Community papers weather the storm

Gregory SawiskyAmidst the barrage of reports and statistics on dropping readership and circulation at newspapers across North America, there is one bright spot in Canadian journalism: community newspapers. Gregory Sawisky examines the importance of community reporting.

Amidst the barrage of reports and statistics on dropping readership and circulation at newspapers across North America, there is one bright spot in Canadian journalism: community newspapers.

Not only have they been largely spared the suffering of city and metro dailies: the community press continues to play an important role in the neighbourhoods they cover, according to a recent study from Thompson Rivers University.

The study (which was funded through the university’s Undergraduate Research Experience Award Program) found that the community press possesses certain advantages that larger media organizations simply don’t have: far fewer competitors, a near-monopoly on local content and a close relationship with local businesses and community groups.

In his novel Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local, author Jock Lauterer writes: “Most community newspapers orient themselves ethically toward their communities in a fundamentally different way than their big-city cousins. While the community paper, like the large metro paper, serves in the vital role of public watchdog of governmental affairs, the similarities end there.”

The study examined five community newspapers in central Alberta: The Mountaineer in Rocky Mountain House, the Stettler Independent in Stettler, the Lacombe Globe in Lacombe, the Olds Albertan in Olds and the Ponoka News in Ponoka. Each community had a population ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 citizens, not including rural residents in the surrounding county. 

Jim Hunter is the mayor of Stettler. He believes that the presence of the community newspaper has an important function for the municipal government.

“It’s a tool for us as councillors to see that feedback comes in and to see what is going on in some areas of the community. The [Calgary] Herald and the [Edmonton] Journal deal with information regarding the country and the world. If I want to know how certain things reflect on my community and the values and the ideas of my community, it’s my community paper I go to. You don’t get that out of Edmonton or Calgary,” he said.

While his observations might seem rather facile to anyone in the journalism industry, it does serve to reinforce the importance of the community press, not only for local citizens who want to stay informed, but for the community organizations that depend on the presence of a local press.

Local businesses also fall into this group. While there is often a sentiment in journalism that the press should be independent of business influence, the real-world practice doesn’t always draw such a clear distinction. Community newspapers depend on local advertising revenue to a greater degree than major metro publications and, because of this, they tend to act as strong advocates for local business.

George Brown, president of the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association, said, “We’re probably working more hand in hand to make local businesses successful [than a metro paper would]. We’re working with [local businesses] as fellow members of the Chamber of Commerce; we’re promoting things jointly in the community.” 

A strong relationship between a community press and the local economy is key: when the local economy is booming, businesses can in turn spend more on print advertising. When the local economy is weak, advertising drops.

Brad Watson is the chief administrative officer for the town of Ponoka. He faces the challenge of trying to keep people shopping in Ponoka instead of making the 45-minute drive up the highway to Edmonton. He said that if the local newspaper shut down, the ramifications would be detrimental to local business.

“[The closure of the Ponoka News] would be most serious to the commercial and industrial community,” he said. “It would be a major setback for the merchants who advertise in it weekly. I sit in economic development meetings and that is a critical discussion that comes up regularly: How do we stop the bleeding of people going outside the community to shop?”

Of course, the community press is not solely defined by its advertisers. Lisa Joy, editor of the Lacombe Globe, says that what differentiates the community press from metro dailies is the absolute focus on local content. Community newspapers in the study published entirely local and original content, with no wire stories to be found.

“We run submitted articles,” Joy said, “We run 4H reports. We take pictures of strawberry tea. The little things that just wouldn’t make it in the dailies. It keeps citizens informed of what’s happening in their community—it gives them a sense of community too. We’re celebrating the community and bringing issues to light.”

Murray Elliott, publisher of The Olds Albertan, agrees with Joy’s observations.

“We cover what an outsider might consider the fairly mundane. We cover our community and that means the tractor pull, the cheque presentation…things that a big-town paper won’t cover. And our readers are actually sophisticated enough to know the difference and are looking for that kind of coverage in their local paper.”

Municipal governments and school boards also rely on the community newspaper to keep citizens informed of civic announcements, proposed bylaw changes, community programs and public meetings.

In three of the communities studied for this research project, the newspaper was delivered for free to every household.  “The paper is very vital to our sustainability in being able to provide information within Olds and our region,” said Judy Dahl, mayor of the town of Olds. The city of Calgary (the nearest large city) has two daily newspapers, a variety of commuter dailies, one alternative weekly and a host of community newsletters. The town of Olds has the Olds Albertan. And while the community newspaper supports the local economy and carries important information for the community, it also serves the citizens desire and need for information. It’s especially important considering that many rural communities have spotty or non-existent access to the Internet.

John Hinds, president of the Canadian Community Newspaper Association, believes that the relationship between the reporter and the community is different at a small paper.

“In the smaller paper [subjects] are your friends, neighbours and customers. It’s a much more complex relationship than in a major urban daily. If you are a columnist in the Toronto Star or the Globe and Mail you’re not going to run into the person you wrote the article about in your corner store or Canadian Tire.”

The study also looked at ownership, and the difference between local and chain-owned community publications.

Frank McTighe, owner and publisher of the The MacLeod Gazette in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, says that what really matters isn’t who owns the paper but how it’s operated.

“There are some very good corporately-owned newspapers who serve their community well and the newspapers are well respected and loved in their communities. There are some independent newspapers that don’t work very hard and don’t do a good job at covering and serving the community and they are not loved and respected in their town,” he said.

The important thing, McTighe said, is that a newspaper provides opinions, leadership and features that serve both the community and advertisers.

“It’s the staff of the newspaper that makes a great difference in how the newspaper performs in the community. If you’re doing a good job I don’t think people are aware of who owns you. They are more concerned with the product that they receive once a week or twice a week.”

While the community press is an important tool for local government and plays a role in promoting local economies, its most important role may be the most intangible role: creating a sense of community. Mayor Hunter says that keeping people informed of local issues is what creates and maintains that feeling.

“[Community newspapers are] a contributing factor to the sense of community, not only in the town but also in our county and our district. There is that sense of community that this is a paper that is dedicated to the issues that are here, that are important, the issues that affect us all on a daily basis. In [major dailies] you often read stories about Afghanistan or the election in Iran—they are very important events and should mean something to us as Canadians, but on a day-to-day basis we deal here with taxes and with annexation and with water issues and all those type of things. The paper is a conduit of that. You’d lose part of the sense of community that’s here if it went away,” he said.

Gregory Sawisky is a fourth-year journalism student at Thompson Rivers University. His full research report will be available at Thompson Rivers University website’s research section in the coming months.