The local newspaper used to arrive at my grandmother's house near Annapolis Royal, N.S., shortly after we'd arrived for our summer visit, and we'd fight like savages to read the social notices: "Visiting from Toronto, the Mulvogues' daughter and four grandchildren …" There we were, lodged between the ads for church suppers and Digby scallops, like celebrities from the unutterably glamorous City of Toronto. I'm sure it got me stuck on this whole newspaper thing.
My love of small-town newspapers has continued through the years. At my in-laws' house in rural Ontario, two papers – the Markdale Standard and the Flesherton Advance – competed for attention. Whose tractor was for sale? Which young couple was holding a stag and doe? Someone – young and beaming – had always won a scholarship, and someone else – older and scowling – had created a ruckus at town council. Sewage was sometimes involved.
The Advance soldiers on, but the Standard is gone now. This is the fate of many small papers in this country, shuffling off toward the endangered list with no Jane Goodall to protest their demise. Just this week, the Surrey Leader in Surrey, B.C., announced it was closing after 88 years, and disappearing into an online merger. Those are small or community papers, but the axe has fallen on local coverage at large newspapers, too: 54 employees, 29 of them journalists, are set to be laid off in three weeks at the Vancouver Sun and Province. Will those journalists raise a farewell toast to their Postmedia bosses who'd raked in almost $2.3-million worth of retention bonuses while laying off staff? I somehow doubt it.
Local journalism, whether it's at a city paper or a weekly, a radio or TV station, keeps its community entertained and informed. The National isn't going to send a camera crew to cover the profoundly annoying pothole on Main Street, or the feud between the dress-shop owners, or the cozy relationship between the mayor and the developers. The Globe and Mail is not likely to, either: This is where the country's 1,060 community papers come in – or where they used to. According to a recent report, those papers lost $400-million, or one-third of their revenue, between 2012 and 2015. The Public Policy Forum's recent report on media in Canada, called The Shattered Mirror, contains an even more alarming statistic: "Since 2010, there have been 225 weekly and 27 daily newspapers lost to closure or merger in more than 200 federal ridings." Local television coverage has contracted as well.
"Well, so what?" you might ask. Your neighbourhood has a Facebook page. The mayor has a Twitter account. Except that none of your neighbours is going to sit through a long and boring zoning meeting and report back (unless he is particularly weird). And the mayor's Twitter feed? Undeniably good if you're looking for sunshine and kittens. Not so good for anything she doesn't want you to see. When provincial legislatures and city councils are left unwatched, it also means no one is keeping an eye on the sausage-making machine of democracy.
In 2010, the Guelph Mercury won a National Newspaper Award – its first – for coverage of controversies in the local gravel industry. The next year, the Nanaimo Daily News won in the same category, also the paper's first NNA, for stories about the spread of infection in a hospital. Both newspapers are now gone; they closed on the same day. The Mercury shut its print publication in January, 2016, after 149 years in business. The Nanaimo paper had been around for 141 years.
If you look at the stories that have won Canadian Community Newspaper Awards in the past (this year's prizes will be handed out later this month), you get a sense of what's important to people in those places: stories about mental health and railway safety, hospital closures and opioid addiction. And, yes, kids who win scholarships and veterans who live to be 100.
The Quebec government's new budget has pledged $36-million for newspapers making the transition to digital. Government subsidy is a controversial subject among journalists, who like to remain free to bite the hand that feeds them. The problem of fleeing ad dollars and subscribers won't be settled so easily, either: The industry has struggled with these pains for years. Not-for-profit foundations that run news outlets might be one idea, or hyper-local websites that are crowdsourced by neighbours. In the meantime, Canadians could take a leaf from their American neighbours, who, terrified and/or fascinated by Donald Trump, are subscribing to papers in large numbers. Subscribe to a news outlet. Make one of them the local rag.
Reading the final issue of the Surrey Leader (online, of course), I was struck by the wisdom of one of its writers. In his farewell column, Kevin Diakiw wrote, "Moving forward, you will likely receive your information from the Internet, or newsrooms pared to the bone. Be sure to read not only information that fits your own narrative, but opposing views as well.
"The weighty responsibility of hunting for balance and accuracy now lands largely on your shoulders."
Somebody wise, who just happened to grow up in the town served by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, put it best: You don't know what you've got till it's gone.