Local News: Connective Tissue That Holds A Community Together

As local newspapers across Canada are being downsized or shut down and the discussion increasingly turns to addressing the growing problem of fake news (indeed, the U.S. President calls any information he doesn’t like “fake”), there are still local newspapers valiantly determined to inform their communities and to speak truth to power. 

One of those small papers is Fort McMurray Today, which has a dedicated news team of four – three reporters and managing editor Olivia Condon who serve a community of about 70,000. Happily, it was recognized earlier in May at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards (NNA), one of the most prestigious news awards in the country, for its breaking news coverage last year of a fire so severe the entire population had to leave town for a month.  No lives were lost in the fire, which was nicknamed “The Monster.”  

“We didn’t miss a day [of publication]. I’m proud of that. We handled ourselves well both professionally and personally in a trying time,” Condon recalled in a recent interview, adding that hits on the paper’s online Facebook site went from 30,000 to two million within a week.  

How did she do it?

“Your mind must narrow and focus on the specific goal. Team work was most important. You have to get up and get to work to get the paper out as quickly and as accurately as possible. Then you have to wake up the next day and do it all over again.  That went on for a month,” said Condon, adding that the paper -  20,000 issues -  being delivered to evacuation centres were snapped up by readers hungry for information.

While Condon went to Edmonton, 420 kilometres south, to co-ordinate the coverage, her three reporters, Vincent McDermott, Rob Murray and Cullen Bird, were on the ground in Fort McMurray and area talking to emergency workers, “speaking to residents, taking photos and struggling with erratic internet and phone connections” and “hoping to God something got through.

“We were lucky to find a decent Wi-Fi connection in Conklin,” which is just south of Fort McMurray, said Condon, who vividly remembers when the evacuation order came from the town’s mayor via Twitter at 6.30 p.m. on May 3. The roads were so clogged it took her 2.5 hours to complete her usual 15-minute drive home to retrieve her two cats.

But the paper published May 4 with a double-page spread by reporter McDermott, and that was the beginning of one of the most dramatic stories the community, which is now rebuilding some of the 1,900 homes that were lost, has ever experienced.  “The fire changed the way we see ourselves as a community.”

Condon said having a trusted media outlet that had been in the community for generations was an invaluable asset to residents. “I like to think they get information that matters to them and their lives” in a way that can’t be duplicated by a wire service. “Our main focus is stories that matter to the community,” she said, adding that the small size of the editorial staff means they must be selective about what gets covered.

Gagandeep Ghuman, who founded and runs The Squamish Reporter in British Columbia, also publishes stories that matter to his readers. While many local newspapers are facing cutbacks – or extinction – Ghuman’s paper, which began as a blog about civic issues back in 2010, is so popular with readers it now includes a print edition.

“It was tough for the first few months. I used to wonder what the hell am I doing here,” said Ghuman, a graduate of Ryerson University’s Master’s of Journalism program, who worked doing odd jobs until his online news site, which was followed by the print edition, got off the ground.  In addition to an online presence, his paper now has a print run of 4,000 to 5,000 copies, which are snapped up at outlets around Squamish, a town of about 20,000.

Ghuman says he’s always been drawn to local news, which is not a tradition in India where he grew up.  “The irony is that we are well-versed in national and provincial news – Trump, Trudeau – the market is saturated” with those stories, he said. “But often people don’t know what’s happening in their own backyards, or in their own neighbourhoods.  Community news is news that matters to you, to your neighbours.

“It’s the connective tissue that binds a community together,” said Ghuman, who has a regular “Good Samaritan” feature that highlights the work of residents who, ordinarily, mightn’t be in the news.  “It’s about spreading positivity,” said Ghuman, who is also fearless when it comes to reporting council issues or problems. “I just received a call from someone with a tip yesterday.”

He says local news is about “spreading positive – and empowering – news about the community.  It allows people to feel connected, valued,” as well as informed about the decisions their councillors are, or are not, making. His controversial stories about the local fire department not only received dramatic local response, but he was nominated in 2011 for an investigative journalism award by the Canadian Association of Journalists.

“The shoe-leather model of reporting survives here,” said Ghuman, adding that his readers are not statistics on a clock that records the number of hits an online story gets. “They stop me on the street, they call me with news tips – and that’s very satisfying.”

Given the problems facing local newspapers in today’s climate, Ghuman’s advice to journalism schools across Canada is to offer more courses in entrepreneurship and starting a business so that up-and-coming journalists can be braver and more ambitious about starting their own publications in communities where they are now non-existent or where advertorial papers masquerade as “newspapers.”

Ghuman isn’t the only journalist who finds local news satisfying.

“I love this paper. It’s such a great place to work,” says Jenn Watt, who oversees publication of Ontario’s Haliburton Echo, as well as The Minden Times and Bancroft This Week. “Does that sound cheesy?”

Watt, also a graduate of Ryerson’s Master’s program, has worked for the papers for the past 10 years. The Echo, which took third place this year for overall best community paper in Canada in its circulation range, not only covers daily events and council decisions –“without it, there’s so many things readers wouldn’t know about” – it also records “the history of the place.”  Watt said the local museum has copies of the paper dating back to 1884 when the Echo launched.

Like Ghuman, Watt is not governed by a chain, but an independent publisher, who bought the paper in 2014, and gave her and her staff, the freedom to do what they think is in readers’ best interest.  

One small example. The paper was able to change the formerly prescribed font size in the classified ads to larger type, making it easier for people to read.  And the formerly standard template for the front page has been discarded, allowing it to be designed in a way that does the most justice to the stories being published.

Watt describes the small cadre of journalists who work at the papers as strongly “committed,” adding that reporters covering the flooding in Minden this month were out covering the story daily, as well as sending her text messages: “I’m shivering in the cold,” and “It’s freezing here.”

Unfortunately, these three examples of local news publications are not representative of many Canadian communities, such as Guelph, Ontario, where the local newspaper has either been shut down or cut back dramatically.

To highlight the extent of the “news poverty” problem, Ryerson’s Journalism Research Centre has organized a conference June 3-4 to raise awareness of the problem and examine this troubling issue in more depth. Details can be found at http://localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca/