Are community newspapers fading away?

People tend to like community newspapers. But is that enough to keep them alive?

When Dave Bidini came home from work, he knew exactly what was waiting for him: a newspaper. Not just any newspaper, but a newspaper that was supposed to serve his community, but didn’t. He says he was “almost offended by the junk.” He said there was no substance and it lacked content. Then Bidini had an epiphany: he would publish his own community newspaper.

His vision came to life in October when the first issue of the West End Phoenix went to press. Bidini, a well-established writer in Toronto, teamed up with two Globe and Mail journalists to create the Phoenix editorial board. Thanks to people like Margaret Atwood endorsing the Phoenix, the paper already has more than 1,250 subscriptions and hopes to reach 5,000 by January. Inspired by a summer working at the Yellowknifer, a community newspaper in the Northwest Territories, in 2015, Bidini understands the power of local journalism. He describes the Phoenix as “slow news,” complemented by longform storytelling, illustrations and photography presenting Toronto’s west end through a new perspective.

Community newspapers are hyper-local. They are limited to the regions they serve, and all of their content is directly linked to their specific communities.

Bidini considers newspapers to be part of the tapestry of our lives. He says print lasts. It’s not uncommon to find an old paper when doing home renovations.

“With print going to press, you’re committing to something that you can’t change,” he says. The reader becomes “captured in the moment in time – that’s everlasting.”

Community newspapers in Canada are struggling. Websites like Facebook and Kijiji are enticing advertisers to take their business online, rather than sticking with the tradition of newspapers. According to a 2017 study released by the Public Policy Forum, The Shattered Mirror, Canadian community newspapers grossed more than $1.2 billion in advertising revenue in 2006. By 2015 ad revenue was down to $881 million, a drop of more than 25 percent in nine years.

According to John Hinds, the problem with the community newspaper business is not “a challenge of readership or viewers – it’s a challenge of the economic model.” Hinds is the president of News Media Canada (NMC), the self-described “voice of the Canadian print and digital industry” that speaks for more than 800 Canadian newspapers.

In Canada there are 1,083 published community newspapers, according to NMC. From 2015-2017 a paper was closed, merged or consolidated every two weeks – 57 papers in all. Then on one day in November 2017 another 36 papers closed. Hinds says that two years ago “there was a lot of interest in the business,” but as advertising decreases “we’re probably seeing a trend to consolidation.”

In June, NMC called on the federal government to help preserve Canadian journalism. It proposed that a $350 million Canadian Journalism Fund be added to the existing Canada Periodical Fund, which supports magazines and non-daily newspapers. “As budgets get tighter, there are fewer journalists available to cover communities,” says Hinds. The Canadian Journalism Fund would “ensure the public focus of journalism continues.”

In October Heritage Minister Melanie Joly threw cold water on the idea, saying that the federal government does not plan “to bail out industry models that are no longer viable.”

Vital to communities

April Lindgren is currently conducting research for the Local News Research Project, a thorough examination of local news in Canadian communities. Radio, television and community newspapers are all components of Lindgren’s research. The Ryerson University associate professor is responsible for discovering the consequences of what the Project calls “local news poverty.”

Lindgren is disappointed with the state of community newspapers. “I’m sad to say there are newspapers that brand themselves as newspapers” but have merely become “vehicles for advertorial – they don’t have much local news in them.” She says some community newspapers “subtly disguise advertising as news.” As important as profits may be, when generating advertising revenue becomes a priority, it can put the integrity of journalism in jeopardy.

While community newspapers are closing at a staggering rate, multi-platform readership is slowly growing. Since 2016, people who read community news both online and in print grew by two per cent, according to NMC.

Brett Popplewell is an assistant professor at Carleton University’s journalism school. He says engagement with news changes when the reader changes their platform.

“You’re going to have a much different experience if you spend an entire day on a website opposed to a newspaper,” he says. Online news is arranged in such a way that it emphasizes multimedia in articles, allowing for an interactive style of sharing information.

Lynda Powless saw the lack of information in her community as an opportunity to start her own community newspaper – a childhood dream of hers. Now in her early 60s, Powless has been publishing Turtle Island News for 21 years. “I found the people in my community had no clue what was going on,” says Powless.

The community newspaper began serving Six Nations, the largest indigenous reserve in Canada, located outside of Brantford, Ontario. According to its website, Turtle Island News is “Canada’s only national native weekly newspaper.”

“Our community would notice a huge void if we weren’t here,” says Powless.

Powless saw a need for an online platform shortly after the newspaper went to press. “I chose to go online because I saw it as a way to reach our isolated communities,” she says. Powless says when she started the newspaper, snail mail was the only way of getting news to communities. Turtle Island News was “at the whim of the post office.”

Readers would fall a week behind current events by the time their papers arrived. The online transition became a solution. And in the long run, would allow anybody – anywhere – access to indigenous journalism.

The end of an era

When Phil Andrews began his workday on a cold January morning in 2016, he learned it would be one of his last. His staff would only discover their fate three days later. And after one week, the 149-year-old Guelph Mercury would publish its last paper.

Andrews was the last managing editor of the Guelph Mercury. On January 29, 2016, the community newspaper that was as old as Canada itself closed its doors. “A little part of me died when the paper died,” said Andrews.

Andrews experienced first-hand what his community newspaper brought to generations of Guelphites. Not only was it a journalistic staple, but the historic value it had was irreplaceable. “It was a sacred trust being the editor because there was a linkage of folks going back 149 years; I was the last captain to go down with his ship.”

The building that housed the publication since the early ’50s, now hangs For Lease signs in its windows. Andrews says it’s unfortunate the newsroom is being leased to commercial businesses, when its design was built solely for newspaper publishing. Every time Andrews walks by it, he remembers the last staff lunch like it was “the last supper.”

In spite of the recent downfalls for Canadian community newspapers, the Phoenix’s founder is optimistic. Dave Bidini says community newspapers still resonate with readers. There is “something special about the pause of turning the page.” The subconscious emotion of not knowing what’s next is exciting.

Without focusing on a particular demographic, Bidini wants the West End Phoenix to be read by anyone. He hopes the Phoenix can appeal to kids, for whom a newspaper is an “exotic, unusual creation.” The Phoenix now has subscriptions both national and international.

“We have a lot of stamp licking to do.”

 

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