Local news is being decimated during one of its most important moments

By Dian Cohen
Local news is being decimated during one of its most important moments
Dian Cohen (Photo : Courtesy)

It’s still too early to say whether the pandemic will be one of the defining events of our time. That knowledge will come only if a vaccine takes years to develop. But right now, it looks like local newspapers will be a casualty. They were struggling before COVID-19 because Facebook and Google were already taking their advertising revenue. But it’s particularly poignant today because in times of crisis, Canadians turn to trusted traditional news sources for information.
A Statistics Canada survey done in early April found that 51 per cent of respondents relied upon local, national and international news outlets as a main source of information about COVID-19. Just under 10 per cent cited social media. Nearly three-quarters of respondents of another poll (74 per cent) said social media platforms like Facebook are less accurate than traditional media.
“Since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, announcements about the closing of local newspapers and widespread cutbacks have proliferated, and apprehension about the future of local journalism has been overtaken by fear-laced discussions peppered with phrases like “Darwinian moment” and “mass extinction,” says April Lindgren, a professor at Ryerson University and principal investigator for the Local News Research Project. She’s responsible for producing an amazing map that tracks news outlets that have closed, reduced service or implemented layoffs, reduced hours or implemented pay cuts since the WHO’s pandemic declaration.
https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=15tAH56mwy12oIGmYVUGqQRsyhrXTqNPs&ll=54.2933729962456%2C-88.99040944999999&z=4
“Just since March 11, 29 newspapers and magazines have cancelled some or all print editions, 82 media organizations have announced layoffs, and at least 2,100 editorial and non-editorial workers have lost their jobs. The community newspaper sector (publications that appear fewer than five times per week) has been hardest hit: 50 papers have closed or temporarily closed for reasons directly attributed to the pandemic,” she says.
Unhappily, there are longer-term consequences, especially for smaller communities. According to research done by Dr. Lindgren and others, the erosion of local news increases political polarization, reduces public input into municipal decision-making, reduces voter turnout, produces better re-election prospects for incumbents. “Local reporting is also integral to democracy because it holds power accountable and builds a sense of community by providing residents with shared knowledge, which fosters empathy and understanding of other perspectives.”
Asked what the solution might be, Dr. Lindgren says “there is no silver bullet to halt, never mind reverse, the decline and disappearance of local newsrooms. Keeping them alive will require a collective effort.”
That collective effort involves changing the behavior of a great many players — news consumers who now hardly ever pay for digital news, philanthropic foundations and government. The federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in April that he is watching how other countries are trying to get companies such as Facebook and Google to pay for the copyrighted content that appears on their online platforms. Says Lindgren, “In many cases, multiple local news organizations all operate on shoestring budgets. It’s time for all these players, as well as local CBC stations and journalism schools, to rethink the hyper-competitive ethos that has characterized the last 100 years and instead explore collaborative models.”
Lindgren’s viewpoint goes against the grain of market purists who would argue that uncompetitive news organizations should be left to wither and die. She says quite rightly that “other values are in play. Canadians need access to timely, reliable independently produced information so they can participate in democratic processes, navigate daily life and make critical decisions during emergencies. For now, anyway, we also need newspapers because despite their enfeebled state, they are still the main source of news in many places.” Amen to that.

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