About ten years ago I was working in Calgary for City TV as a cameraman alongside veteran reporter Mike McCourt. One day we left City Hall after a press conference and I was thinking about the pointlessness of having so many media outlets attending the same event and reporting the same news to the same disinterested public. As Mike took a cigarette break in the truck I told him that in the future reporters and cameramen won’t be needed because “City Hall can just make their own video and release it straight onto the Internet.” Mike laughed and replied, “We’ll always need reporters, because people will always need to be provided with context!” A few years later he retired, and today the station has no reporters, just a couple of cameramen who get footage to illustrate stories read by an anchor in the studio.
There’s been a lot of angst about the accelerating decline and fall of local newspapers in Canada, including some venerable titles like the Guelph Mercury and Nanaimo Daily News, and even the weekday version of Montreal’s La Presse. But local television news is shrinking too. A report from the Friends of Canadian Broadcasting last year warned that half of all local television stations could be off the air by 2020. Industry-wide revenues have dropped 25 percent since 2010 and ratings have been in a tailspin. For example, CTV-owned CFCN in Calgary, opened in 1960 as Canada’s first private television station, has dominated local news ratings for generations. In the early 1990s it routinely attracted as many as 200,000 viewers to its evening newcasts. But in the first week of January this year, according to national ratings tracker Numeris, the CFCN six-o’clock news garnered about 72,000 viewers. Where will the decline stop? Will the decline stop?
These kind of questions are among the reasons federal Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly launched national consultations last year about “Canadian Content in a Digital World”. It’s not the first time Ottawa has fretted about a “crisis” in the Canadian news media. The Davey and Kent Commissions ploughed that ground in the 1970s and 1980s, although in those days the main worry was concentration of media ownership – too much control of news and information in the hands of too few. Today we have the exact opposite problem. Thanks to the Internet, a tornado of global information and communication is tearing across the Canadian landscape, leaving much of the traditional media infrastructure in ruins. This is creating an ironic problem, in that never before have so many people had so much information available at their fingertips, yet the lack of local news is becoming epidemic.
Local news in freefall
April Lindgren, founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, recently launched the Local News Research Project website. It includes an interactive crowd-sourced map to track local media developments across Canada. Most of the updates these days are about budget cuts, staff layoffs and closures. “We’re seeing some disturbing trends,” Lindgren says. “The last time we updated the map was January 3rd, and there were 305 markers on the map and of those, 171 were related to closures.”
According to the research, local media closures are outpacing new start-ups by a 3 to 1 ratio. More and more communities are finding themselves without a television or radio station or newspaper. Brampton, Ontario for example is a city of 500,000 people, the ninth largest in Canada. It has no local TV or radio station and only one community newspaper that publishes just three times a week.
This sort of local news poverty has ominous implications for Canadian culture and democracy. The Burkean concept of a healthy society built on strong local community foundations is undermined if people who live in the community are disengaged from and uninformed about local matters. When knowledge of current events is dominated by national or international news, people will be less likely to know or care about civic issues. They may come to identify less with their geographic community, more with their ethnic or religious community. Lindgren studied the amount of news coverage that local candidates received during the 2015 federal election and found that many scarcely made news at all. Thus, news poverty not only has many causes, but also many effects, including on our democracy. One need only look at pathetic voter turnouts for most municipal elections to see where further weakening of local news could lead.
In theory, social media could be an effective platform for the transmission of local news. Many local journalists and activists certainly try to promote their stories and causes on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere. But they’re not getting a lot of traction, according to Dr. Jaigris Hodson, a professor and researcher at Royal Roads University. Hodson worked with Lindgren on the Local News Research Project and is analyzing the social media aspect of local news. Younger people tend to get their news, including some local news, from social media platforms like Facebook or Reddit, she says. But local news barely registers on Twitter, an important journalistic tool where Justin Trudeau posts selfies and Donald Trump announces executive orders. “We are seeing quite a few local journalists on Twitter,” Hodson says. “But none of their messages are going very far. National news outlets seem to have more impact, but local outlets don’t get mentioned or retweeted at all.”
Canadians are already heavy users of social media and according to the American Press Institute, a majority of Americans now get their news primarily from social media platforms. The trend will probably continue in both countries, judging from studies such as the Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Its data shows that the younger someone is, the less they follow traditional media consumption patterns, which suggests the demand for legacy media, and especially local legacy media, has nowhere to go but down.
Maybe their demise will create opportunities for new digital news start-ups to tap underserved local markets. There’s some international evidence that new models of media financing, such as crowdfunding, are spawning new forms of journalism. But there’s not much indication of that happening in Canada so far, Lindgren reports. “Placing all our hopes on online digital-first news sites to step in and pick up the slack from the loss of traditional news organizations is a bit of a mug’s game, because the map only highlights the launch of 18 digital news sites. They’re not springing up like wildflowers to fill in the gaps.”
Indeed, the gaps are only getting bigger. Another big threat to television news, both local and national, are the cable cutters. Over the Christmas holidays the chatter at a family dinner alighted on Netflix shows and cable costs. I mentioned a digital box I’d heard of called Raspberry Pi that gets you everything for free. Without missing a beat, a relative opened his wallet and handed me a card of a guy he knows that can sell me one. Avoiding cable bills and pirating content is becoming as de rigueur for hipster scofflaws as soon-to-be-legalized marijuana used to be. In 2013, according to the CRTC, Canadian cable television subscriptions fell by 13,000. In 2014, the numbers of cutters breached 100,000. In 2015, that number hit 157,000. Last year’s total is expected to be near 200,000. If cable goes, some national and international news producers will be big enough to manage the transition to the Internet. But where does that leave your local TV station, other than holding a worthless CRTC licence? What replaces the six o’clock news?
The new virtual coffee shop
Rebecca Tomasir is a real estate agent in Chestermere, Alberta, a fast-growing bedroom community of about 20,000 just outside Calgary. In response to the barrage of enquries she gets about the community from prospective outside home buyers, she created a Facebook group called “I Love Chestermere”. It currently has an astonishing 12,659 members, which is half again as many subscribers as the local weekly newspaper has, and it functions as a premier source for local news and information. It’s user-supplied content includes information about upcoming events, complaints about roads, news about civic politics and amateur sports, photographs from around the local area, classified ads, weather, and some commercial advertising. And it’s interactive, which allows for real-time information sharing. “I Love Chestermere” has evolved from a community bulletin board into a full fledged local news provider. “A couple of years ago during the Chestermere floods the mayor contacted us with emergency info that she asked us to share, because she knew I Love Chestermere was the best way to get the word out,” Tomasir recalls. “We’re kind of turning into news by accident. This might be the new trend. It’s less biased, because it’s by the people and for the people. We’ve got 13,000 different viewpoints.”
It’s too early to tell and perhaps too much to hope that “I Love Chestermere” is the prototype for the digital local news channel of the future. Maybe this is where Minister Joly and the CRTC and the machinery of government can play a role. Dr. Hodson believes it must if Canadians are to get the information they need rather than the information that’s simply most popular. Algorithms designed to optimize Facebook’s commercial objectives can be just as much of a censor or gatekeeper as the closed-minded or tight-fisted publishers and broadcasters of yore. “These (social media platforms) aren’t just technology companies,” she stated. “They are now functioning like media companies and as such they have a role to play in the stories that make up our national identities. The hand of the market won’t guide this, but I’m hopeful that the right policy will allow social media and journalism to work together.”
No News is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse, and What Comes Next, by former Canadian newspaper and television journalist Ian Gill, is a 2016 book about the tectonic forces shaking up the Canadian media landscape. It includes examples and recommendations for new business models and policy that could make a new media/traditional media hybrid financially sustainable. Paywalls, crowd-funding, micro-payments, native advertising, co-operatives, charity: so far none of these have proven themselves as templates for the digital equivalent of the New York Times or CNN, much less the online successor to your local newspaper or TV station. Still, Gill has unearthed some promising models.
De Correspondent is cited as a Dutch example of successful crowdfunding. It appeals to subscribers as an online deep-journalism hub, free of advertising and its inhibitions. With 40,000 subscribers paying around $100 Canadian a year, this model offers promise for local news. If just 40,000 “news poor” citizens in, say, Brampton, were willing to pay just $10 a year, that could buy them a lot of quality local journalism, delivered via cheap, existing social media infrastructure. There’s no reason a YouTube channel couldn’t function as a local video news station.
ProPublica is an American online journalism site that utilizes a philanthropic model for funding. Registered as a non-profit, ProPublica does impressive investigative and advocacy work and has a long list of awards to its name. Canadian web publications that aspire to this kind of journalism and success include British Columbia’s leftist Tyee Solutions Society and The Walrus (which also sells print subscriptions).
Among the policy recommendations now percolating in Canada are more generous tax credits for donors to publications, and looser content rules for those publications that would allow them to be more partisan and political than is allowed under current charitable regulations. The objection, of course, is that taxpayers should not have to directly or indirectly subsidize journalism they don’t like. Still, if the playing field were level, and the alternative is the end of Canadians telling their local and national stories to each other, the political will might be found to tweak the rules.
Funding high-quality journalism for local communities is going to require much more dynamic and varied funding models than those which prevailed in the 20th century. The flexibility, utility, immediacy and engagement of social media trumps all other traditional competitors, but the medium is not especially friendly to local news, issues and events. Successfully marketing the journalistic context that Mike McCourt declared essential all those years back will only come with more journalistic enterprise and imagination than Canadians have been provided by their traditional media in quite some time.