The “save local news” call to action began as a campaign slogan launched by Canada’s largest media union the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (now part of Unifor), many years prior to the 2009 financial crisis that proved to be the watershed moment for mainstream media’s advertising-centred business models in newspapers and television.
It was initially the canaries crying out in the coal mine: journalists and media workers alerting the public to staffing cut-backs: Local news is under threat. Please believe us.
We mailed 15,000 post cards to MPs. Not many paid attention.
The story of how the business models for Canadian print and TV journalism unravelled, especially local news, remains to be documented in detail by a professional historian. The elements of decline included changes in the demographics of news consumption, the slow fragmentation of the advertising market among competing media, cashing-out by family-based media owners, profit-mining by greedy proprietors, the reckless accumulation of debt by corporate consolidators, the collapse of the classified ad market, the depth of the 2009 financial crisis, the break up of the CanWest Global media empire on borrowed money, and the rise of the Google-Facebook duopoly over digital advertising.
But even now it’s indisputable that in that first two decades of the 21st century the news media business — pressed low in the water under the weight of corporate arrogance, debt and greed— was levelled by the Internet’s hurricane-force disruption of the advertising market.
The Parliamentarians who had hardly noticed the union campaign ten years earlier began paying attention.
The crisis in local journalism was first documented in depth by Ed Greenspon and the Public Policy Forum of Canada in the 2017 policy paper The Shattered Mirror.
Five years later, the Forum has updated its analysis. In its first chapter, Greenspon and his colleague Katie Davey provide this insightful take on why local news needs saving….
At the onset of the 21st century, new technologies of communication brought about an explosion of information content, public expression and creativity. Novel forms of connectivity crackled into life, changing how communities of interest coalesce and interact almost overnight. From podcasting to pornography, fan fiction to multiplayer online gaming, almost everything across the spectrum of cultural expression underwent a momentous upsurge in output and engagement.
Older models of information and entertainment provision were blindsided. The Eastman Kodak corporation was worth US$31 billion in 1996 and commanded more than two-thirds of the global photography market; by 2012 it had filed for bankruptcy even as photography proliferated and Instagram, Pinterest and Flickr amassed users in the hundreds of millions. The streaming services spelled the end of the dominance of the broadcast networks, but the amount of television content being produced multiplied exponentially. Popular music was disrupted, but what was threatened was an industrial structure of record labels, A&R agents and limited radio airplay — not the music itself, which could now find listeners through platforms from YouTube to TikTok and could be accessed and marketed via services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Soundcloud.
Alone amid this proliferation of media content, one form of information — prosaic but vital to the social good — was orphaned: the day-to-day documentation of community affairs. Which is to say, local news.
Not news per se.
The 21st century media market still rewards certain types of news journalism: those that can scale to find national or international audiences, provide coverage of subject matter that subscribers are willing to pay, or are able to use the pretence of “news coverage” to propagandize for partisan ends.
So, the cable tiers filled with global news channels — Al Jazeera, Euronews, Sky News, France 24, Africanews. The new media environment birthed scores of faux “news” titles trading on current events in order to advance sectarian agendas, such as RT, Breitbart, the Gateway Pundit, the Post Millennial or the Rebel. Outlets emphasizing business coverage (news you can use) — Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times — prospered. And so did legacy properties, such as The New York Times and The Guardian, with the brand and marketing clout to cultivate international readerships.
Local news — focused on ongoing, reliable accounts of the government, civic institutions and people of a municipality or geographic region — was a collateral casualty. In the 20th century, localities were served by publications that both chronicled their affairs and promoted their commerce via display and classified advertising. The advertising was as indispensable to the life of the community as the reportage, perhaps more so in that the advertising paid for the reportage. Local news was therefore an essential part of the fabric of communities, a crucial means by which they knew themselves and therefore functioned as communities rather than merely aggregates of individuals who happened to reside in contiguous space. A community without a way to inform itself about itself is just a population of unempathetic strangers.
Because going further afield raised costs of delivery or rebroadcast, the economics of the old model of news rewarded intensifying within the locality. Digital eliminates the marginal cost of new users altogether and impels news organizations to aim for the greatest scale, regardless of location. News media therefore adjust their mix from local to regional to national to international. The nature of news becomes less unifying (the common interest in a park down the street) and more divisive. Recently, The New Yorker reported on a 2018 paper in the Journal of Communication, which found that local news encouraged people to “think like locals,” and to focus on what they had in common. As sources of local news diminished, the 2018 paper argues that people turned to national news, but national news, particularly in the U.S., encouraged them to think like partisans instead of neighbours and hence contributed to polarization.
Meta (formerly Facebook) and Alphabet (formerly Google) did not set out to exterminate local news journalism. Quite the opposite. The purpose and the business model of Google is to make instant, unlimited information available to its users, and its users amount to almost everyone. When it was founded in 2004, the purpose and the business model of Facebook was “to give people the power to build community.” And yet, at the level of the local — the places where people live — the effect of Google has been to undermine the means of providing people with the information they need, while the effect of Facebook has been to corrode the ties of community, the opposite of its stated aim.
Every community in Canada remains keenly interested in its own local affairs. Google and Facebook did not do away with that interest. But between them, Google and Facebook drained advertising from the news publications for which that interest was both the point and the business model. Local interest in local affairs, by itself, is not enough. Without revenue, there is nothing to underwrite the expense of reliable, responsible reportage. And unlike other forms of content, local news publications can neither scale up nor scale down. What they can do is consolidate, as seen again in the recent acquisition of Brunswick News by Postmedia. Yet in so doing, they become more and more distant from the communities they serve.
Local news simply cannot hunt for bigger readerships without surrendering its local focus. There is an upper limit on the number of people who are interested in what is going on week by week in Esterhazy, Sask., for example, and that limit is generally set by the number of people who live there. Nor are the people of Esterhazy terribly interested in the mayoral election in Antigonish, N.S., or a dispute about school bus routes in Rivière-du-Loup, Que. Every locality is an island of its own parochial issues.
Nor can local newsrooms scale down ad infinitum — that is, continue to reduce their capacity to report on their communities in line with diminishing revenues. In music, one person with talent and a guitar can record the most wonderful songs on their smart phone in the hope of finding a following. Responsible local journalism is not like that. It cannot be done by a single person on the spur of inspiration. It has to be done day after day by people who monitor the deliberations of city council and the courts and the school boards, and who are able to command the confidence of the community they are covering, even when that community is itself divided. It requires a collaboration of talents, from reporting skill to editorial judgment. However modest, it requires a newsroom.
Even in the heyday of 20th century journalism, when newspapers were fat with advertising, most local papers were owned by chains that minimized staff so as to maximize profit. Sterling newspaper chain co-owner David Radler famously testified before the 1980 Royal Commission on Newspapers that his ideal local paper had a “three-man newsroom, and two of them sell ads.” Pared to the bone even in the best of times, local news operations today cannot cut staff without compromising their product to the point of ceasing to exist.
And so many of them have, indeed, ceased to exist.
According to News Media Canada, advertising revenue for community newspapers dropped to CDN$411 million in 2020 from CDN$1.21 billion in 2011. Over that span, almost 300 papers either disappeared or merged with other publications.
Some of these were thin sheets owned by the big news companies, Torstar and Postmedia, and distributed for free in urban areas, but 266 of them were publications that served non-urban communities. The list of dead newspapers reads like a roll call of regional and small-town Canada: the Souris Plaindealer, the Winkler Prairie Farmer, the Lethbridge Sun-Times, the Chilliwack Times, the Sackville Tribune-Post, Le Courrier de Saguenay, on and on. When the Moose Jaw Times-Herald closed in 2017, the paper was 128 years old. The Esterhazy Miner-Journal shut down in 2018 and now exists only as a Facebook page, preserved as a vestigial presence on the platform that inadvertently helped to kill it.
So, we have curiously engineered circumstances in which someone who lives in Esterhazy is awash in information and opinion about everything and everywhere except the place they live. They have access to Al Jazeera and Fox News, Reddit and Joe Rogan, BBC World News and TMZ, but they no longer have a ready, informative, trustworthy local newsroom monitoring the actions of those who exercise political power in their community, and chronicling for the public record what citizens should be attentive to or concerned about in their town, their region. They have, instead, a volunteer Facebook page.
There is nothing wrong with Facebook pages devoted to community issues. The use of the platform to circulate local information and opinion by residents of a community is a welcome development, unless it is hijacked by haters and misinformers. But they are no substitute for sustained, impartial, responsible journalistic attention to civic affairs.
The loss of a shared record of local governance inflicts a pernicious form of social damage, because the vigilance provided by news organizations is crucial to the integrity of democracy.
As much as politicians and governments may resent the intrusive attentions of journalists, all mature democracies recognize that the news media are essential to it, precisely because they’re outside the apparatus of government. Authoritarian societies may exercise power without explanation or justification, but democracies require mechanisms of legitimation, chief among is that the business of government (as well as the governance of business) must not only be seen to be done but to be questioned and contested at every turn. Indeed, even (perhaps especially) the elected are deprived of sight — and voice — when the local news media is gone.
“Democracy dies in darkness,” as the Washington Post’s slogan puts it, but not because — or not only because — a lack of scrutiny allows unscrupulous politicians or business interests to get away with things. Neither is it because without the news media we will no longer have an informed, rational electorate. The electorate has always been spottily, selectively informed, and never completely rational. What matters is whether there is sufficient information in circulation for citizens to come to considered decisions should they wish to make the effort to inform themselves. Darkness imperils democracy because without an ongoing record of public affairs there is nothing for the will of the people to act on. Ignorance of civic affairs leads to disenchantment, disinvestment, and the breakdown of commonweal, which in turn provides space for extreme views divorced from fact and driven by fervor.
The loss of conscientious local journalism manifestly harms the public interest. Across the political spectrum, right to left, everyone would agree that it did no good to the city of Moose Jaw (population 35,000) when the Times-Herald closed in 2017. Hence the policy problem. Surely measures should be taken to correct this sort of thing, or prevent it, or minimize the damage when it happens.
But what measures, exactly? If what has precipitated the problem is a structural reality of the new communication environment, a consequence of technology that cannot be undone, no amount of government intervention can bend the market back into a shape that will make local news profitable again. Nor would one wish public funds to be used to prop up private-sector companies that began as the authors of their own misfortune and may have ended up the distressed assets of hedge funds and speculators for whom every dollar of public subsidy would be swallowed into augmenting the bottom line. Nor should the state be the major benefactor of the very agencies tasked with its impartial scrutiny. If the news media appear beholden to the state, then their independence is compromised along with their utility as instruments of democratic legitimation.
It was in this context that the federal government created and implemented the Local Journalism Initiative in 2018 and 2019, one of several measures to support journalism introduced over two budgets.