When a community newspaper closes, it is a great loss. Still, publishers will argue it is the economic reality of the times. Many scholars argue the importance of community journalism to democracy and citizenship, often separately from the business decisions. The historic tension between public service and economics is longstanding. But, what if there is another set of lenses beyond journalism, political economy communications theory and other traditional disciplines to shed light on the significance of news media in rural Canada?
When a community newspaper closes, it is a great loss. Still, publishers will argue it is the economic reality of the times. Many scholars argue the importance of community journalism to democracy and citizenship, often separately from the business decisions. The historic tension between public service and economics is longstanding. But, what if there is another set of lenses beyond journalism, political economy communications theory and other traditional disciplines to shed light on the significance of news media in rural Canada? This three-part weekly series will place community news media within the context of rural development in the hope of exploring the role journalism plays for sustaining hamlets, villages, towns and cities in rural areas.
By Robert Washburn, Innovation Editor
When community newspapers close in towns and villages across rural Canada, the loss is bemoaned. But publishers and owners often justify the decision based on the economic realities forcing them to shutter the operations.
The reach of community newspapers is undeniable: Approximately 1,000 community newspapers in Canada circulate more than 19 million copies in neighbourhoods, regions, towns and remote areas weekly. The role they play is vital, but the industry faces immense pressure from new technologies and changes in advertising and audiences. Yet, community newspapers enjoyed a three per cent increase in revenue in 2011, with more than $1.2 billion spent on print and online advertising. Online advertising alone grew 35 per cent over the same period, according to Newspaper Canada statistics released in 2012.
Community newspaper readership remains steady at 74 per cent, according to the same study. The figure is precisely the same as it was in 2008.
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This past year, Sun Media Corporation cut its staff by 360 people and closed several weekly newspapers and three free urban dailies. The community newspapers were The Midland Free Press (Ontario), The Lindsay Post (Ontario), The Meadow Lake Progress (Saskatchewan), The Beausejour Review (Manitoba), The Lac du Bonnet Leader (Manitoba), Le Magazine Saint-Lambert (Quebec) and Le Progrès de Bellechasse (Quebec).
In 2012, The Dunnville Chronicle (Ontario), West Niagara News (Ontario), The Montreal Mirror (Quebec), Capital City News (Ontario), Guelph Review (Ontario), Kitchener-Waterloo Review (Ontario) and Markdale Standard (Ontario) were all closed by Sun Media, along with another 500 jobs lost.
The closures of these newspapers, some of them having existed for more than 100 years, represent less than one per cent of the total number of community newspapers in the country. It is difficult to track community newspaper closures since they do not garner much attention. It is no wonder no one gets too upset since they represent such a tiny number in the big picture.
But what is really going on?
Sometimes, the newspapers get rolled into a regional publication, making sure the few remaining advertisers continue to contribute to the overall revenue of the parent company. Residents are promised coverage, but often it is a trickle compared to what they received before. These are some of the hard truths facing local news media in rural Canada today.
Usually, the response to such a loss is framed by a discussion about the importance of relationships between members of the community and the newspaper using the lens of the social responsibility theory or a version of it. The loss of a community newspaper affects the citizens and their ability to know what is going on and act accordingly, thereby undermining local democracy.
Community journalism acts as a link between the individual and the community, as documented by many scholars, including sociologist Keith Stamm. He says community newspapers historically are viewed as vehicles for extending personal channels of information, which normally flourish in neighbourhoods, towns and villages. When journalism feeds people's cynicism, it creates confusion about issues and ultimately turns them off, thereby weakening a community's ties and undermining its identity, Stamm says. When community journalism does its job properly, these community bonds are strengthened. Others make similar arguments emphasizing the importance of community journalism, including John Miller, Jock Lauterer and Lee Wilkins.
As the great journalist-philosopher Walter Lippmann points out, local journalism is about covering everything from municipal politics to church suppers. Community journalism holds up a mirror to a community, helping it to see itself and think about what it sees.
And while many pages of scholarly thought point out the importance of journalism to democracy, those arguments are not usually the framework publishers and owners discuss when determining whether a newspaper will remain open.
The bottom line is the bottom line on the business. Given the current pressures on the news industry as a whole, that should not be surprising. Overall, audiences are declining, revenues are tanking and changing technology is placing stress on newsrooms. Yet, community newspapers seem to buck the trend somehow as the numbers show growth in revenue and a steady number of readers, according to industry-sponsored studies.
Traditional values, principles and approaches are under intense scrutiny as entirely new paradigms are being created along with demands for innovation, experimentation and rethinking nearly every aspect of both the business side and the practice of journalism.
But what if the discussion over the future of community newspapers was not just about the economic viability of publications or the loss of a vital public service? What if the survival of a community newspaper was essential to sustaining rural Canada?
It may be time to look at the status of community newspapers in rural Canada with a different set of lenses other than journalism, political economy, communications theory and other traditional disciplines. It might be worthwhile to try to peer behind the forces within the community that are at play.
The next installment of this community journalism series will appear next Friday.
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