By Graham Swaney
On Nov. 27th 2017, Canadian media companies Tortstar and Postmedia announced a deal to swap 41 newspapers. After the exchange all but four were closed to reduce regional competition. Nine of the closed papers were previously part of the Metroland network in Ottawa. These papers included the Orleans News, Ottawa East News, Ottawa South News, Metro Ottawa, Ottawa West News, Nepean Barrhaven News, Kanata-Kourier Standard, Stittsville News and West Carleton Review.
This mass closure continues a pattern of a decline in the number of newspapers in Canada. According to the Shattered Mirror report on Canadian journalism created by the Public Policy Forum, Canadians purchased 102 newspapers for every 100 households in 1950. By 2015 that number shrank to 18 papers per 100 households.
The report attributes this decline in sales to the rise of digital media, which has undermined newspaper revenue by providing advertisers with a more convenient means to reach their target audience. Moreover, the rise of sites like Ebay and Kijiji have almost completely replaced the classified ads section of newspapers, which used to be a major source of income for newspapers.
The Local Loss
The local newspapers that recently closed in Ottawa played a unique role in their communities, which fell largely outside the capacity and mandate of daily papers like the Ottawa Citizen. Their closure left communities with gaps in local news coverage.
Teresa Fritz, the former editor of Metroland Media, told The Leveller that local news outlets have a responsibility to provide hyper-localized news and to “delve a little deeper” than other outlets.
Jake Davies, a former reporter at the West Carleton Review echoed this principle, contrasting the Ottawa Citizen’s coverage of the 2017 flooding of Constance Bay with the coverage of the local papers. While all the outlets covered the initial flooding, it was only the local papers that were able to write extensively about the aftermath and the recovery of the community.
Davies commented that “Without that sort of coverage… people move on. If people don’t know their community members and neighbors are struggling through an issue like this, they might not raise the money they [their neighbors] need just to provide a home for their two small children.”
Another valuable attribute of community newspapers was their coverage of smaller, local events. According to Davies, without local papers communities “don’t get stories on upcoming events, they don’t get stories on community leaders, (and) they don’t get… ‘good news’ stories.”
As Teresa Fritz put it, “You’re losing the ability to inform residents about what’s happening in their communities.” These are the types of events that would not be considered newsworthy for an Ottawa audience at large, such as a high school graduation or a local council meeting. However, these types of stories hold significant value in the communities that they take place in.
Fran Dawson, a West Carleton Resident, shared with The Leveller that she especially misses the detailed coverage of events taking place in her township. Dawson stated “The West Carleton Review had great photographs of all community activities, and what they would do with these photographs is they would write the names of every person in the photograph.”
She added that the West Carleton Review published a list of upcoming community events each week, something the Ottawa Citizen doesn’t do.
The local Ottawa papers also helped link the communities they served to national and municipal issues by viewing them through a local lens. Allan Hubley, the city councillor for Kanata South told The Leveller that he used to keep a weekly column in the Kanata Kourier Standard to share information about city hall and upcoming events with his constituents.
Kanata-Carleton’s MP Karen McCrimmon also stressed the importance of this connection, stating that local papers are “a way for me to connect with my constituents. They can see what I’m doing, the work I’m doing on their behalf, [and that] I’m out in the community. That matters and I think that piece is missing and that needs to be addressed.”
Limitations of Digital News
“We need community journalism to survive” McCrimmon commented. “Digital is not an acceptable replacement on its own.”
McCrimmon partly attributed the shortcomings of digital media to the region’s aging population, which has many residents who are not comfortable getting their news online. She also noted that internet connectivity limitations in rural communities like West Carleton can hinder access to online news.
Jake Davies also shared the opinion that digital is not a suitable replacement to community papers, because digital media does not translate into paid journalists. Consequently, all of the communities that lost their newspapers no longer have formal journalists within the community seeking out and reporting on local affairs.
Following the closure of Metroland in Ottawa, Michael Wollock, former owner of some of the papers that had been absorbed by Metroland, came out of retirement to start a new newspaper chain in Ottawa called The Community Voice.
According to the paper’s new editor Patrick Uguccioni, the paper is named after Wolloch’s vision for the chain, which is to “fill a void where there was no voice.” With this goal in mind, the paper has established itself primarily in areas that had no weekly or bi-weekly paper.
The Community Voice has four banners: the Alta Vista Canterbury Community Voice, The Hunt Club Riverside Park Community Voice, The Greenboro South Keys Community Voice, and The Kanata-Stittsville Community Voice. This represents some of the communities vacated by Metroland. However, The Community Voice has not entered all of the communities Metroland used to serve, such as West Carleton, and Nepean.
The first issues of The Community Voice were published on February 15, with the exception of the Kanata-Stittsville edition, which published for the first time on February 22.
Uguccioni stated that the community’s response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” from both residents and businesses alike. Small businesses in particular have embraced the paper since it gives them direct access to the community at a reasonable rate. Furthermore, The Community Voice has attracted city councillors who are paying for column space.
The papers under the umbrella of The Community Voice are scheduled to continue publication on a bi-weekly basis. The Community Voice is delivered by Canada Post to every residence and business in the communities it serves at no charge to residents, totaling about 85,000 copies. The paper generates revenue through advertising and currently has a staff of eight people, many of whom were former employees of Metroland.
The health of community journalism has also attracted the attention of the federal government. In order to address the decline in community journalism, the recently released budget allotted $50 million dollars over the next five years for community journalism in underserved areas.
Speaking as a member of the governing Liberals, McCrimmon explained this fund would be distributed by a non-governmental organization to help revitalize community journalism in underserved areas. The implementation of the plan allows entrepreneurs to experiment with various business models, depending on what they believe will work best in their communities, regardless of whether they are mostly digital or print.
McCrimmon cautioned that this measure is merely a band-aid needed to help stabilize the industry. However, she also believes that it demonstrates a critical recognition on the part of the government about the issue at hand, and is a step in the right direction. McCrimmon added that while she hopes the government will provide more startup money in the future, “it’s up to the community to keep it going after that.”
So despite the damage done to community journalism by the closure of Metroland in January, local newspapers are making a comeback. Karen McCrimmon commented that community journalism remains highly valued and is “probably one of the best ways of communicating with people” in rural communities. This desire for good community has already opened the door for arrival of The Community Voice, which could serve as a role model for other communities who want to revive local journalism.
Looking at the future of community journalism as an editor, Uguccioni commented that “as long as someone puts out a good product that reflects those communities that they’re trying to serve, I think there is a long, bright future for community newspapers.”
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2018).