Friday, August 19, 2022

Community Newspapers on Life Support

Stephen Vance, Editor

It was a crushing week for community newspapers in Ontario after two large corporations – Postmedia and TorStar swapped dozens of papers in their portfolios only to shut them down virtually immediately. Some have suggested that we at The Independent must be thrilled that our local competition, the Meaford Express, is one of the victims of the deal, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Why am I not thrilled to see the demise of the Express? In short because my primary concern is to have informed communities, and the loss of any community newspaper, even a competitor, is a blow to that cause. After this week’s announcement, dozens of communities in this province have lost what in some cases was their sole source for local news. Dozens of communities will now have a greater challenge if they want to know what’s going on in their local council chamber or what is happening at the local community centre, and that isn’t good for communities, it isn’t good for a healthy democracy, and it further strips the voice and identity of small to mid-sized communities.

We shouldn’t have been surprised really. Community newspapers have been fighting for their lives for several years, and it hasn’t helped that many of those community papers have been gobbled up by large corporations who have favoured regional coverage over local news.

Prior to launching The Independent, I wrote for the Express for a couple of years, and while the local staff was fantastic, I felt frustrations about what I wasn’t allowed to report on as dictated by a suit in an office in Barrie, or Toronto. The rebel in me didn’t like the fact that outside forces could dictate what a small town newspaper could or should cover, so I started my own paper in hopes of bringing ‘local’ back to the local community paper.

Community newspapers that have survived run on skeleton crews. I’m told that when Metroland purchased the Express (along with Thornbury’s Courier-Herald) a decade ago the paper had a dozen employees, but by this past summer that number had dwindled to one reporter/editor and a couple of support staff. When that reporter/editor left for greener pastures this summer he wasn’t replaced, and the Express stopped covering local politics altogether. Our own (thankfully independent) paper operates with a skeleton crew as well. Aside from myself, we’ve got some part-time office help for 12 hours per week, our publisher who handles the business side of things, and we contract a local graphic designer who makes our print paper look fabulous – but that’s it, the equivalent of roughly two full-time bodies. No beat reporters, no investigative team, so staff photographer, no editorial board. Oh what we could do with a dozen people! But those days are long gone, and we have to turn out the best product we can with the people and resources we can afford.

I truly feel for the dozens of communities that have lost their local paper this week. I frequently receive requests from our neighbours in Thornbury to expand our coverage to include their community, which lost their local paper a few years back. Residents of that community have since felt the frustration of not having access to local news coverage, particularly council reporting. Several folks from Thornbury have told me how lucky Meaford is to still have a local newspaper, and that people don’t realize how important community newspapers are until they’ve lost theirs – this week, many in this province will begin to have that realization.

If the remaining community newspapers in this province are to survive, the communities they serve must rally around them, and this is particularly important for smaller communities like Meaford. Do you think a regional paper is going to cover the quilt show or day camps for kids? Will a regional paper directed by suits in much larger communities give a flying fiddle about anything but the most sensational stories coming out of our local council? Do corporate overlords care about silly things like potholes or bridge repairs? Absolutely not, so if small communities like Meaford want to stay informed, they must rally behind their community newspapers by subscribing, or business owners by advertising in order for the remaining community newspapers to remain viable.

As a truly independent, truly local community newspaper, The Independent understands the importance of informing the community, and we hope to do it for many years to come, but we can’t do it without you, our readers, our community.

No matter what community you live in, if you still have a community newspaper, support it, otherwise the only news you’ll receive is whatever the big city corporations want to feed us.

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