The newspaper-industry news was not great this week, with Postmedia combining newsrooms in cities where it has two papers, laying off scores of journalists, including Margo Goodhand who was editor of the Edmonton Journal, but better known here as the former editor of the Free Press.

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Opinion

The newspaper-industry news was not great this week, with Postmedia combining newsrooms in cities where it has two papers, laying off scores of journalists, including Margo Goodhand who was editor of the Edmonton Journal, but better known here as the former editor of the Free Press.

Most of the news stories took an angle that went something like this: Beleaguered newspapers hit again.

But I would argue the headlines should have read: Local news coverage hit again.

The real crisis arising out of the massive media disruption of the past decade is communities are losing the journalists who tell people what’s really going on where they live.

We are all drowning in media; so much information everywhere, shared by our friends, aggregated in news feeds and always at our fingertips. What we don’t notice is fewer reporters are covering court cases or digging behind the scenes at city hall. It’s easy to find out about Prince Harry’s latest love and hard to find anything about local school trustees or the latest local theatre production.

Newspapers still do a pretty good job of this. It’s not well-known that local TV broadcasting is in far bigger trouble.

The CRTC begins public hearings next week on local programming and, in a background document, notes that "Canadians sense that there is a weakening of the ecosystem for local news gathering, production and dissemination across all Canadian media."

The current situation is precarious, which is why there should be more public discussion of how local news coverage is supported.

Broadcasters say they lost $73 million providing local news across the country in the fiscal year 2013-14, according to the CRTC. They lost another $41 million in the six months ending in February 2015.

Most newspapers, including the Free Press, continue to make money providing local news. We’re actually better off... for now.

That’s a good thing, because newspapers also continue to be at the base of the local news ecosystem.

The Free Press has the largest reporting staff in the city and covers a wider variety of news and current events with greater depth and consistency than any other media outlet.

We’ve had our cutbacks, but we’ve stubbornly kept reporters in core institutions.

We have a reporter covering the law courts full time and the only reporter covering education full time. Other media show up at the legislature for announcements and events; we keep reporters there to find out what is not being put in press releases.

A lot of this material ends up getting copied and followed in other media — to the chagrin of Free Press reporters — and also forms the basis for endless comment, criticism and sharing in the digital world.

So what happens if the Free Press follows what every other media outlet has done and pulls reporters from this coverage? You might as well ask what happens to a supermarket if there are no farmers.

The current situation is precarious, which is why there should be more public discussion of how local news coverage is supported.

Local merchants used to spend almost all of their marketing money in local media, thus supporting local journalism. Now a lot of those dollars leave communities digitally for American companies such as Google and Facebook.

I believe it’s time to talk about whether there should be public support for basic local news coverage, be it in the form of subsidies or tax credits or something else.

Many other countries do this. France subsidizes newspapers. In Great Britain, the taxpayer-funded BBC recently set up a program to hire local journalists who provide content to local papers as well as the BBC.

In Canada, the CBC provides local programming, but it’s not funded to do comprehensive, community-by-community local coverage, and it shouldn’t be the only voice providing local news — a robust democracy requires a variety of sources of information.

Public support would also help develop new media that do local reporting. New models are popping up, developed by traditional media and many others. But the business models are shaky at best. Giants such as the Huffington Post don’t turn a profit even with hundreds of millions of users. Many local outlets depend on donations.

So let’s change the headline and move the discussion away from the economic health of some newspaper companies to the democratic health of our communities and talk seriously about how we continue to get local news coverage.

 

Bob Cox is the publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press and the chairman of the Canadian Newspaper Association.

 

Bob Cox

Bob Cox
Publisher

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.