The Big Picture: Research shows significant losses in local news outlets nation-wide in the wake of COVID-19— if independent journalism survives our global crisis, how will it be sustainable?
Canadian news coverage is shrinking as the media industry remains in flux, with more than 50 news outlets pausing circulation or shutting down production permanently since the novel coronavirus pandemic began in March.
- This trend is expected to continue as 200 Canadian radio stations and 40 local television broadcasters are predicted to close in the next three years.
What the experts are saying
According to a Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ report, “Local Broadcasters Face Major Cuts and Closures as Canadian Media Crisis Worsens”:
“The ability to maintain this crucial infrastructure has been chipped away over the last 15 years because of structural changes in the advertising market and the inequitable taxation and regulatory treatment of foreign-owned online media giants. This has directly led to the financial crisis facing private local television and radio stations, which rely almost exclusively on advertising revenue.”Canadian Association of Broadcasters
The fate of local news has been a priority for April Lindgren for most of her career. As a journalism professor at Ryerson University and the lead investigator for the Local News Research Project who has been covering local news’ rapid changes since 2008.
“The business model for local journalism is in trouble… COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of timely, reliable, verified independently produced journalism. That it’s part of critical local infrastructure, people needed and wanted to know the extent of the outbreak in their communities.”April Lindgren, Ryerson University
Despite the irony of this, the data shows that local news organizations are continuing to close or downsize as a result of the loss in advertising revenue caused by the pandemic.
- Atlantic Canada appears to be one of the hardest-hit areas, The SaltWire Network, home of 27 local newspapers that serve communities across the East Coast, was forced to lay off 109 of their 240 employees.
- Moreover, the CBC temporarily closed their local television networks (excluding CBC North) to “pool resources” to one main news stream. This decision was faced with heavy criticism from Atlantic province viewers, including PEI Premier Dennis King.
A digital transition?
One could assume that the disappearance of local newspapers means new and existing distributors are operating digitally. In these small markets, however, that does not seem to be an overwhelming trend.
“I hoped that there would have been more launches of online digital news operations. We know that since 2008 there have been only 129 new news organizations that have started up, and 62 have been online.”April Lindgren, Ryerson University
Lindgren concedes that there could be a margin of error in her study, as finding these outlets can prove to be a difficult task, and that simply some are being missed. “(It’s) discouraging— in terms of the overall trend that online is not springing up left, right, and centre to replace the community papers.“
At the local level
Some communities have managed to remain afloat. Dave Bidini is the creator and editor-in-chief of the West End Phoenix, a Toronto neighbourhood-supported monthly newspaper founded in 2017. Their mandate is devoted to telling stories that affect one of Toronto’s most historically diverse and culturally eclectic areas.
“To be independent-journalists is impactful unto itself as it’s such a disappearing force in our neighbourhoods and our lives right now.”Dave Bidini, West End Phoenix
Since the early months of COVID-19 left people unable to leave their homes unless, for essential needs, the West End Phoenix has been fairing well under the uncertain climate.
- “It’s been good for us because we’re a home-delivered paper,” said Bidini. For those who can work from home, quarantine’s familiar embedded feeling seems more and more likely as the Canadian winter months loom.
The Bottom Line: The future of local journalism may focus on collaboration rather than the traditional competitive model, according to Lindgren.
- Instead of pitting smaller news outlets against each other, they would pool together and share their resources.
- In the same vein, news organizations could rely on partnerships with journalism schools, such as Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism.
A charitable model could also become a viable option, since Jan. 1, Canada has allowed certain news outlets to issue tax receipts for donations made to their organizations. Said Lindgren, “There won’t be a silver bullet… but it opens up other profitable revenue streams.”
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