Local news media can and should be seen as playing a critical role if rural communities hope to be resilient in the face of economic upheaval, writes J-Source innovation editor Rob Washburn in the final part of this three-part weekly series on community journalism. 

When a community newspaper closes, it is a great loss. Still, publishers will argue it is the economic reality of the times. Many scholars argue the importance of community journalism to democracy and citizenship, often separately from the business decisions. The historic tension between public service and economics is longstanding. But, what if there is another set of lenses beyond journalism, political economy, communications theory and other traditional disciplines to shed light on the significance of news media in rural Canada? This three-part weekly series will place community news media within the context of rural development in hope of exploring the role journalism plays for sustaining hamlets, villages, towns and cities in rural areas.

Read part one on why we should care when a community newspaper shuts down and part two on the challenges of sustaining an advertising-based business model for local newspapers.

By Robert Washburn, Innovation Editor

Academics who study rural development do look at media, but not from the perspective or depth examined by media scholars.

Fritjof Capara, in his book Web of Life, says solving complex problems requires people to talk to each other—not just with experts, but also with people on the edges or outside the usual suspects in a community.

While community newspapers are not the only source of information, they are a critical component in rural development. In light of the innovations taking place, such as hyperlocal journalism, and new practices, such as e-journalism’s call to educate, engage and empower audiences, it appears there is a larger economic imperative to have a strong, vibrant news media.  to assist in building community resiliency, which is defined as the ability of a community to withstand and adapt in the face of major changes.

Certainly, there are many traditional methods of communicating, as well as host of new technologies, to facilitate the exchange of ideas—everything from public meetings to town halls and Facebook groups. But the argument can be made that these channels are problematic, often being closed or over- or under-controlled or not truly democratic. While there are those who will argue the importance of digital tools in sustaining communities, there continue to be hurdles.

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Community journalism has a long history of provide important channels for community information through the publication of news; opinions and editors to stimulate discussion;  and opportunities for public debate in letters to the editor. Online news sources also have new tools can enhance networks, hold crucial debates and discussions, engage a broad spectrum of citizens and empower the community to find solutions, as prescribed in public journalism theory or e-journalism or citizen journalism.

With the current state of community newspapers, it may be hard to argue there needs to be any action plan. But this is not about surviving today or tomorrow.

The reason for offering this lens in trying and shift the discussion about the future of community newspapers outside the traditional box is to expand the discussion. It is not a panacea. Nor should this be interpreted as a naive vision for the future of community journalism. But if there is going to be an argument for sustaining community-focused news media for the long haul, then the discussion could benefit from taking an alternative approach rather than watching communities lose their local news media.

For example, one aspect rural economists examine is migration and demographic changes in rural areas. Changes take place as urban residents move into rural areas, bringing a completely different set of values to a community. Also, an influx in immigrants to rural areas is significant. These groups could bring divergent attitudes toward rural life, contrasting those of longtime residents. Does this demographic change mean the audience is less interested in community news or more interested? Do they bring new expectations about the quality and type of news produced? Are there opportunities to engage this audience using new technology? What platforms will they use to gather news? Are their news needs more diverse, seeking news from where they work, as well as where they live?

If a town or village is only a bedroom community, these new residents may also strain the ties between residents and the newspapers, if the newspaper is not fulfilling its role to build networks and connections. Hence, a feeling of disinterest in the local news media may fester and grow until the local news outlet is no longer relevant. Do these former urbanites bring with them a loyalty to the big city media? Or, do they have new expectations regarding what they want from local media? Local news media need to address this if it hopes to be sustainable in the future.

It seems the argument about the future of community journalism is no longer just about social responsibility or democracy or advertising; it is about the economic survival of towns, villages and neighbourhoods. Local news media can and should be seen as playing a critical role if rural communities hope to be resilient in the face of economic upheaval. Residents and businesses in these communities need to take a second look at the role of local news media. Rather than a simple shrug, it is time to explore new business models, innovative approaches, community building. These parties need to stretch beyond their traditional relationships and consider an alternative framework.

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.