Help or nail in the coffin?

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Photo: (Courtesy of The Low Down to Hull and Back News)

Nikki Mantell

     As one does at the beginning of a new year, here at The Low Down we are wondering, pondering and hand-wringing about what 2018 and beyond will bring. Honestly, it’s hard to know. These are confusing times.

     On Monday night [Jan. 15], the CBC’s World At Six program aired the first of a two-part series asking the question: What happens to a town after it loses its community paper? It talked about the closing of the Barrie Examiner after more than 150 years and the void that leaves. Unless you live under a rock, you already know that the Barrie paper is just one of many, many papers that have shut down recently.

     According to the report, Ryerson University has dedicated a small team to tracking the impact, called the Local News Research Project. The professor leading the group, April Lindgren, reports that so far, since 2008, Canada has seen 234 closures of local media outlets, including newspapers, radio and TV stations. She says the majority of closures were in print newspapers, and describes the closures as an “avalanche.”

     Back in the day, it was believed the Internet itself would be the cure to the problem it’s caused; new online news sites would replace the closed papers. They are cheaper to run, require fewer bodies, and can reach the audience immediately.

     Surprise! Ryerson’s research shows that new sites are not filling the community news void – only 69 of them have popped up. When community papers close – including those publishing in print and online – that’s it. No one is jumping in to cover council meetings, hunt down the chief of police or dash out the door at 4 a.m. to get a photo of a house on fire.

     For Lindgren, most troubling may be local elections. Her team looked at the local paper in Nanaimo, B.C. and discovered it provided 50 per cent of all election coverage. Since its closure in 2016, that paper is no longer there. ​The Low Down dedicated pages and pages to previewing local elections last year; we were the only English outlet to do so. The CBC and the Ottawa Citizen told readers who won after the fact – but that doesn’t help residents make their decision as to who should run their community.

     “News poverty” is what Lindgren called the looming situation that faces Canadians across the nation.

     The feds and Quebec are working on solutions, but so far both are pointing in the same direction: the future is digital only.

Quebec recently announced a $36-million package to help the struggling newspaper industry. Most of that will go to the dailies – which we can’t stress enough are not the same breed as community papers – but there is $5.2 million set aside for us weeklies.

     It’s encouraging that the province sees that the issue is important, but its proposed solution poses a real conundrum: the help being offered is tied to moving local papers out of the model that pays the bills into one that doesn’t. Within the Quebec Community Newspaper Association, we publishers are asking ourselves what to do. Get on the train that may take us to bankruptcy? Or risk being an ostrich and keep doing what works despite the fact that the next generation can’t peel their eyes away from their smartphones?

     Our wish for 2018 and beyond: no one goes hungry for local news or any other necessities of life.

     Editor’s note: The Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph is also a member of the Quebec Community Newspaper Association. The Low Down to Hull and Back News is (as described on their own website) “a feisty little independent newspaper” located in Wakefield, in the Gatineau Hills of West Quebec.