Community newspapers across the country are quickly gearing up for the federal election and, as expected, there is a wide range of coverage online.
Taking in to consideration the various levels of time and resources available for each publication, it is interesting to see how differently each presents stories. And while J-Source unable to monitor each of the 700 members of the Canadian Community Newspaper Association, I will examine samples from across the country with an eye to exploring some of the strengths and challenges small and medium-size publications face.
When accessing a news media website, especially ones related to an election, it is necessary to evaluate them on two fronts: their contribution to democracy/democratic values and how they contribute to educating their audience in preparation to vote.
Much of what we see in community journalism online so far is the migration of existing content, prepared specifically for the traditional product, transferred to the Internet. This form of online journalism brings with it, the old norms and values associated with traditional journalism as it has been practiced for nearly 100 years. Sadly, this fails to address the potential of this new publishing medium online
Community newspapers should always work to localize regional, provincial and national stories. The Kamloops Daily News in B.C. did a brilliant job as it faces two elections this fall – a mayoral race and the federal one. One lead story focuses on the municipal politician’s concerns over voter fatigue. It will be interesting to see how it is going to use its resources over the next few weeks considering the number of potential news stories, candidate profiles and other related information it could generate for readers.
Also interesting is how editorial writers at the paper were quick to jump on the federal election. Perhaps because opinion columns are often easier to write than full stories, the editorial chastised Prime Minister Stephen Harper for a staged press conference with the Wong family on the first day and a columnist wrote a lighter piece comparing the American election coverage to the Canadian media, bemoaning the lack of sensationalism found in the United States.
Northumberland News, which started with so much promise, has all but dropped its coverage down to the bare minimum. The candidate profiles are gone and no links to be found. There is no special election section, but there is a dedicated election blog being maintained by one reporter.
This phenomenon is technology-related in many cases. Using a content management software system, stories are often presented hierarchically with the most recent news pushing the rest down. Depending on how many stories are displayed on the site, older material quickly disappears and depending on how the news organizations handles its archival material, this can be lost to readers. Some sites allow full access to archives, while others can story access to one week or even one day. In some cases, accessing these back stories may require a fee. While not user-friendly, it is another way to generate revenues.
However, for an election it would be useful and more democratic to help voters by allowing all election information to be posted and available for the length of the campaign. (In a perfect world, there would be past elections and the stories for the incumbents’ past term.)
Sadly, there are still some publications that have not even posted election news. The Compass, serving Conception Bay/Trinity has nothing. Yet, smaller community newspapers with just one or two staff can hardly be blamed. With a mandate to serve the community, highly local events may take precedent.
Some media chains combine several newspapers into a single website, as is the case for newsdurhamregion.com, which posts newspapers from Whitby to Clarington to Port Perry, a very large coverage area just east of Toronto. This site contains a very slick election section full of coverage ranging from recent news stories to riding profiles. It also presents related links within the site for each story and a social networking feature allowing stories to be shared via Facebook, MySpace, Digg and other similar websites. There are comment features for each story and a poll, asking whom readers would vote for in the election. There are election blogs for each newspaper, written by reporters.
The Moose Jaw Times Herald also has a separate election section within its site, using Canadian Press wire stories along with local content. It contains many similar features as durhamregion.com, but its comment feature appears to be far more actively used. A nomination story had 11 comments within 30 hours of posting. The other sites had no comments.
One major feature lacking across the board is audience interaction. There is no place for voters to suggest topics for coverage or issues that they feel are urgent. Considering how limited these news organization are in terms of staff and time, it would make a lot of sense to identify these strong community-based ideas and run with them.
To break away from the “shovel-up” forms of online news, a new mandate should be considered. Rather than online journalism, let’s call it e-journalism. And rather than practice old norms and values, let’s consider some new ones. We need to remove the old hegemony between audiences and news, where our job was to inform, explain and interpret. Instead, let us try to educate, engage and empower our audience.
If we do this, then we will automatically enhance our public service and strengthen our role in the democratic process. Otherwise, we just fall back into the old ways of covering an election, which fail to excite and involve our audiences or contribute to civic life.
This is the yardstick we should use to measure media during this election.
Finally, in that same vein, since it is so hard to cover all the community newspaper websites across the country, if anyone sees an interesting site or something spectacular, please pass it along so we can all have a look and discuss what is going on.
Robert Washburn is a J-Source contributing editor and professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont.