On a seemingly ordinary Monday morning in November 2017, reporter Cecilia Nasmith walked into the offices of Northumberland Today. She was preparing for an interview scheduled for 10 a.m. Suddenly, she and the rest of the staff present were called into the tiny boardroom. “I sure hope this doesn’t take long,” Nasmith whispered to a colleague. It didn’t. The paper had recently been involved in a community–newspaper swap between Torstar and Post Media, and the new owners greeted them abruptly: “Effective immediately, your services are no longer required.” Nasmith and her coworkers were ordered to clean out their desks. She was given a thumb drive to download personal pictures off her laptop. In a rush, she forgot to take all of her belongings with her.
Northumberland Today was one of the 40-plus papers involved in the Torstar/Postmedia swap in late 2017. Torstar acquired Northumberland Today along with 16 other local papers. Northumberland Today was then immediately shut down. Now, only four of the other papers are still in operation. Northumberland, located approximately 125 kilometres east of Toronto, is comprised of seven small municipalities: Cobourg, Port Hope, Trent Hills, Brighton, Hamilton Township, Alnwick/Haldimand, and Cramahe. The closure left the rural area of about 85,000 people without a daily print newspaper—a problem faced by an increasing number of small communities in Canada and elsewhere.
Yet, journalists in many of these towns are trying out new and distinctive solutions. In September 2018, the Northumberland Hub was launched by John Miller, a retired journalist and former chair of Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, along with the Local News Northumberland group, which comprises local journalists and community volunteers. The Hub compiles local news every weekday and puts it all in one place in an attempt to replicate the experience of reading the daily newspaper. In Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, employees at the Prince Albert Daily Herald bought their paper in 2017 when it was threatened with closure. In Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, an ex-writer at the daily paper, the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, began an independent news site after it shuttered. Citizen–journalism ventures have also been popping up, including a DIY paper run by a librarian in New Hampshire.
Though it’s a precarious time for local journalism, with ruthless slashing of jobs and papers closing across the continent, there are some small green shoots sprouting up across the impoverished local news landscape. It’s too early to tell if any will truly succeed, but with all the doom and gloom out there, it’s good to be reminded there is also room for hope and optimism.
In 2017, Miller released a research project, The Shrinking Mirror, which compared the local coverage of Port Hope by the Port Hope Evening Guide in the nineties to the local coverage of Port Hope by Northumberland Today in 2017, when the paper was owned by Postmedia. Miller’s research showed that by 2017 more than 75 percent of the content in the paper came from wire services compared to only 13 percent in 1996. He also concluded that as of 2017 only 7.5 percent of news stories in the paper were actually about Port Hope. That same year, no letters to the editor were published and all editorials were written elsewhere by Postmedia employees.
Miller pointed out four worrisome trends in his research: the issue of concentration of corporate chains owning community papers; the increase in newspaper closures and mergers; the decline in advertising; and lack of quality in the content. The findings showed that 55 percent of Canada’s 1,083 community papers were owned by 10 corporate chains. It also stated that 225 weekly newspapers had closed or merged since 2010, and so had 27 dailies, while revenue at Canadian community newspapers had declined by one-third ($400 million) since 2012. In addition, Miller noted the lack of quality work, quoting his old colleague, Torstar chair, John Honderich: “There is a crisis of declining good journalism across Canada, and at this point, we only see the situation getting worse.”
In 2012, the Communication Policy Research Network (CPRN), a network developed by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Communication and Democracy, found there are eight critical information needs for communities. These information needs are: emergencies and risks, health and welfare, education, transportation, economic opportunities, the environment, civic, and political. CPRN, along with social scientists and legal scholars, concluded that every community deserves access to these information needs. Often, it is the community newspaper that provides this information.
When these critical information needs are not being met, Ryerson journalism professor April Lindgren refers to it as “local news poverty.” Data collected by the Local News Research Project, led by Lindgren, showed there have been 216 direct newspaper closures and 44 closures due to mergers over the past 10 years in Canada. Out of those 260 closures and mergers, 189 of them were community papers. These small, local outlets make up about 73 percent of the closures. Two years ago, the Columbia Journalism Review created an interactive map of the local news deserts in the United States. In Canada, the Local News Research Project created a crowd–sourced local news map that tracks closures and launches of local news.
To fill the void in urban areas, new publications, such as The Pointer in Brampton, the West End Phoenix in Toronto, and The Sprawl in Calgary, have cropped up. They are independent spaces that rely more on combinations of subscription, paywall, and donation dollars than ad revenue. But they are all located in areas served by several other journalistic outlets.
By contrast, some small towns have only one outlet for their local coverage. A study conducted by the New Rural Economy Project published in the Journal of Rural Community Development, concluded that it is critical for local media to relay information to communities. This study was a part of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation, a national initiative focused on understanding rural change since 1997. But what happens in small towns when the sole news source gets taken away from its citizens? How are local journalists attempting to keep that sense of community and democracy alive?
In June 2016, Star News Publishing Inc. bought the Prince Albert Daily Herald, along with 12 other local Saskatchewan papers. By late 2017, Star News was looking for a buyer for the paper—which employed approximately 20 staff members—or else it would have to close the paper down. So, publisher Donna Pfeil, with help from colleagues, devised a plan for the employees to buy the Daily Herald. Pfeil won’t disclose details of the purchase, but she says it was a long process with lots of negotiations. Ultimately, the staff—including the publisher, media manager, advertising staff, reporters, and others—bought the paper and became an independent entity. “It’s such a small community, so that’s why, for me, closing down just wasn’t an option,” Pfeil says. “To me, a paper is kind of like the glue that actually holds a community together, keeps everybody informed.”
Since May 2018, the employees have owned and operated the paper. Decisions are made much quicker now, as everything is done in-house and doesn’t have to go through a chain of command. As of early 2019, editor Peter Lozinski and staff reporters Lucas Punkari and Jason Kerr make up the editorial team. They report on sports, art, council, community news, or whatever needs to be covered that day. Lozinski and Punkari are from Ontario but moved to Prince Albert within the last couple years. The rest of the staff are originally from Prince Albert and the surrounding areas.
“We know our community. These are our neighbours, friends, volunteers that keep our activities going within the community,” Pfeil says. “What’s important to us as community members may not always be important to bosses living outside of the community…They don’t always see the value in some of these littler things like [a Little League] baseball tournament that you’re supporting.” Prince Albert is a small city of 35,000 people. Punkari covers Little League games, the Western Hockey League team, the junior hockey team, and the high school teams. It’s something that people care about and bond over in the community that would be difficult for someone outside of the city to report on. “Fifty faces in the paper” is one of Pfeil’s goals, which means that she always wants the local community to see themselves represented, especially on the cover.
The Daily Herald doesn’t always have the resources to jump on breaking national news, but it always prioritizes the local news you won’t hear anywhere else, giving local people a voice. That lack of resources is one issue that Lozinski says arises with an independent, employee-owned newspaper, but he says they find ways to make it work for them. Still, Lozinski says that everyone gets paid fairly and gets vacation time. “It’s been the most comfortable I’ve felt in any job in local media,” Lozinski says. “There’s definitely a lot of obstacles in the way, but for many reasons you’re able to connect to a community instead of having a perception you’re being told what to do from a big firm…To see that we were now living and working in their community, producing their paper instead of someone they didn’t know, was a big thing,” Lozinski says. “People like to support local business and they see us in that light. But I think the independent outlets is the way to go. I think for many, many reasons. I think that’s the way we’ll see things working out.”
“We know our community. These are our neighbours, friends, volunteers that keep our activities going within the community,” Pfeil says. “What’s important to us as community members may not always be important to bosses living outside of the community…”
Last year, in the city of Moose Jaw, eight women came forward with accusations of sexual harassment against a senior official at the Downtown Facility and Field House. The man is no longer employed at the facility. Three city councillors were sanctioned for failure to deal with the complaints. “There is serious news happening in these communities,” says former Moose Jaw Times-Herald reporter Mickey Djuric. “Politicians haven’t had watchdogs in a while. The courts haven’t had watchdogs in a while. There haven’t been journalists at these meetings for years. It’s crazy what I’m sure can be uncovered in all these small towns across Canada.”
The Times-Herald ceased publishing in late 2017, after 128 years. Djuric says after the paper shut down, a lot of people began to get their news from social media. Djuric, a 29-year-old originally from Toronto, launched the Daily Jaw in June of 2018. The idea sparked after she quit her job as a reporter at the Moose Jaw Times-Herald in 2015. The Times-Herald had refused to publish a video she had taken of Saskatchewan MP Tom Lukiwski’s victory speech. In the video, Lukiwski said that a Tory candidate is “too important of an MLA [Member of Legislative Assembly] to let go down to an NDP…” The word that follows NDP is either “whore” or “horde.” It isn’t clear. In an editorial addressing the matter, the Times-Herald said it did not want to publish the video without being certain which word was used. Djuric claims it was common for the Times-Herald to avoid publishing anything that might be unfavourable. “I just knew that I could find a niche reporting on news that was extremely underreported in this community,” Djuric says.
After leaving Toronto, Djuric’s first journalism job was in Wainwright, Alberta where her editor instilled in her a deep love of community news. After working at the Times-Herald, she developed an affinity towards the town of 33,000 people, and wanted to bring them the local reporting they deserved. “I know the town. I know the people. I had great relationships with my sources. I said, ‘I’m just going to do it.’ I saw news failing and I was like, ‘I think I could do this.’” Currently, there is no funding for the site. Djuric is working out of her savings. She originally planned to go six months to a year without monetizing the site just to get things off the ground, but by month two she already had advertising offers from local businesses. As of early 2019, she’s starting to consider taking on advertisers. It’s just her doing the reporting right now but she hopes to expand her team once she gets more funding, and hopefully increase coverage of sports and the arts. Djuric will sometimes spend 18 hours a day running around interviewing and covering events.
In 2018, there were three major murder cases going through Moose Jaw’s courthouse, a pretty significant number for a small town. When Djuric started covering court, it became clear in her reporting that the city has an underlying issue with meth addiction, something that had little coverage in the city. “The community has been missing out on hard-hitting investigations,” she says. At first, the community was a bit shocked at all the things she was covering, but ultimately, the feedback has been extremely positive, Djuric says. At the time of writing, the Daily Jaw has over 3,000 likes on its Facebook page and over 1,000 followers on Instagram. Positive engagement with the community can be seen on these platforms as well as on the site itself. “I was lucky because I did come from the Times-Herald, and I think that’s why I do have the level of respect that I do in this community,” Djuric says. “I’ve worked 18 months at the Times-Herald and fostered those relationships.”
On a March evening in 2018, four months after the Northumberland Today closure, about 200 community members piled into Cobourg’s historic Victoria Hall for a town hall meeting. With its high painted ceilings and 19th century architecture, the hall has been a staple of the community for almost two centuries. Moderated by CTV broadcast journalist Tony Grace, community members voiced their opinions about the paper closing and proposed solutions. Displays showcased the initiatives happening to fill the void: a couple of radio stations, a weekly paper, and a few websites.
The product of the meeting: The Northumberland Hub.
Today, in the Northumberland area, there are 15 different local news outlets, which include online sites, TV channels, and radio shows, all covering bits and pieces of local action. The Northumberland Hub would post the headlines and pictures of local stories from all of these outlets and links to them, providing access to all the content in one neat place. The team would aggregate this content every weekday, voluntarily. The site launched in the summer of 2018. It was meant to be a place where people could find local news sources to come back to. In February of 2019, the Northumberland Hub announced that it would stop publishing after the Local News Northumberland group, which Miller is a part of, conducted a survey in December. Based on the statistics gathered, the survey revealed that the need for the Northumberland Hub’s services had faded. Additionally, it wrote that “the group’s resources have dwindled.” Miller says the loss of local news outlets has a strong effect on democracy. “When you’re electing a government for four years and less than a third of the people bother to turn out to vote, you don’t have a very healthy democracy.”
One of the sites the Northumberland Hub aggregated was called Today’s Northumberland. After Northumberland Today closed, Nasmith wasn’t sure what to do with herself. She had worked at the paper for 29 years. One of her colleagues, Pete Fisher, started his own site with Steve White, the former national photo editor at Postmedia, called Today’s Northumberland. The publication does its best to provide local coverage on everything from crime to sports. Now, Nasmith writes and reports on a volunteer basis for them as well as for the local radio station. “It’s great. I get to still do what I did before,” Nasmith says. “It’s just not in an organized or paid way.”
“Politicians haven’t had watchdogs in a while, the courts haven’t had watchdogs in a while…It’s crazy what can be uncovered in all these small towns across Canada.”
In some cases, it’s not always journalists stepping up to the plate. In the tiny farm town of Weare, New Hampshire, local librarian Michael Sullivan has taken it upon himself to start a DIY local newspaper called Weare in the World. Sullivan drives around every Tuesday to drop off the paper at various spots around town, including local businesses, town offices, gas stations, and restaurants—the most popular being Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes, there are people waiting there for him to make sure they get a copy. Weare’s local paper shut down due to lack of funding over two years ago. At the time, Sullivan was new to the area, having just started as a full-time librarian at the Weare Public Library. Sullivan’s only previous journalistic experience came from his days at his high school newspaper, but a local resident suggested the library do something. “People were kind of crying out for somewhere for local news,” Sullivan says.
Sullivan uses about $25 of the library’s budget to produce each weekly issue, most of which goes towards photocopying fees. The real cost is Sullivan’s time, as he usually spends eight hours of his work week putting the paper together. “It’s a labour of love,” Sullivan says. “We don’t have a town centre. We don’t have a community centre. We don’t even have sidewalks…We [don’t have many things] that bring people together, and this newspaper has really been an eye opener for people.”
Citizen-driven journalism like Sullivan’s has been one response to newspaper closures, producing mixed results. In some cases, a collaboration between citizens and professionals has emerged to fill the void. In Toronto in 2010, former CNN foreign correspondent Wilf Dinnick launched OpenFile. It was a community journalism website where anyone could pitch a story, supply photos or links, and then, if deemed newsworthy, a journalist employed by OpenFile would write it up. It provided a sort of local, public service journalism. The site was credited with being extremely innovative. Dinnick won J-Source’s Canadian newsperson of the year award in 2012. But later that year, several freelancers weren’t paid and Dinnick suspended the publication indefinitely.
In the United States, Europe, and Australia, an app called NextDoor acts as a platform for people who live in the same neighbourhood to interact and post about what’s happening in their community. In the United States, news organizations have partnered with it to infuse community feeds with news stories relevant to them. But in 2015, the platform started receiving media backlash for the racial profiling that was taking place, which Nextdoor has since addressed. The 2016 report by Canada’s Public Policy Forum “Does serious journalism have a future in Canada?” states, “Even if one accepts that new standalone or citizen journalists are taking their place, it does not constitute the same contribution to serious journalism.”
In July 2018, a 17-year-old boy died in a two-vehicle collision in Prince Albert. He was part of Prince Albert’s Thomas Settee Boxing Club, which the Daily Herald reported was like “his second home.” The paper ran a heartfelt tribute to the boy, and people came into the offices to buy the paper and thank the staff.Some even came to the office in tears. “It wasn’t a big news thing,” Pfeil says. “But it’s a community, and that’s the stuff you miss out on [in] the big papers. This is what’s important to the community.”