On the last Monday of November 2017, Cecilia Nasmith, a 29-year-veteran reporter at Northumberland Today, discovered she was out of a job. She had come into work that morning, prepped to interview a source, when the entire newsroom was called into a board meeting. “I was preparing to go out to an interview and I said, ‘Well, I don’t have much time. I hope this doesn’t take long.’” It didn’t. “Boom! Effective immediately, your services are no longer required.” Northumberland Today was officially closed.
Owned by Postmedia Network Inc., the paper was traded to competitor Torstar Corp. along with 14 other community papers and two free dailies. Forty-one publications were swapped between the two companies, 36 of which were closed, eliminating roughly 300 jobs. The closures only added to the already bleak landscape infecting Canada’s community newspapers. Between 2008 and 2016, 169 community papers closed and another 54 reduced their services. As a result, many local journalists have been left jobless. As for Nasmith, the closure came as a complete surprise. “We knew that [Northumberland Today] was very challenged,” Nasmith says. “But we did think that we had a few years left. We were the paper of record. It would have been 200 years old in another decade or so. There was a great affection and love for the publication dating back generations.”
On the day the paper closed, the staff were asked to quickly clean out their desks and leave the property. There was no time for goodbyes. No time to reminisce. “That was the end of it,” Nasmith says. “The worst thing is that they killed off our online archives. I worked there 30 years, but you can’t see it now.”
Nasmith, although past retirement age when the paper closed, wasn’t quite ready to hang up her pad and pen. But there didn’t seem to be a future in journalism. “I knew I’d never work as a journalist full time again,” she says. “I didn’t do anything for a while because I was stymied.”
She wanted to contribute to the community in some way and thought about volunteering at the Northumberland Hills Hospital, but then she discovered that the local radio station, Northumberland 89.7 FM, needed volunteers. “I could continue doing exactly what I was doing before,” she says. Nasmith started covering the Cobourg council for the station, eventually branching out and covering the county council, the hospital board, and writing features. “Some weeks I still file 15 stories,” she says.
Nasmith’s former Northumberland Today colleague Pete Fisher also faced a shaky few months after the publication’s closure. “I really didn’t know what to do,” Fisher says. “My heart, my soul is in the news.” He fell into a slump, trying to figure out what came next, when Steve White, the former national photo editor for Postmedia, finally gave him some direction.
Together, Fisher and White launched Today’s Northumberland at the beginning of 2018, a digital news site covering the Northumberland area. His goal with the site is to give residents of the community accountability by asking the tough questions of municipal officials. “The people deserve accountability, and honestly, that’s what I don’t see happening,” Fisher says. “I’ve always been of the belief that people who read the news deserve to know about it when it happens, good or bad.”
In order to get the site off the ground, Fisher needed extra help, so he turned to Nasmith. “I told him to sort it out with the radio station,” Nasmith says, which Fisher did. “And then I started double filing.” With Nasmith helping to produce content, and revenue trickling in from local advertisers, Today’s Northumberland has officially reached profitability, keeping both journalists awfully busy.
Although Nasmith and Fisher have landed on their feet after challenging blows to their careers, Nasmith continues to work for free and Fisher is still searching for the balance between reporting and profitability. “The one thing I’m bad at,” Fisher says, “is sales.” The industry is adapting to growing pains in the digital age but the rapid changes are leaving many journalists unprepared and left behind. As far as Nasmith is concerned, these changes will soon leave the role of the local print reporter extinct. “The way the world’s going is with scrolling and young people,” Nasmith says. “We’re still around, but when we’re all dead, it’ll be what it is.”