Friday, May 8, 2020
50 Canadian Newspapers Have Closed in the Last Six Weeks
“I think the politicians would be happy to see us go,” says Aylmer Express publisher John Hueston with a chuckle.
The paper is not going anywhere any time soon, but it serves as a good example of everything that a community paper does, and everything that can be lost when that paper is no longer there — a dire situation that is developing in an increasing number of communities across this country, driven in part by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The independently-owned Aylmer Express, serving the southwestern Ontario town of about 7,500 and neighbouring communities, has been a fixture in the area for 140 years.
It’s the only media outlet regularly covering the council meetings of five different municipalities.
It regularly holds power to account, taking strong stances in its front-page editorials on local issues including politics, policing and health.
It also believes strongly in its role of bringing community together, recently publishing a poster supporting health-care workers during the pandemic that it distributed in the weekly edition and which residents then put up in their windows.
As one reader put it when renewing their subscription: “Love this paper. You are the only source of local info. Thank you.”
Hueston’s family has owned the paper for decades.
“I think newspapers are exceedingly important,” he said in an interview with the Star. “With the secrecy I’m seeing with police and watching governments abdicate responsibilities, I think they need some oversight from journalists.
“Or maybe everything goes away and it becomes a very different society. It’s all box tickers, but it won’t be the society you know. I would think it would be a much less free society.”
Hueston remains hopeful for the future of his paper, while a rapidly-increasing number of media outlets across Canada are shuttered or have had their operations reduced since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.
It’s a well-known fact that for years, the newspaper industry has struggled to remain financially viable and to adapt to a quickly changing digital world.
Papers have imposed mass layoffs, cut back on the number of editions they produce, or shut down entirely. Advertising revenue has plummeted.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up that decline, as numerous sectors have been forced to shut down and therefore scale back their advertising. The long-term existence of an industry still reliant on those ad dollars while also trying to find and transition to new business models has been thrown into doubt.
Advocates say help is more urgent than ever, at a time when the demand for reliable news is incredibly high, but where subscription revenue has not come close to replacing all of the money brought in by advertising.
“COVID has accelerated everything,” says Winnipeg Free Press publisher Bob Cox, who serves as chair of the Canadian News Media Association.
“All the trends that we knew were happening are now going at warp speed. So if you thought print revenues were going down, today they’re down 50 per cent. It’s been a shock for all of us, but it has made people realize more than ever the need for permanent change.”
In the last six weeks alone, more than 100 media outlets across the country, including print and broadcast media, have seen an impact due to the economic crisis sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 2,000 employees (journalists and other workers) being laid off, according to data collected by the COVID-19 Media Impact Map for Canada, a joint project by online publication J-Source, the Canadian Association of Journalists and the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University’s journalism school.
Community newspapers are facing particularly harsh realities: 50 have closed either permanently or temporarily in just the last six weeks, according to the data, and according to industry association News Media Canada, a total of 28 papers have permanently ceased publication so far this year.
Contrast that with the fact that about 215 papers have closed in the past 12 years.
“In my mind, that’s an acceleration of a trend, and not a good trend,” said April Lindgren, Ryerson journalism professor and principal investigator with the Local News Research Project.
“The way forward is an increasingly urgent discussion.”
Torstar, the owner of the Toronto Star, previously announced it was laying off 85 people. The company reported in its quarterly results this week that print advertising revenue dropped by 58 per cent in the latter half of March, while at the same time digital traffic to the company’s various news sites has significantly increased.
Postmedia, which owns a number of major daily newspapers including The National Post, announced last week it was laying off 80 employees and shuttering 15 community newspapers in Ontario and Manitoba.
In Atlantic Canada, SaltWire Network announced in March it was temporarily laying off 40 per cent of its staff and temporarily closing a number of publications.
The situation is just as bad in the United States, where The New York Times reports about 36,000 workers at American media companies have been laid off, furloughed or seen their pay cut.
The problem is not unique to print media either, as the Times reports pay cuts being imposed at major online news sources including Slate, Buzzfeed and Vice.
And yet even before the pandemic, there appeared to be a disconnect between the public’s perception of a media outlet’s financial situation and the reality. A Pew Research Center survey found last year that 71 per cent of Americans surveyed believed that their local media was doing well financially, while only 14 per cent said they had personally paid for local news in the last year.
The survey also found that 71 per cent of those surveyed found their local news outlets were reporting the news accurately and 66 per cent felt their outlet did a good job keeping tabs on political leaders.
“I think people are appreciating media more and I think that at the local level where media has disappeared, they’re really noticing that now, in communities where they can’t get information about the health situation in their communities,” said Karyn Pugliese, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
“People are noticing that gap now, but do they realize that even some of that regional-level or provincial-level media could go? I’m not sure that’s really struck them yet.”
In a way, the decline of the news industry is not really about the journalists themselves, Pugliese said, as they’ll eventually land on their feet and find other jobs, likely outside of journalism.
“It’s democracy that’s not going to be OK,” she said. “When there’s nobody there to watch the city council and they all start increasing their salaries, or the taxes go up and you’re not getting increases in services and you’re wondering why. And there’s not a single reporter in your town to go and find out that information, and you can’t do it because you actually have a kid, a job and a busy life and you need somebody to do that work for you.
“That’s the reason to pay for journalism.”
Hueston knows all too well the consequences that can come with trying to gather information on behalf of the public. He and his son, Brett, who serves as editor of the Aylmer Express, were arrested in 2017 trying to report on a vehicle that went off a cliff near Lake Erie. Ontario’s police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit, had been called in to determine if the OPP played a role in the incident. (Police were later cleared of any involvement.)
The Huestons drove past a road-closure sign to get a closer look, but maintained they remained at a distance so as not to interfere. Nevertheless, they were arrested on charges including obstructing a peace officer. They were acquitted by a judge a year later.
They were handcuffed, placed in a sweltering police car for half an hour, and spent more than a year with the charges hanging over their heads, John Hueston told the Star, saying he and his son paid a heavy legal, physical and mental price as a result.
But the work must go on, Hueston said.
“I think somebody has to watch this stuff,” he said. “We find that in government and in the police, they don’t want to be observed and that’s alarming to me.”
And so what’s the solution to ensure that more media outlets can continue doing just that — keeping a close eye on powerful institutions on behalf of the public?
“If there was an easy solution, someone would have thought about it by now,” said Lindgren at Ryerson.
The federal government has announced some assistance over the last few years, though some of that help has not yet gotten off the ground.
It launched the Local Journalism Initiative, which provides funding to media companies for journalists covering important local issues. A total of 105 journalists working in 95 newsrooms were approved last December following the initial call-out for applications.
But a $595-million aid package first unveiled by the Liberals in 2018 — that has received polarizing views within the media industry itself — has not yet provided any money to outlets.
Part of that package includes a refundable journalism labour tax credit for media outlets, calculated at a rate of 25 per cent of a newsroom employee’s salary (for a maximum credit of $13,750 per employee per tax year.) The outlet must first be designated a “qualifying journalism organization” by an independent panel, but according to Cox at the Canadian News Media Association, designations have yet to be made despite outlets applying for it.
“It’s taken an interminably long time to get the program moving,” Cox said.
(The government has said that the first eligible news organizations will find out about their designations this spring with payments following in the summer. Cox believes cheques will only begin arriving in “at least” September.)
Meanwhile, cash flow problems at media outlets, particularly newspapers, continue to worsen as a result of the pandemic. The government has yet to make any media-specific announcements as a result of COVID-19, aside from a $30-million national ad campaign about the pandemic that has been slow to roll out to newspapers.
Cox said some of the criticism that media companies, particularly newspapers, were slow to adapt to the digital age was fair in the past, but not so much today, arguing every company now wants to change as fast as possible.
“Most media takes pride in being independent and never looks to government for support,” said Cox, who has worked in the industry for more than 30 years. “But the pace of change has been so rapid and we require the government’s help.”
Last week, the publishers of Canada’s major newspapers, including the Toronto Star, published an open letter urging the federal government to mandate digital giants Google and Facebook — who now control the bulk of advertising dollars — to provide compensation to media outlets for using their content, pointing to similar measures being discussed in Australia and France.
“The producers of news carry most of the costs and gain only a small portion of the revenue, whereas the distributors of this content gain the lion’s share of the revenue and have almost none of the costs,” Edward Greenspon, former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail and president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum, said in an interview with the Star.
“So we need to rebalance that if we believe that the production of original news is a social good. And if you didn’t believe it was a social good before COVID-19, I would hope that you believe it now.”
Facebook declined the Star’s request for comment, while Google did not respond.
Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault acknowledged in a statement to the Star that “certainly, the Canadian newspaper industry has long suffered in the competition for advertising against web giants like Google and Facebook,” but did not respond directly to the calls from Canadian newspaper publishers.
He highlighted that media outlets are eligible for COVID-related government initiatives such as the 75 per cent emergency wage subsidy for workers.
Greenspon studied the financial situation facing media in his 2017 report “The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age.” He pointed out that Canadian daily newspapers were making about $2.5 billion in ad sales until the 2008 recession, which dropped to about $950 million a decade later.
Among the report’s recommendations were calls for a system transferring funds from sites with digital advertising that don’t invest in journalism to the producers of original news, which Greenspon pointed out does not mean just newspapers.
His report argues the fund would be “similar in principle” to the Canada Media Fund, which distributes money to Canadian TV and digital industries and receives funding through a five-per cent levy imposed on cable and satellite distributors.
University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist, a critic of the idea of having the digital giants pay media companies, said such a proposal raises a number of questions including: Who would be eligible to be compensated? What would qualify for compensation? Simply posting a link to a news story, or also a description?
“If we believe there’s a public interest in local journalism then I think the public ought to pay for it or help support it” through tax dollars, said Geist, who specializes in media and internet issues. “But that’s not the same as saying we want a couple of foreign companies to pay.”
A poll conducted in 2016 for the “Shattered Mirror” report found that seven out of 10 people “completely or mostly trust their newspapers, radio and television,” while 15 per cent said they trust news acquired via social media.
Greenspon highlighted that the need for reliable news is greater than ever due to the onslaught of information — some real, some fake — sparked by COVID-19.
As just one example, he pointed to the conspiracy that has flourished online that the virus is caused by the 5G cell network. There have been incidents of people being arrested for setting fire to cell towers in recent weeks, leading to condemnation from leaders including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Pugliese believes there are stories that would simply not have been told these last six weeks without journalists.
“I think they’ve done a damn fine job in giving a voice to people who would otherwise be missed and that includes Indigenous people, people in homeless shelters, senior citizens in homes. These are stories where real accountability was needed in order to save lives, as well as to get information out to help people keep their families safe,” she said.
“There are probably stories that we missed, not being as robust as we once were. But you wouldn’t want to go through a pandemic like this again without journalism. You just wouldn’t.”
At the Aylmer Express, Hueston said his biggest obstacle remains the post office and its pre-pandemic delays in getting his paper out to readers. He says things are otherwise holding up, but it’s hard to know what the future holds given the unpredictability of the virus and as other papers continue to close all around him.
He said one thing that they have going for them is a reputation for accuracy and credibility, and without that, you’re in the wrong business.
“I think as a sort of forum that reflects the community on a weekly basis, this newspaper is all you need to know about this territory this week. It helps organize your life,” Hueston said
“I don’t think anyone would question our heart toward the community, and I think as long as you have that base, you’ve got a chance.”
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