By Trevor Busch & Nikki Jamieson
Not unlike many industries impacted by the global pandemic in 2020, weekly newspapers in southern Alberta have been struggling against adversity to maintain the vital role they play in their various communities.
But while Canada’s entire economy was walloped by COVID-19, traditional print media had already been transitioning through a long period of decline largely stemming from an exodus of advertising that has been swallowed up by online media giants like Facebook and Google. When viral fears locked down the nation’s economy in early 2020, struggling weeklies in small communities throughout Alberta have been met with unprecedented challenges, and in many cases, threats to their very survival.
“Community newspapers are the linchpins of local democracy,” said Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association (AWNA) executive director Dennis Merrell. “Many folks may not see it that way, but who will ensure that town and rural councils are held accountable if not the local paper? Community newspapers are still read by 80-85 per cent of residents in the communities they serve, so we need to remind people of that, and frequently point out that our newspapers are in most cases the sole source of reliable information on what’s going on in the community.”
In southern Alberta’s rural communities, venues like the weekly newspaper offer a different kind of news, coverage that often focuses on issues or people that would be unlikely to merit much more than a paragraph in major dailies, or only mentioned in passing by broadcast media.
“People and businesses often overlook the intangibles that community newspapers generate within their communities, from employing local residents, contributing to the municipal tax base, helping keep the local economy moving in a positive direction, and offering a trustworthy, unbiased reporting model for residents,” said Ryan McAdams, publisher of the Taber Times and group publisher of the Alta Newspaper Group. “We are the only media that covers minor sports, local school activities, art and cultural events and even municipal council news.”
This is a sentiment shared by Bow River MP Martin Shields, whose huge southern Alberta riding includes seven weekly newspapers. In Ottawa, Shields has been a tireless advocate of just how important these publications remain for the communities they serve.
“I’ve had the opportunity in committee meetings in the House to talk about what rural weekly newspapers are about, and what they mean to their communities. They are the publications that go out and cover the high school graduations. They’re the ones that cover softball, and sponsorship. They’re the ones who help fundraisers in the communities by publicizing it. The major newspapers don’t have space and time to do that, but the weekly papers — the people who live in those communities — they are part of those communities. And the bailout that the government talks about, it doesn’t help those weekly newspapers, it’s just the big majors. That’s wrong, because in this riding we have seven weekly newspapers, and they are critical to the community in the sense of people knowing what’s going on. I’ve had the opportunity to have all of those papers in front of me in committee meetings and just holding them up one after another explaining just how important weekly papers are.”
One of the key factors involved in the decline of the industry, especially over the past decade, has been a shift in advertising from more traditional methods like newspapers to online and digital platforms.
“Why have the revenues of local newspapers and other local media dropped so dramatically in recent years? News gathering by these media outlets is supported to a great degree by advertising and traditional advertisers such as auto dealer networks, and the provincial and federal governments have shifted much of their advertising to online,” said Merrell. “At the same time, news consumers have become habituated to getting their news fixes for free, so that has hurt subscription revenue for many of our member newspapers as well.”
Digital and online advertising are having a negative effect on struggling weeklies in Alberta, especially with the double impact of COVID-19 on revenue and the economy.
“The shift has been pretty dramatic over the past few years, to the extent that our smaller community weeklies are barely hanging on,” continued Merrell. “Several of our members had to suspend publishing for a few weeks in the summer because there wasn’t enough advertising to support printing an edition that week. So it’s pretty grim.”
Shields sees advertising as one of the major areas where government could offer a hand up to the industry by shifting more ads back to print media.
“Number one, put their advertising in weekly papers. They’ve gone to so much online advertising and the majors. So they need to put advertising in the weekly papers — that would be number one. Support the local business, support the local communities, by using the local mechanism for print advertising. They used to do it; now they’ve withdrawn that and do it in other national formats of online media. Advertise in the local papers like they used to. That’s number one.”
Shifting to the online model for news gathering, rather than advertising, has also had negative impacts surrounding people’s trust and perception of the news they now receive.
“Aside from the revenue shift, perhaps the biggest impact of the digital model has been the negative perception of other traditional media – due to the unreliability of ‘news’ that people consume from some of the less reputable online sources,” said McAdams. “The newspaper industry has seen revenue declines of varying degrees over the past decade; the growth in digital platforms has certainly been one of the major factors in this decline. Community newspapers have faced another obstacle — the fact that all stories are generated by their own staff, with zero reliance on national coverage…which is both a blessing and a curse.”
Frank McTighe, editor, publisher and owner of the Fort Macleod Gazette, who has about 40 years in the business, says revenue has gone down by about a third in the last few years.
“Challenging is the word that best describes the situation for community newspapers,” said McTighe. “With advertising migrating to social media and out of newspapers, it’s made the financial end of running a community newspaper very challenging.”
As ad space typically dictates the number of pages in a newspaper, less ads mean a lower page count, which affects the space that news articles can run, how many reporters a paper has and what they can cover.
“To readers, we’re doing the best we can,” continued McTighe. “People tell me they still like to receive the print newspaper, when that changes, I’m happy to deliver the news via our website or whatever method our people want so they can read more of it on our phone. We’ll adapt, but for now people say they want the print newspaper, and that’s the avenue that generates most of our revenue for the business, so that’s what we will concentrate on for now.”
Murray Valyear, owner and publisher of the Cardston Temple City Star, said business has been difficult for his paper in 2020.
“It’s a challenge, and I guess, what would the word be? The fate is undecided, you know? It’s not really for sure whether community newspapers will survive or not, but I believe in them, and so, it’s been pretty flat if you want to talk about business, but I’ve had some successes on the editorial side and a lot of good feedback, and I feel that I’m doing a pretty good job of it, so we’ll keep going for now.”
Without the stalwart support of readers and advertisers and reform in the allocation of online advertising dollars, many community newspapers in southern Alberta run the risk of disappearing altogether.
“Those who believe that broadcast or online media are simply going to take up the slack in their communities if their newspaper disappears should dream on,” said reporter Trevor Busch with the Taber Times. “In most years I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a radio or TV reporter cover an issue in a small town outside a major centre. And in many cases, it’s not usually something very positive they’re there to report on. Local council stories, the uplifting features, little Johnny’s baseball team, the bake sales and fall suppers — this would all disappear. These weekly newspapers are the beating heart of the communities they serve, but right now they’re wheezing through a serious coronary. The one silver lining is that for now we’re all still here.”
Traditional-style journalism with an emphasis on quality and accuracy is one of the pillars of these types of publications, and Merrell with AWNA argues this is something that readers have become accustomed to taking for granted.
“The stakes are pretty high for communities that have had a local newspaper for a hundred years or more, and have pretty much taken it for granted. If a local newspaper closes its doors, the void may be filled by a community-minded ‘blogger’, but will there be the same attention to details and fact-checking that is the hallmark of professional journalists employed by newspapers? That’s not likely.”
McAdams suggested the adage “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” is incredibly apt when referencing a newspaper’s modern readership.
“The common misconception is that newspapers are no longer viable, when in fact – according to News Media Canada, ‘readership research confirms that 74 per cent of Canadians are avid community newspaper readers.’ The strength of the industry is its local credibility and exclusive reach into hundreds of non-urban markets across the country. The unfortunate reality is that many communities undervalue the contributions that their local newspapers provide to the day to day life in their town. However, that undervalued view would inevitably change if or when their local newspaper falls victim to the demise of newspapers – as has happened all too often in recent years.”