse Community Publishing. 

Qualifications for awarding funding in Canada, especially when it comes to government programs and the incentives that come with them, remain complicated. 

While Schier says her publication meets requirements to be a Qualified Canadian journalism organization, as a small newsroom it’s still tough to continually employ two or more staff  positions needed to maintain this status and the tax breaks that come with it. (Meier says she was able to survive the increasing costs of publishing and offer her reporters a raise because of a refundable federal tax credit covering 25 per cent of salaries for editorial staff.) 

Schier adds “that the qualification should really also be looking at community impact,” instead of just the two staff reporter requirements.  

“If [they’re] people who are doing good reporting, but doing it with contractors and freelancers, then there should be potentially a way for them to access that designation,” she says. 

In a follow up email in May, Schier said that being at a larger organization has helped overall, but that the Discourse acquisition has not changed the difficulty of maintaining two reporter positions.  

The federally-funded Local Journalism Initiative was also reportedly cut from 213 reporters to 124. Schier says they were able to hire a reporter in 2020 because of the program, but were not renewed in the next round; she says the reason given was increased competition due to more applications. 

In 2020, some journalists pointed to discrepancies in the initiative that backed old models of journalism at the expense of newer digital outlets. In addition, it raised challenging questions about the definition of “underserved,” as funding went to papers owned by companies like Torstar and Postmedia, which were part of a three-year antitrust investigation into the swapping and closing of papers that was shelved this year.

Supporting early-career reporters

Local news research in Canada has also highlighted the aging demographics of small market papers, and called for increased collaboration and initiatives with journalism schools

A 2021 American Press Institute project on local news recovery echoes the Canadian calls for collaboration to boost diminished staff and content, and also how making diversity, equity and inclusion “more than theoretical” is an “urgent business imperative.” 

The project also highlights the imperative of taking journalists’ stress and mental health seriously after over a year of crisis coverage combined with the pre-existing economic precarity that is especially true for smaller market publications. 

And Chollangi, Hemens and other journalists’ experience highlights that any way forward must seriously consider the safety and wellbeing of local reporters. 

“I wouldn’t recommend any other racialized journalists go to a small town like Creston,” Hemens says, adding that the very few people of colour he encountered in town were sources that had also experienced racism in Creston.

But he hopes that there are more BIPOC editors, mentors and j-school professors that understand the nuances of entry-level reporters’ experience. After what he went through, Hemens wishes the advice to move to a small town to get experience wasn’t “tossed around so frequently” in j-school  – because the reality, he says, is that it’s not for everyone.  

He says the advice that would give his past self and young racialized journalists in his position is simply: “You’re not your work. (It) doesn’t define you as much as you think it does.”  

“Your mental health, at the end of the day, is far more important than getting that experience on your resume,” he says. “It’s not worth dying for.” 

This story was reported as part of the 2021 J-Source/CWA Canada reporting fellowship, funded at arm’s length by CWA Canada.

Emma Buchanan is the 2021 J-Source/CWA Canada reporting fellow.