Local news poverty

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In the past week, CBC radio have had two programs dealing with what has come to be called Local News Poverty. The idea is that so many local newspapers have been bought out by corporations, such as Metroland and Postmedia, that coverage of local news and events has been sharply curtailed. The sensitivity of corporate boards has certainly resulted in an unwillingness on the part of many editors to cover controversial or politically sensitive issues. In a recent article in the Ottawa Citizen, the situation was described this way:

“Consider Postmedia, the biggest newspaper chain in the country. It is largely owned by an American hedge fund, which regularly drains the member newspapers’ dwindling profits at a handsome interest rate as their newsrooms are merged and hollowed out to cut costs, and editorial direction is dictated from corporate headquarters.” [Citizen, Feb. 7]

Corporations are all about profit, and anything which threatens revenues, especially anything that might be considered “political”, or “biased”, is shunned out of fear. In a recent talk to the Carleton School of Journalism, Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, noted that: “In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone.”

April Lindgren, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, said in an article on CBC.ca that truly local media are essential to the well being of a community: “The very presence of local media watching, research seems to suggest, acts as a check on political shenanigans. If a community doesn’t have a local newspaper or station, it usually means little to no coverage of things such as council meetings. Even if you don’t agree with how a debate is covered, there’s great value in the mere fact it is covered. Just the fact that there’s somebody at the city council writing a story about what happened informs citizens and at least lets them know what’s on the agenda in their community.”

That is why local media, particularly print media, is so important. When this paper started publishing three years ago, there was almost no coverage of local events, and political reporting was devoid of any insight or incisiveness. Anyone can see that, as the months went by, this gradually changed as both newspapers available in North Grenville competed to provide more local news. That is a sign of a healthy media environment. The fact is that people want to know what’s happening in their community; they want local information, to be kept informed, and, yes, to have something to disagree with at times too.

What is the alternative? Larger papers, like the Citizen, or even the Brockville Recorder, will not cover municipal government in North Grenville, or Merrickville-Wolford. They will not report on local events, issues, or controversies. The NG Times has always believed that a community should have a forum in which residents can talk to each other, especially when there is disagreement or alternatives that need publicising.

Diana Fisher, of Juice FM has said that: “Local news is going the way of the Dodo bird in terms of print publications. It’s all going to be on-line eventually.” But I don’t believe that is the case. Online sources, blogs, Facebook, and even local radio in North Grenville, are not designed to do the job of print media. Newspapers are answerable to readers, advertisers, and in day-to-day contact with the public. Getting facts wrong consistently, or failing to allow a hearing to divergent points of view, will undermine our credibility and finish us as a business. The market place will judge.

Juice FM has a role to play, but the terms of its licence from the CRTC limit it in what it can do in covering news. Interviews are confined to a few minutes, panel discussions or phone-ins are not allowed. Online commentators or Facebook posters can be freer in what they say, because they don’t have to answer for their accuracy. Print media cannot be allowed to become extinct, because it can still be the most responsible, the most in-depth form of reporting we have. As long as everyone has a voice in our pages, we can speak freely to each other and find a common identity as residents of this community.

There is, I honestly believe, no local news poverty in North Grenville or Merrickville-Wolford, as long as we have newspapers who spark off each other, spur each other on to be their best and provide the most complete service to their readers. As we continue to increase our population, and as the issues affecting us continue to grow more complex, the need and the ability to be able to communicate with each other increases also. That is the job of a free and independent press.

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