Coverage approach depends on timing

One of the greatest challenges facing farm beat editors and reporters has to do with balancing their approach to coverage with the timing of publication.

In Canada in 2005, primary agriculture and its spin-offs was one of the country’s major revenue generators (eight per cent) and employed one in eight of the country’s workforce.

Yet there are no daily agricultural print publications.

I am aware of two in-house readership surveys showing those involved in the sector tend to assemble their news from a pastiche of sources: a local newspaper, radio or television station; a U.S.-based Internet market news service such as DTN The Progressive Farmer; weekly publications such as Ontario Farmer or Western Producer; and monthly or bi-monthly magazines that focus on a particular region, commodity or approach to farming. Better Farming, The Ontario Corn Producer and Small Farm Canada are some that come to mind. More and more often I also hear of those with Internet savvy subscribing to the same public news release services as ag publications.

The recent coverage of the federal government’s announced Dec. 31 deadline for introducing new food labelling guidelines provides a good example of the typical dissemination pattern of major farm spot news. (The guidelines govern which products qualify for voluntary Grown in Canada and Made in Canada labels).

On July 15, the federal government released the date the guidelines come into effect. Before the end of the day the story was carried on the websites of at least four news outlets in Ontario –, Farm Business Communications’ Country Guide, Ontario Farmer and CKNX Radio – and broadcast on several local and national outlets. Most reports offered little more than was in the news release. None of the website accounts contained original quotes. These arrived over the next few days in dailies such as the St. Catharines Standard and the Toronto Star ( both on July 16), and which localized the news. In Ontario, the first major mention of this announcement in the farm print press came in the weekly Ontario Farmer published July 22, a full week after the announcement was made.

With news reports out there for a while, you’d think those who produce print farm news would create second-generation news story with a fresh angle. Yet more often than not (and I’m as guilty as the next editor), farm trade publications simply repeat the original story, detail for detail, and compete with each other in terms of obtaining industry-specific comment.

Taking this approach often has to do with resources. Farm publication newsrooms are small, with tiny budgets to distribute among a legion of freelancers. Why waste limited resources on old news? Pull what you can from a news release or two and use the down-and-dirty story to fill a short news hole.

Perhaps that old journalism adage — don’t assume what your readers will and won’t know – also comes into play. Certainly there are reasons for adopting this point of view.
Typically, and historically, you can’t count on national media to carry farm news. Coverage in regional or local publications is likewise hit and miss, depending on the size of the farm population and the significance of the industry to the area covered. Over the years, many farm broadcasts and publications have turned this gap into an opportunity, cementing their reputations by being a reliable source of spot news coverage. With reputation comes a perceived obligation to deliver – even if the news may be a little stale.

But as the Internet makes available publications formerly difficult to access because of geography, farm publications experience some significant competition in their niche. A news tool such as Google can immediately deliver breaking provincial, national and international agricultural news right to the farmer’s email inbox.

Some agricultural communicators doubt the Internet’s efficacy in serving the farm community. Statistics Canada reports Internet use in rural areas is 65 per cent of the population, lower than 76 per cent in urban areas. Moreover, a significant number of those using the Internet in rural areas lack access to high speed service. If that isn’t enough of a deterrent, the average age of a farmer  – 52 in Ontario – puts this group squarely into the category of those least likely to use the Internet.

Yet growth in Internet use is inevitable and areas without high speed will eventually receive it. So the question arises: would agricultural journalists serve their readership better by abandoning the assumption that they deliver the news first?

Agriculture isn’t the only beat that finds making old news fresh a growing challenge. Any community newspaper struggles with the same issue when a local issue or event draws wide-scale media coverage. Like a community news outlet, a regional farm publication’s best bet at a fresh perspective is to dig deep, locally (in the sense of either sector or geography). Studies, such as the 2007 NADbank survey, indicate that local content remains a major reason behind weekly publications’ high readership levels.  

Publications serving broader areas might also want to take a page from their community cousins. Or they might want to explore the option taken by larger daily publications and concentrate resources on providing in-depth analysis.

No matter the solution, it’s apparent that the status quo is not an option if farm publications want to retain their journalism niche. Continuing to focus resources on providing blow-by-blow accounts of major spot news coverage will only weaken this specialized publication’s relevance to the community it serves.