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Jessica Wallace at her home in Kamloops, B.C. on Feb. 17.Marissa Tiel/The Globe and Mail

On a warm Ottawa day last June, reporter Jessica Wallace cozied up to Governor-General Mary Simon in Rideau Hall for a celebratory photo.

She smiled and held up a plaque recognizing her employer, Kamloops This Week, as a finalist for the Michener Award, Canada’s top journalism honour.

Today, when Ms. Wallace thinks of that photo, the smiles are gone. “What did it mean?” she says. “Did anyone care? They still closed us down.”

On Oct. 25, Kamloops This Week published its final issue. It’s one of at least 36 local news outlets in Canada to close in 2023, according to the Local News Research Project. Since 2008, 518 news outlets have shuttered. Community papers, defined as publishing fewer than five times a week, make up 77 per cent of that total.

With layoff notices piling up at Bell Media, CBC, Metroland community newspapers and countless other outlets of late, hundreds of journalists are now contemplating their next move.

Although their effort ultimately failed, the Kamloops This Week story is unique among recent media obituaries. Like so many other laid-off newsrooms, employees were angry and demoralized. Unlike many, they channelled that disaffection into an attempt to start their own paper.

As media chains continue closing small-market newsrooms, local ownership, as opposed to corporate chain control, stands as one the few counters to a disturbing trend creating vast news deserts across the country.

One of the models for local media ownership comes from an unlikely source. In 2008, the U.S. owners of Harmac pulp and paper mill, just outside of Nanaimo, B.C., went bankrupt, putting 530 locals out of work.

The staff banded together with three investors to buy the 60-year-old mill. Some 230 employees contributed $25,000 each toward the $13.2-million price tag. Industry observers gave it six months. Sixteen years later, it’s still humming, employing 340 full-time workers.

The next year, workers at CHEK, a television station just down the Island Highway in Victoria, borrowed the Harmac model. When their owner, Canwest, put the station up for sale and issued layoff notices, the employees organized to buy the company, each worker putting up $15,000.

Since then, the employee-owned station has more than doubled its original staff of 35. While Canwest treated the station’s news programming as a financial drain, the new CHEK regards it as core to the company’s mandate.

“We’re doing more local programming than probably any station of this size in Canada,” said Rob Germain, general manager of CHEK Media Group, who has encouraged countless corporate-owned outlets to follow the CHEK lead.

Staff at the Prince Albert Daily Herald in Saskatchewan made a similar move in 2018, buying the paper for an undisclosed amount.

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Jessica Wallace used to be a reporter at the now defunct newspaper Kamloops This Week.Marissa Tiel/The Globe and Mail

Smaller-scale models are emerging as well. When Vancouver-based media chain Glacier Media closed the Dawson Creek Mirror last October, editor and reporter Rob Brown had a new publication, This Week in Dawson Creek, up and running within a week. It’s a one-man shop: He writes, edits, sells ads, delivers copies.

“I see the value in community news,” he said. “For instance, it’s budget season. I’ve been looking at operational and capital budgets for 25 years as a journalist and I can break that down for readers.”

When Ms. Wallace and the Kamloops This Week team learned of the paper’s imminent closure, they turned to the CHEK model.

The paper’s editor, Christopher Foulds, spearheaded the effort. He wasn’t sure a new paper was viable until consulting Randy Blair, president of the Black Press media chain, who told him that Kamloops’s population of roughly 105,000, along with the $3.4-million in annual revenues that Kamloops This Week was pulling in, suggested a healthy newspaper market.

He drafted some numbers with Mr. Blair and a local businessman. They would need $600,000 to run the operation for two or three months before advertising revenue trickled in. A few locals agreed to invest $120,000 apiece. Mr. Foulds and his wife pledged the same amount, a significant sum for a career journalist. “It was a serious, serious risk,” he said.

Ms. Wallace promised a portion of her severance cheque.

It wouldn’t have been her first financial sacrifice for the job. Like many journalists, she came up through a series of sub-$30,000-a-year jobs. At times, she had to borrow money just to fill her gas tank.

For the paper’s Michener-winning work, she spent countless hours deciphering spreadsheets of questionable spending at the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (TNRD). The paper’s investigative series focused on the lavish spending under the former chief administrative officer Sukh Gill, who left the regional district abruptly in 2020 with a $500,000 severance package. The reporting prompted an RCMP investigation and forensic audit that cost another $500,000. The Mounties uncovered irregular financial practices, but no clear evidence of criminality.

Ms. Wallace, by contrast, was earning $23 an hour – $2 more than what’s considered the living wage in Kamloops.

Mr. Foulds secured the $600,000 and incorporated a new company. Kelly Hall, a city councillor and former publisher of Kamloops This Week, agreed to come aboard in his old role for a year. A skeleton crew of three reporters and three salespeople signed on. Everything was falling into place. They even had a name – the Phoenix – and a launch date of Feb. 8.

Then came a compensation dispute that would kill the dream – and serve as an example that local ownership isn’t a panacea. The model relied on experienced salespeople with extensive local contacts to drive ad revenue. But when Mr. Hall met with the sales staff, he says he was “dumbfounded” by their pay demands. “The business model just didn’t support what they wanted,” he said.

The local news site Castanet broke news of the Phoenix’s failure to launch on Feb. 6. Without any certainty that the Phoenix, or something like it, will rise again, Mr. Foulds – the dynamo behind the effort – has decided to move on, taking a health communications job.

“You can feel the loss all over town,” Mr. Hall said. “Businesses can’t get their marketing out. I was talking with some seniors who want to know where they can go for obituaries.”

Plus, there would be no paper to cover the city’s relentless news cycle, including summer wildfires, probable unmarked graves around the former Kamloops residential school, dysfunction at city hall, an 11-per-cent property-tax hike.

There are other outlets – a CBC outpost, several radio stations and online offerings from Castanet (owned by Glacier Media), and a new community-funded outlet called The Wren.

Ms. Wallace admires their work but believes the city is missing the impact of a deeply reported front-page story. “There’s so much posted on the web, they are all just trying to cover so much and do so much,” she said.

She has a maternity leave and severance that will last until the fall. Beyond that, her path, like that of the industry she loves, is unknown.

“I believe in it,” she says of community journalism, “and I care about the city, so what do I do now?”

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