Hey, did you guys see that video of the drunk guy singing Bohemian Rhapsody? How about last weekend’s punch-up between Justin Trudeau and Patrick Brazeau? Awesome, right? Though, true, not as awesome as those news stories about pink slime in fast food and crushed bugs in frappuccinos.
In the cultural marketplace that assigns high values to buzzy ephemera through traffic measurement and social-media sharing, there are plenty of reasons for pessimism among those who care about the future of an engaged citizenry. If people can’t even be trusted to pay attention to the issues that directly affect them and their communities – because, frankly, the online parade of bread and circuses is so much more fun – what chance do we have of changing what ails us?
But maybe there are reasons for optimism. And maybe, unlike most trends, they can be found in some of Canada’s small towns.
When the Newspaper Audience Databank (a.k.a. NADbank) issued its 2011 study of Canadian readership last week, Charlottetown, Cape Breton and Brandon, Man., snagged a glorious place in the sun. For those three communities ranked tops in total readership: 91 per cent of Charlottetown’s and Cape Breton’s adults (18+) had read the print or Web edition of a newspaper on a weekly basis, and 89 per cent of Brandon’s adults had done the same. Peterborough was a close fourth, with 88 per cent readership.
Vancouver, meanwhile, clocked in at 80-per-cent weekly readership; Montreal at 76 per cent; and Toronto at 75 per cent.
And what did readers tell NADbank they were interested in? Ninety per cent said they read papers for local coverage. Only 55 per cent turned to papers for sports coverage or business coverage. (I should note that “pink slime” was not on the list of options; NADbank might consider adding it to next year’s survey.)
That yen for local news plays to the strengths of the papers in those communities, where they have strong brands and little competition from the Internet.
So, sure, you urbanites, turn up your nose, but the Brandon Sun recognizes that its readers want stable-to-stable coverage of the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair when it comes to town every year. Which is why the paper assigned one reporter (out of a newsroom of fewer than 20) to cover the fair full-time last week and played its coverage on Page 1 or Page 3 every single day. “We had an editorial talking about the success of the Fair,” the publisher Eric Lawson told me this week. “We also had a lot of photo coverage. We were able to provide a lot of coverage of young people who were involved in the event – so of course their parents want to see the paper.”
But this isn’t just a story about farm animals in the city. Because it may turn out that the Sun and its small-town brethren could form a case study in the binding cultural role that media play.
In big cities, it can be hard to properly measure the effect that media organizations have on the community. “Here in Toronto, we’re breathing our local news every day, and there are a whole bunch of places to get it,” noted Anne Crassweller, the president of NADbank, when I spoke with her.
Brandon is in the midst of trying to convince WestJet to bring regular scheduled passenger-jet service to the city. The Sun joined the campaign, publishing both an editorial and a string of news stories about the city’s efforts. And it placed a link on its website to an online petition for the effort: The petition recently passed 10,000 signatures, an impressive achievement for a city of only about 50,000.
Lawson moved to Brandon last September after a career in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. “People said to me, ‘Gosh, you must find the Prairies really different,’ and in all honesty, I don’t,” he said. “I find it very similar in the sense that, places I’ve worked before, and here, have deeply rooted senses of community, and the newspaper needs to be connected to that sense of community.”
Newspaper executives in the big cities are now hoping to connect in the same way to the country’s smaller towns. Last month, Quebecor-owned Sun Media announced plans to convert its shopper weeklies in Ottawa, Windsor, Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph into papers with editorial content, while Toronto-based Torstar is launching commuter papers in Saskatoon and Regina (with digital-only commuter publications for Kitchener, Hamilton, Windsor and Victoria).
And, of course, there are some built-in advantages for the small-town media. “I can hit a button and call up any number of national papers,” said Gary MacDougall, the managing editor of the Charlottetown Guardian. “But there’s only so many buttons I can press to get Prince Edward Island news. And we realize that, and we realize that’s our mandate.”