Hold the obits: local news isn’t dead yet

by Elizabeth Renzetti

At the very beginning of our conversation, Vance Gutzman makes it clear that he might have to get off the phone without much warning.

Someone might come into the office of the North Renfrew Times wanting to renew her subscription.

“They can do it online,” Mr. Gutzman said, “but a lot of people in town choose to come in and do it in person.”renzetti

The town is Deep River, Ont., a community of 4,100 people in the Ottawa Valley, founded 70 years ago to service the nearby Chalk River nuclear laboratory.

The local newspaper, the North Renfrew Times, is nearly as old as the town. Its obituary was almost written earlier this year, much as the obituaries of local newspapers are being written across the country.

Fortunately for the community, the NRT – no one calls it by its full name – was saved from the grave by Mr. Gutzman and his two colleagues.

The country has become a charnel house for local news outlets: 234 have closed in the past nine years, and the bones keep piling up.

This week, Torstar Corp. and Postmedia Network Canada Corp. announced, in a breathtakingly cynical move, that they would be swapping 41 local papers and shutting all but five, leaving 291 people out of work.

The deal removes competition from each of the markets for the two media giants. Meanwhile, the Ontario towns of Cobourg and Orillia are losing their daily papers.

The federal government, whose efforts to help local news outlets can be measured in nanograms, shrugged.

The Competition Bureau is studying the deal, but that will come as cold comfort to those who’ve lost their jobs and readers who have lost sources of local news.

“Our thoughts are with the hundreds of workers and their families affected by these closures,” Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly said, a sentiment that will surely come as a relief at this time of year, when children gather eagerly around the Christmas tree in hopes of finding a brightly wrapped thought from a politician.

Were any of the employees at those newspapers offered a chance to save their workplaces?

The North Renfrew Times is alive and flourishing today because of just such a deal.
Earlier this year, the paper was floundering, its ad revenues falling. The paper’s owners, the Deep River Community Association, no longer wanted to run it.

They offered to sell it to Mr. Gutzman, who had worked there for 20 years, and his colleagues Terry Myers and Kelly Lapping.

They said yes.

The trio, along with two part-time employees, went on a hunt for new advertising. They redesigned the weekly paper. They cast a wide net through the county looking for new subscribers.

For two months, they didn’t pay themselves.

Now, the paper is operating in the black.

“We took what could have been construed as a poisoned chalice,” Mr. Gutzman said, “and turned it into a profitable enterprise.”

If you think community news doesn’t matter, I’d challenge you to look through the NRT (or any of the hundred community papers like it in the country, many of which are struggling).

There is meat there, and dessert. Essential news, and serendipity.

One issue contains stories on faulty water mains and plans for a local radioactive-waste site, as well as notices about bingo, an adoption ad for a black cat named Missy and the news that a book called “Joy and Strength” had been found and turned into the newspaper’s office.

At press time, it was waiting to be claimed by its owner.

Local news outlets across the country such as the NRT provide an essential service in enlightening their communities, and yet continue to suffer as nearly three-quarters of digital ad revenue flows to Google and Facebook.

(Facebook, as you may know, produces no news of its own, except what’s grown on Russian troll farms.)

The bad news is that the federal government seems uninterested in bailing out industries that are not Bombardier, or partnering with enterprises that are not Netflix.

The good news is that there are a great number of creative, smart, flexible enterprises out there, finding value in niches and flourishing in micro-climates.

It’s locavore, but for news; less trendy, but also less expensive. You don’t need to visit a farmers market to consume this product, or indeed leave the house at all. Who could ask for more?

In my neighbourhood in Toronto, musician and author Dave Bidini and a small group of colleagues have founded a newspaper called the West End Phoenix, devoted to finding stories that would otherwise not be covered.

(I have written a small piece for the paper on the death of my favourite bar, a critical and sorely neglected topic.)

Most of the innovative outlets aren’t so retro in their construction, and live beyond print: There is Allnovascotia.com, for example, an online news service that relies on subscriptions, or Canadaland, the website and podcast, which is supported by an audience that donates to a Patreon campaign.

On the West Coast, the online news outlet Discourse Media has created three local news fellowships to encourage reporting on overlooked stories from diverse communities.

Discourse’s CEO and founder Erin Millar set up the digital site, which has 14 full-time editorial employees, based on a business model involving small and large investors.

Discourse has an ambitious plan to tell stories based on the expertise of people who understand their communities – and know which stories are being missed from above.

As Ms. Millar said in an interview, “It’s easy to feel completely hopeless when it seems like we’re being destroyed by forces like Facebook and Google that are out of our control, but in fact we do have economic power.

“We don’t have to wait for the government to fix this. We can start to do things, whether that’s paying for what we consume or buying an ad if we’re lucky enough to have a local paper. We have to start building.”

If some people build, the rest of us should buy.

If not, we have no one to blame when all the words are gone.

(This column first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, December 2. Reprinted by permission.)