Dave Bidini is the publisher of the West End Phoenix, a monthly community newspaper in west-end Toronto.
Say the names: The Meaford Express, Brant News, Orillia Packet and Times, Norfolk News, Barrie Examiner, Northumberland Today, Fort Erie Times. Just a few days ago, they were newspapers with working newsrooms, old coffee machines, towers of Styrofoam cups, cabinets feathered with Post-it notes and stacks of press releases and council notices crowding desks hiding the figures of working reporters punching keyboards in between hours covering municipal chambers, Rotary luncheons, who won bronze in the sack race and every measure of life in Canada's postage-stamp counties, which is most of Canada. Today, however, many of those newsrooms and reporters are gone. The coffee is dripless and the towers bent. Only the stamp remains.
On Monday, two media monoliths – Torstar and Postmedia – traded 41 local newspaper properties before eviscerating most of them, gutting small presses from across Canada, but mostly Ontario. Hundreds of jobs were lost, including men and women who'd devoted themselves to reporting the nature of business and politics, sport and art, in their communities, the kind of important micro-writing that "you stick with tape to your fridge until it falls off," which is something that Bruce Valpy, publisher of the Yellowknifer in the Northwest Territories, liked to say about the metric of success. This is also the kind of writing that holds polluters and developers accountable in small towns. In large swatches, it is no more.
Some have suggested that these horrible closures, this destruction of localized journalism, is the product of a dystopian force working to ease the passageway of elements destructive to our greater society. But I think it's more perfunctory than that. These days, newspaper chains such as Postmedia and Torstar don't know how to do much short of hacking and slashing at themselves, tearing off limbs to keep the rest of the body alive.
What's so sad, beyond people's loss of income and vocation – and perhaps what cuts at the heart of Canada's spiritual centre – is that what happened Monday did not occur in big cities where out-of-work writers can walk enormous stretches of pavement with help-wanted signs in the window, write ad copy and communication jargon in the interim, or start a blog and hope their dot-com friend buys a banner ad. This happened in small-town Canada, where I fear a different kind of poison has leaked from the wound. Not only are several hundred excellent writers, editors, copy editors, photographers and graphic designers out of work, but so are young writers who learn to become adult writers at places such as the Quinte West News, Frontenac Gazette and St. Marys Journal Argus (say the names). One of the things I observed while working at the Yellowknifer was how journalists of tomorrow found their voice in places not named the Star, Post or Globe. Not only are we denied having local newspapers trained on local government activity, but breeding grounds for aspiring Leacocks and Callwoods are now bereft. Postmedia and Torstar might have saved themselves a month, a year, a quarter. But the present is simply the past without a future.
The death of local journalism reflects the paucity of ideas at top-level Canadian newspapers. For instance, broadsheets and tabloids in smaller communities (although a paper like the now-defunct Barrie Examiner is large by most Canadian standards) were never offered back to their employees to run. There was never an attempt to solicit local donor support or launch a vanguard to win new sponsorship in their respective communities. One day, they existed, the next they were traded between Godzillas, and the next they were pawed aside like an old plaything. It's the kind of solution the traditional industry knows: Starve the body while maintaining the weight of the head, feeding millions of dollars toward whatever dark financial beasts need to be fed. Which is hardly a solution at all.
The thing is, many local newspapers didn't have to die. Why weren't their operations refocused, reinvented, reimagined? People have asked where we got the inspiration to start the West End Phoenix – which is by no means a success after only two issues – and I tell them that I asked people, hundreds of them, in Toronto's west end about whether they support the kind of thing we wanted to do. We cracked ideas, formed a sense of how it could work – non-profit, ad-free, monthly and 30-inches across – and away we went; independent, free and terrified, but not beholden to a beast that might crush us if tipped. Perhaps that's the saddest thing here. The local papers were ignored and left to die. The soul of local, small-town journalism in our country is being laid to waste because there are few good ideas about how to make a paper. Without anyone to cover the story, nobody would know even if there were.