Guest article by Saira Peesker
With newspaper advertising revenues decreasing and communities across the country increasingly at risk of losing local news, the time to support journalism is “now more than ever,” says the professional body that represents newspapers in Canada. News Media Canada is hoping to spread that message far and wide during National Newspaper Week, which runs from Oct. 1 to 7.
“It’s an opportunity for people to reflect on the importance (of newspapers) in their communities, in civic dialogue and civic society in general,” explained John Hinds, News Media Canada CEO, in late September. “It’s about recognizing that journalists are skilled, trained professionals that have real knowledge of the community. They have background, they can do the digging and ask the tough questions. We’ve structured our society around having that role where someone can ask the tough questions.”
That civic role is increasingly under threat in Canada, according to a study released Sept. 25 by Public Policy Forum, a think tank. Called “Mind the Gaps: Quantifying the Decline of News Coverage in Canada,” it studied news coverage in 20 communities across Canada over a decade, and found that the total number of articles declined by almost half. Coverage of local councils and civic affairs declined by one third.
Veteran journalist Sherine Mansour, who teaches at Oakville’s Sheridan College, says the arrival of the internet in the 1990s changed the news landscape drastically.
“Almost 20 years ago we saw the internet as an exciting new medium for the exchange and distribution of news and information,” she said in a Sept. 26 email. “We were right to be excited and we were naive to not realize how this new medium was about to destroy many industries including the news business.”
She said that once information became more widely available, fewer people were interested in paying for content and audiences became fragmented, making advertising less attractive. Net advertising revenue at newspapers dropped from $3.87 billion in 2007 to $2.13 billion in 2016, according to News Media Canada.
“I’ve seen local news departments stripped bare of staff and entire newspapers close up shop,” said Mansour, who worked at Global, CHCH, CTV and CHUM over her TV career. “It’s not an easy time.”
In addition to tighter budgets, one of the biggest changes Mansour has seen is in the way people value — or don’t value — local news. “I think the two actually go hand in hand because if you understand the value of something to the quality of your life, then you are willing to pay for it.”
Ryerson University journalism professor April Lindgren — principal investigator for the Local News Research Project — says community newspapers help residents feel part of a shared narrative.
“(Local news coverage) holds power accountable but also brings people together by bringing a common narrative for them about their community,” she said. “It creates a common denominator of information. Similarly, in the absence of that sort of news there’s a vacuum … Misinformation and deliberately fake news can jump in to fill the gap.”
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Lindgren’s research project tracked the number of news outlets that opened and closed in Canada between 2008 and 2018. It found that only 69 brand new outlets emerged in that time, while 214 closed. Her team also studied 2015 federal election coverage in eight communities across the country, finding that some areas had significantly more information available than others to help guide voters’ decisions.
“There were quite large discrepancies based on where you lived,” she said. “Some people are information-rich in terms of their ability to be informed, where others were relatively impoverished.”
Sharing personal stories to help better understand each other is another key function of local media, says Kurt Muller, dean of the McKeil School of Business, Media and Entertainment at Hamilton’s Mohawk College. A former broadcast journalist, Muller says local coverage helps people better appreciate the circumstances of those who are different than themselves. “It’s very important to tell people’s stories.”
When it comes to educating today’s journalism students, Muller said times have changed from when he started as a journalist about two decades ago. Back then, TV reporters did TV, and writers wrote. Now, students must be able to work in a multifaceted way in order to produce content for the web.
“Even if you’re a newspaper reporter now, it’s a very valuable skill if you can shoot and edit video,” he said. “You’re expected to (be skilled with) social media. The skill set has really grown, but the core skill, which is storytelling, has remained the same.”
It can sound like a lot of bad news for local news, but Hinds — the News Media Canada CEO — is hopeful that informing readers through campaigns such as National Newspaper Week will help them think more critically about their roles.
“We want to send a message to readers and to advertisers that these are institutions that are worth supporting,” he said. “People can support them by reading, buying and subscribing.”
This article is part of our special content for National Newspaper Week, which runs Oct. 1 to 7. Use the hashtag #NowMoreThanEver to join the conversation on social media.