Local News

Flurry of newspaper closures raise concern about future of local news

Jessica Wallace stood in Ottawa’s Rideau Hall in June as she and her co-workers at the British Columbia newspaper Kamloops This Week were recognized as finalists for the Michener Award, a top journalism prize in Canada.

On a short list with the likes of the Globe and Mail and Global News, the newspaper’s stories uncovered questionable spending at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, including a $500,000 retirement payout for a chief administrative officer and lavish spending at steak houses and champagne rooms.

The work was praised by the judges as “an outstanding example of the bedrock of journalism.”

The newsroom was closed less than six months later, leaving the community of about 100,000 people in B.C.’s Interior without a newspaper for the first time since 1884.

Wallace is left with an ever-expanding list of ideas for stories she keeps on her phone, with nowhere else to put them.

She has a deeply rooted concern for the future of local news and the resources required to cover everything from community events to local sports while also keeping those in power accountable.

She said the story that earned national acclaim and led to significant policy changes was only possible because Kamloops This Week paid a journalist to cover the comings and goings of the regional district, the kind of resources that have been slowly stripped away from many local outlets.

“A lot of times it’s invasive species management and garbage collection,” she said.

“That’s not sexy, but sometimes it’s a big, you know, scandal that erupts and if nobody’s in there to cover all of the boring stuff, then you’re going to miss everything.”

The loss of the weekly is one example of a flurry of closures of local Canadian newsrooms in 2023 that left municipal governments, non-profits and journalists themselves trying to figure out what’s next.

Wallace said it was clear the closure would leave a gap in the community.

“It felt a bit like we had a front row to our funeral. Because we were being reached by all sorts of people in the community, who were, you know, mourning with us,” she said.

It’s part of a steady decline of local news outlets in Canada coming at the same time that Canadians say they have less trust in media and are less willing to pay for their news.

A Reuters Institute survey this year found that overall trust in news by Canadians sat at 40 per cent, while 11 per cent said they pay for online news.

That’s down from the previous year when 15 per cent said they paid for news online and trust overall came in at 42 per cent.

Get the latest National news.

Sent to your email, every day.

April Lindgren, the principal investigator for the Local News Research Project at Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Journalism, said between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1, this year, 36 local news outlets closed in Canada. Twenty-nine were community newspapers and seven were privately-owned radio stations.

They are now part of the 516 local radio, TV, print and online news operations shuttered in 345 communities across Canada since 2008.

During that same time period, 215 new local news outlets launched in 152 communities. Just one of those came in 2023.

Lindgren said there was a lull in closures during the pandemic, but when government supports such as the emergency wage subsidy for employers ended, the pink slips and closures picked up.

“What we saw in 2020, 2021, 2022, were government COVID subsidies that really kept news organizations alive. And, you know, the newspaper industry in particular will admit that it stalled the closings,” she said.

“But the end of those subsidies, most of them have been phased out, and the failure of advertising to pick up, I think, accounts for what we’re seeing now.”

Among the newspapers to vanish were both the Dawson Creek Mirror and the Alaska Highway News out of Fort St. John. Glacier Media announced the papers would publish their last editions in October, leaving a large corner of northeast B.C. without a local paper.

Dawson Creek Mayor Darcy Dober said the end of the Mirror is something the community could see coming as advertising dollars dwindled, but it is still a sad loss.

He said a “communication gap” now makes it more difficult to get information to citizens, particularly if they are not on social media.

“And not (everything) you learn on social media is true too, right?”

The city’s decision to hire its first communications officer before the newspaper closure has helped, and the local chamber of commerce has its own newsletter, he said.

Dawson Creek has been forced to consider different ways to post legally required notices, including public consultations, bylaw changes and hearings, now that the newspaper isn’t an option, he said.

Dober said solutions could include social media or expanding the Dawson Creek phone app that already provides other tools like the garbage pickup schedule and a way to report potholes.

Pamela Mollica, executive vice-president of marketing and communications for the Canadian Cancer Society, said her organization has leaned on local news outlets to promote its events and fundraisers, hold governments accountable on policy issues and fight health-related misinformation.

She said the balance of where they spend their efforts has changed as local news outlets close, with more focus online and on social media.

“I think, in some ways, we are looking at defining communities a little bit differently,” she said.

“So, instead of always defining them geographically, we look at communities of interest too, and try to sort of target people that way.”

Earlier this year, the organization became the first charity in Canada to pilot Facebook’s fundraising platform. They used it to target people who were interested in inexpensive fitness as part of a challenge to walk 80 kilometres in the month of April.

“People were posting pictures and talking about how they were doing it for their dad, and how they were doing it for a colleague, and it was a really impactful experience ? and it raised quite a lot for us as a charity,” she said.

Lindgren, at Toronto Metropolitan University, is predicting more “carnage” in 2024 and said anyone interesting in joining the local news landscape is going to have to come with multiple sources of revenue to stay alive.

“I wouldn’t say I’m brimming over with optimism, but I think there are models of success and there’s lots to be learned from them,” she said.

In Toronto, The Local, a hyper-local online magazine is one of only about a dozen registered journalism organizations in Canada, meaning donors who help fund the stories can receive charitable tax receipts.

Editor-in-Chief Tai Huynh said the publication launched in 2019 with the goal of filling a gap in local media by writing more in-depth investigative features. Its budget has grown steadily from about $150,000 when they started to $500,000.

As a non-profit organization, The Local relies on the philanthropic support from individual readers and more than a dozen organizations including the YMCA and United Way of Greater Toronto.

Huynh said commercial outlets that rely on advertising are a “dying business model” and the philanthropic model is just one example of how to innovate funding sources.

“The industry is in dramatic decline and I think we need all kinds of ways to try to actually salvage local news. From tax incentives to deals with the Googles of the world,” he said.

“But I don’t know, I think there needs to be a reinvention, because the models of past years or decades, isn’t working and I think we really need journalism in these small towns and communities for a whole variety of reasons.”

Some of the former staffers of Kamloops This Week are looking for a way to launch their own product to cover community news, but Wallace said it’s too soon to know if they’ll find enough financial backing.

“We all care. That’s why we do this. We’re not in it to get rich. We care about our communities. And we think what we do is important, so that’s why we’re doing it,” she said.


Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *