No news is bad news
Season 2, Episode 5
Since 2008, 447 local news outlets in more than 300 communities have shut down across Canada. This includes everything from newspapers to local TV to community radio. School of Journalism Professor April Lindgren has been tracking the trend via The Local News Research Project which tracks changes to local news across the country. Experts say the loss of these outlets will threaten the wellbeing of communities and the functioning of local democracies. What is the future of local news in Canada and how can it be saved?
Local News Research Project:
The Local News Research Project is led by professor April Lindgren, Velma Rogers Research Chair at the university’s School of Journalism. The project combines content analysis and digital mapping to explore issues related to local news. One of the project’s initiatives is the Local News Map, external link, which looks at what’s happening to local newspapers, radio and television stations, and online news sites across Canada, with data from as early as 2008.
To learn more about the state of local news in Canada, visit: localnewsresearchproject.ca/, external link
Amanda: This is The Forefront, a Ryerson podcast that explores ideas for cities. I’m Amanda Cupido.
So here’s the problem: Canada’s local journalism landscape is in crisis. Since 2008, 447 local news outlets have shut down across the country. This includes everything from newspapers to local TV to community radio. More than 300 communities have lost their main source of news. And many have had their entire teams slashed down to one or two people.
One of those communities is High Level, Alberta. Population 4000.
Bill: People up here are very used to relying on themselves and each other for their needs, and one of the things that, really, in a community like this, gossip travels extremely fast, and it's, and it does travel, like I've worked in a number of small communities, and it always is an issue.
Amanda: That’s Bill Schnarr. Today, he’s the communications coordinator for the town of High Level, but he used to be a reporter. Specifically, the only full-time reporter (and editor) for the town’s newspaper the Echo-Pioneer.
Bill: So weekly, our community newspapers are kind of their own animal. There's a lot of stuff that you’re kind of covering by yourself and as the editor there, my newsroom consisted of myself and a part time Freelancer that we had. And a woman who lives in La Crete, who used to submit hockey photos all the time. So those are kind of the realities of working in a small town newspaper, you're basically covering everything all the time.
Amanda: This has been an ongoing issue for local news outlets. It has many people wondering about alternatives to traditional news business models. But what could that look like? Well, in High Level, the town council decided to try something new.
April: What the local officials decided to do was actually purchase a subscription to the newspaper for every household in the community. And in return, they get one free page a week, it's a weekly paper, where they can put in the municipal announcements.
Amanda: That’s April Lindgren. She’s a professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism and the leader of the Local News Research Project, which tracks changes to local news outlets across Canada.
April: What they decided to do is use that newspaper as a flyer almost, because they knew that it would land in every household because every household now had a subscription.
Amanda: But back to Bill. Before moving on from his job at the Echo-Pioneer, he helped to coordinate this subscription initiative. His experience as a reporter in High Level and other towns like it had shown him how crucial local newspapers can be, especially in isolated communities where misinformation can travel like wildfire.
Bill: You know, if it's minus 45, and the power goes out, or the gas goes out or something, suddenly everyone is reliant on each other to kind of survive, right? So, that kind of movement of information across social media and, and through people's little networks and stuff, when you have bad information flowing through there, I feel like it becomes a much larger problem in a place like this then maybe in some other communities, although it's, you know, granted it's always bad.
Amanda: But here’s the big question. Has increased access to local news actually made a difference? Bill says yes.
Bill: I have noticed that as we move along in this, and people get more used to the town and the school division, providing them with information, there's less of a need for them to be relying on each other for that information. Or they'll hear something and then they'll come and check it out which is, you know, that's ideal for us, because they're getting tuned in, maybe they're not getting tuned in by us, but they're being made aware of something. And then they know that they can come to us, or they can, you know, they can come to the paper or something to get the full story or at least ask some questions, and then we're always happy to answer them.
I have been told a bunch of times that since we started this program, the number of people -- because a lot of times people will phone in, and they'll because they're mad about something, but what they're mad about isn't actually true so they'll be mad and they’ll phone up and they're yelling, and then it’s like you have to take all this time to explain to them why they're wrong. But the amount of those kinds of interactions is way down. And what that tells me is that our efforts to make sure that the town, the residents here, have as much information as possible to make good decisions. That tells me that that program is working.
Amanda: So for now, the people of High Level are better informed. But, The Local News Research Project has found, many other communities have not been so lucky—especially since the beginning of the pandemic.
Since March 2020, 63 news outlets have closed for good.
April: Think about all these businesses that aren't operating right now. And think about what's happened to the revenue that they might have had that they sent towards a local community paper to put in advertising a few times a month. And that, of course, has disappeared. And the big question mark is the extent to which that's going to come back.
The irony is, of course, it's been great in terms of demonstrating to people who live in Canada why local journalism matters. Because people wanted to find out about what was happening at the long term care homes in their communities. They wanted to find out about local infection rates. They wanted to find out if the cases were going down or up. I mean, this is just a classic, classic case of local journalism, playing an essential role in communities.
Amanda: If you live somewhere like Toronto, or any other big city, it can be hard to understand why that matters. April has spent years trying to help people see the power of local news.
April: I think we really, really don't have a widespread buy-in or understanding of its importance. And as a result, people kind of shrug and say, oh yeah, well, what does it matter whether that local paper could exist or not, that local community paper. Here one week, gone the next, wasn't much in it, doesn't matter.
In the absence of verified timely, independently produced local journalism, you have a void, and into the void falls gossip, innuendo, vested interests, and all sorts of misinformation, either deliberate or not deliberate, that just makes it more problematic for the community in general. I mean, it's more problematic for people in government to lead. And it makes it more difficult for citizens or residents who might want to play an activist role to understand what's going on in their community so that they can intervene or be a part of the decision making. We're getting more and more sophisticated in our understanding about the role that local journalism can play.
Amanda: In addition to the misinformation problem that Bill mentioned before, April points to the community-building potential of local media.
April: Our understanding of its role has has increased to the point where we know that it's a community builder so maybe you didn't go to the fireworks down at the lakefront on the weekend, and I didn't either, but we can both see the images on local television or read about it in the newspaper, on the local news online digital news site, and then we can talk about it over the back fence. It gives us something to forge a common experience, even though we only were participating vicariously through the news. We might discuss maybe something went wrong with the fireworks, or it was the worst showing ever, or the best showing ever, we can have a conversation about that. So there is this community building role that the vicarious sharing of experience that news allows us to participate in.
Amanda: To many urbanites who are used to being constantly bombarded with news happening inches from their front doors, this kind of thing might seem small. But, Bill knows from his experience that in a close-knit community, covering the little stuff is important too!
Bill: How your day is going to run can be based on something as small as, is the road that I take to go to work shut down for construction or not? And that seems like a very small piece of news, but to some people, that's important news, right? Almost all news is important to somebody. And that kind of stuff is, to me, it's just as important as trying to explain the importance of, like a water agreement that we're working on, or some of these big projects or any of that kind of stuff like that. It all works to build people's connection to the community. And it also helps them navigate their day. So that kind of stuff to me, I think that's fundamental, right? That starts at the very bottom of the community, and it works all the way up to the reason our country works, is because we have people out there collecting news and reporting on stories, and other people are reading it, and using that information to inform their decisions. So it's all vital, it doesn't, to me, it doesn't matter what level you're working at, it's all important.
Amanda: Are you convinced yet? Local news is important! And while some might say it’s dying, April’s research shows that things aren’t all bad. The Local News Research Project has found that 170 new local news organizations have launched since 2008. And there’s innovation happening in terms of new business models for journalism, this includes nonprofit publications, collaborations across organizations and crowdfunding.
April: I'd say I'm semi-optimistic, I'm not completely pessimistic. I think it's going to be a challenging time. But there are reasons to be optimistic. As I said, I think the emergence of a stronger culture of nonprofit news, I think, is a good thing. I think the collaborations are great, and I think that newsrooms are continuing to innovate. And in a sense, I'm not wedded to the idea that we need to have newspapers or radio stations or television stations or digital sites as they are. What I'm wedded to is the idea that communities need to be informed and have access to, as I said earlier, verified independently produced, timely, local journalism.
Amanda: So there you have it! Local news is a community builder, a misinformation stopper, and a source of political engagement. No one quite knows the future of local news in Canada, but things might not be as grim as one would have believed. So go check out your local newspaper, TV station, or radio station!
Before we go, here’s a final thought from April on how the University has helped support her passion for local news.
April: What was most important for me was a real sense amongst the research culture at Ryerson, about the need to produce research that contributes to society and to cities and to urban life. And I mean, when I say urban life, I mean actually, day to day life in cities and towns and rural areas. So research that makes a difference, there was a real openness to doing that at Ryerson, that I think makes it unique. And so that combined with being surrounded by really smart colleagues with lots of journalism experience and really great ideas for research and ways to make research happen, I think, was hugely helpful for me and a great benefit.
Amanda: This podcast was created for alumni and friends by University Advancement in partnership with City Building Ryerson. Special thanks to our guests on today’s episode: April Lindgren and Bill Schnarr. This podcast was created by me, Amanda Cupido and Emily Morantz. We are both proud Ryerson grads! To learn more about the Local News Research Project, and more episodes of this podcast and others, visit ryerson.ca/alumni/podcasts.