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The CBC - its logo projected onto a screen at the Mattamy Centre in Toronto on May 29, 2019 - announced it would temporarily cancel most of its local TV newscasts in response to the COVID-19 crisis.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Local news has been disappearing in Canada at an alarming rate for years, but the pandemic has accelerated that trend even though readership is up. Ad revenue has dropped, and dozens more outlets have closed.

Since 2008, 335 local news outlets have closed, including more than 250 community and daily newspapers, according to the Local News Research Project and its lead, Ryerson University journalism professor April Lindgren.

And in the first two months of the pandemic, 52 outlets, mostly community papers, have temporarily or permanently closed. That number doesn’t include the scores of job losses, pay cuts, reduced number of shows and cuts to content in broadcast, digital and print media.

According to a recent article by Prof. Lindgren, these cuts and losses mean there are fewer people holding power accountable and fewer outlets for empathy and engagement in communities. In a recent article in Policy Options, she points to U.S. research that has linked the “loss of access to local news to increased political polarization, reduced public input into municipal decision-making, drops in voter turnout, better re-election prospects for incumbents, and the emergence of hyper-partisan websites masquerading as straight news.”

In addition to reports on the biggest public-health crisis in a generation, has there been a more important time for fact-checked news on economic disruption, massive job losses, intense scrutiny of policing and huge demonstrations for racial justice?

You are seeing the national and international picture, but the absence of local news leaves a hole. You saw a particularly egregious case earlier this month. Federal MP Marwan Tabbara was arrested over the Easter weekend on charges that he broke into a home he had stalked and assaulted a man and woman inside, but no one knew for weeks – not until the story was broken by National Post reporters Adrian Humphreys and Brian Platt. The Guelph Police Service made no public announcement and didn’t even tell the Prime Minister’s Office. The local paper, The Guelph Mercury, closed more than four years ago, and while an online product remains, it has a small staff and no regular police reporter.

It’s not just the cuts to local news. A lack of transparency is further exacerbated in Canada by a less-than-open police and courts system. It’s well known within media circles that if a story overlaps Canadian and U.S. authorities, Americans are quite willing to offer information, while Canadians hide behind an old conversation stopper: “It’s before the courts.” This Canadian institutional tendency to favour secrecy is apparent in health care and pandemic statistics as well.

Robyn Urback wrote about this earlier this month. She said: “This is a distinctly Canadian feature of law enforcement – one of inexplicable opaqueness and secrecy essentially by default. On record collection, record-keeping and disclosure, Canada lags behind other developed countries on everything from racial data to use of force to sexual assault tracking, to tracing guns used in crimes. Data usually has to be specifically requested by journalists, though it is only sometimes provided.”

The trick in reporting is getting that initial tip, and that generally takes beat reporters who have contacts within the police or government who trust them.

There are heroic local news reporters and editors who will put a lot of resources into prying necessary public service information out of the authorities. Take, for example, Randy Richmond, who this year won the National Newspaper Awards’ Journalist of the Year for his work on policing. His six-part series We Are the Cops examined the arrest of a woman who was assaulted by an officer at police headquarters and the fallout that ensued.

Here are just some of the issues raised in the We Are the Cops investigation: “The culture in the London police service that allowed the assault to occur and be covered up. London police policies and rules for reporting misconduct by colleagues. Training for officers in mental health and addictions awareness and de-escalation techniques. … The inability of hospital staff in Ontario to recognize and report suspected police abuse and the reluctance of the Middlesex Crown’s office to obtain relevant evidence in a case involving local police.”

What is the likelihood that type of problem exists in many other communities in Canada where there are not enough resources to investigate and hold the police and other institutions accountable? So what can be done? While governments and social-media giants can help, it starts with civic-minded Canadians who understand they need to subscribe to support journalism.

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