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Feb. 2, 2018

Staff reporter

Snow-covered newspaper boxes in a small town in Alberta. (Kurt Bauschardt via Creative Commons)

A new online survey is asking Canadian journalists working for newspapers with a print circulation under 50,000 to provide information about how their newsrooms are managing and adapting to the turbulent times.

Ryerson journalism professor April Lindgren and the not-for-profit National NewsMedia Council – an alliance of the former provincial press councils – are conducting the research. Questions on the survey deal with everything from the number of reporters on staff and journalists’ perception of job security to the use of social media and the major challenges facing local newspapers.

“We are interested to see how small-market newspapers are faring,” said Lindgren, who runs the Local News Research Project at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. “Past research that we have tends to treat the newspaper industry as monolithic, when in fact we suspect there are major differences between what is happening with bigger metropolitan newspapers and small-market newspapers.”

Statistics from the Local News Map produced by Lindgren and the University of British Columbia’s John Corbett point to a sector in decline. The 238 markers on the map documenting the loss of local news outlets since 2008 include 212 newspaper closings in 164 communities. Most were community newspapers that publish fewer than five times per week.

The Local News Map (as of Feb. 2, 2018), created as part of the Local News Research Project. (Screenshot) 

“We know from the Local News Map that there has been a high mortality rate for small-market papers, so the question is, ‘What is life like for the people working at the remaining publications and how do they see their prospects?’” Lindgren said.

Not everyone is writing newspapers off, she noted. In December 2017, Alberta-based Star News Publishing sold the Prince Albert Daily Herald to a group of employees led by publisher Donna Pfeil. Similarly, former employees in some cases are getting into the publishing business as Transcontinental sells off its weekly newpaper portfolio.

“These employee buyouts – admittedly there are just a few – make me wonder if they know something we don’t know about the viability of a smaller publication,” Lindgren said. “To what extent are there differences in what’s happening to the small-market papers versus the larger players?”

The questionnaire, which is based on a similar survey of 420 respondents conducted in the United States between November and December 2016, includes additional queries about newsroom diversity, ethics education, and efforts by smaller-market newspapers to engage audiences through events such as town hall meetings and the creation of community advisory boards.

Brent Jolly, the director of communications for the National Newsmedia Council, says the ethics questions in the survey explore how journalists access information regarding ethical issues and social media in particular.

“We want to get an idea of how journalists are using ethical guidelines and what shapes their opinions on ethics,” Jolly said. “The second part is asking how familiar journalists are with ethical conduct relating to social media. As an organization that looks at designing best ethical practices for journalists, it is useful for us to understand where journalists are going to be informed (about) the guidelines we establish.”

Lindgren said the research team will be encouraging journalists who work for ethnic newspapers to respond to the survey in particular.

The Canadian data will be compared to the results of the U.S. questionnaire, as well as results from Spain and Austria where the survey is also being conducted.

Jolly says the survey is designed to address gaps in knowledge about the situation in Canada: “Canada is not the United States. We have our own geographical limitations and challenges of being a country of many communities. While there is a lot of documentation and data from the United States, Canada is lacking in terms of numbers that Canada can statistically relate to and use to develop an answer to why local news matters to Canadians.”

The U.S. study, which included in-depth interviews in addition to the survey, painted a picture of local newspaper journalists as hardworking, surprisingly optimistic about the future of the industry, and eager to know more about emerging digital tools for storytelling. That said, respondents also identified a number of key challenges for the sector, including:

  • shrinking newsrooms: 59 per cent of survey participants said that the number of staff in their newsrooms had shrunk since 2014.
  • recruitment challenges: Low pay, long hours and limited opportunities for career progression make it difficult to attract and retain young journalists.
  • a long-hours culture: Many respondents reported that they regularly work more than 50 hours a week.
  • mixed feelings about job security: 51 per cent of respondents said they feel secure in their positions.

“We’re eager to find out how the Canadian environment for smaller-market publications compares to the situation in the United States and eventually in Spain and Austria,” Lindgren said. “The media environments are different in different countries. So is the experience different across the board?”

The Canadian survey responses will be released later in 2018. The results will be made available via social media and on various websites including that of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, the National NewsMedia Council and the Local News Research Project

Feb. 1, 2018

Staff reporter

Ann Rauhala, associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University. (Courtesy of the Ryerson School of Journalism)

Ryerson journalism students are participating in a study investigating whether mindfulness and meditation can help them cope better with the stresses of the job.

A four-week course led by associate professor Ann Rauhala and assistant professor Lisa Taylor, both from the School of Journalism, will introduce student journalists to mindfulness strategies for dealing with the anxiety arising from interviewing and may also help participants handle the stresses of deadlines and career uncertainty.

“I became really concerned about the pain and suffering I was seeing among our students,” said Rauhala, who is also the teaching chair for the Faculty of Communication and Design. “People becoming so anxious about their future and depressed about their possibilities and not enjoying themselves. What [journalists] do is important and it is good to have the clarity and resilience to keep on pursuing the truth when everyone is insulting and berating you.”

The mindfulness class will introduce students to the fundamentals of mindfulness, review the scientific evidence of its benefits and explore different forms of meditation practice. The 15 participants will complete a pre-course questionnaire that is a well-established general anxiety assessment tool. At the end of the course, participants will do the assessment again and they will also be asked about the course content, including questions about which skills and exercises they found most or least helpful, and the degree to which they are likely to continue to practice mindfulness meditation.

In addition to attending the one-hour class once per week, students are being asked to meditate every day for 10 minutes and to record their experiences in a log. The classes, which will begin with a short meditation, will be a place for participants to talk about their efforts to meditate during the previous week and discuss the challenges of developing a meditation practice.

Lisa Taylor, assistant professor of journalism at Ryerson University. (Peter Bregg)

Taylor says the goal is to help participants regulate their anxiousness: “Some degree of stress is healthy for journalists. Stress is what lights a fire under us to go out the door to get our interviews and what compels us to meet our deadlines.” The key, she said, is to regulate this state of arousal so that instead of being paralyzed by fear, individuals experience a healthy level of anxiety that makes them energetic and focused.

Mindfulness stimulates creativity

Rauhala said research on mindfulness shows it has the potential to benefit students in their journalism practice and in life in general.

“Mindfulness helps you manage your time better because you’re not wasting time on diversions,” Rauhala said. “It helps you to manage your response to situations that are frustrating such as someone cancelling an interview or working with a difficult person.”

She said the research also suggests that mindfulness practices can boost creativity in a way that would potentially benefit journalists as they go about their work: “It stimulates looking at things from different angles. It quiets the mind so that you can listen to what people are saying instead of barreling along with what you think the story is … It helps you to be more empathetic and understand where people are coming from and they will therefore have better sources, better interviews and get better stories.”

Students at Ryerson are quickly immersed in journalism and, by the second week of classes, they are interviewing strangers on the streets of Toronto. Taylor says the students in her first-year reporting class tell her about levels of anxiety that she seldom heard about 10 years ago when she came to Ryerson.

“More students were saying they freeze up when they interview or get stressed over deadlines,” Taylor said. “You can only help a student to a certain point by teaching them to write a cutline or take a photo…At some point you have to look carefully at the challenges they face in their daily lives and their anxiety.”

To help students be more positive, she said, participants in the study will record one or two things they are grateful for each day: “In our lives as humans it is very easy to focus on what goes wrong, not what goes right,” Taylor said. “As journalists, because of the very nature of what constitutes news, we are often deeply immersed in negative, unhappy stories. So if anyone needs to be pushed to see the goodness and the light in the day, it’s a journalist.”

January 30, 2018

Staff reporter

Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review, gives a talk at the Ryerson School of Journalism. (Rhianna Jackson-Kelso)

The breakdown of trust between journalists and the public is due in large part to the decimation of local news, says Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

Though subscription levels to the New York Times and Washington Post have spiked in the last 12 months, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s own audience is also roughly 50 per cent higher, smaller publications have not benefitted from the “Trump bump” and are still struggling, Pope said during a recent presentation at the Ryerson School of Journalism.

“If you’re a newspaper writing about what time the library closes or […] what the sale is at the local store, that is a pretty intimate and, frankly, sort of unimpeachable relationship between the [news media] and its audience,” Pope said during his Jan. 16 talk titled “Watching the Watchdogs in 2018: Why media criticism matters now more than ever.”

With local news outlets struggling or shutting down, however, Pope says these intimate relationships have begun to dissolve.

“What’s happened is that a lot of that landscape has been taken away [due to] failed business models and a lack of any kind of digital strategy,” said Pope. “A lot of communities [are left with] no local newspaper and the national talking head[s] or national press that doesn’t really pay attention to what they’re doing.” In the absence of local journalism that reflects their concerns and communities, Pope said, citizens are left with the sense that news organizations aren’t interested in the issues that matter to them.

“The local level is where this [breakdown of trust] is going to be most effectively fixed, as opposed to trying to start at the national level and work our way down,” said Pope, who joined the Columbia Journalism Review as editor in September 2016 after jobs at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, and Straus News.

To rebuild trust between journalists and the public, Pope said, journalists must work harder than ever to be accurate in their reporting because “the margin for error is incredibly tiny.”

“We have to be so incredibly careful right now. […] Every mistake is amplified, every correction becomes a sort of meme,” said Pope. “Unfortunately, that is coming at a time when the resources, the editing ranks of a lot of news organizations, are cut to the bone.”

Journalists also need to go out and re-establish connections with their readers, said Pope, who pointed to a variety of trust-building experiments underway in the United States.

One such initiative is the Columbia Journalism Review’s upcoming “Trust Tour.” The tour will target “news deserts”—areas that are no longer covered by local news outlets, or where news coverage has shrunk dramatically. Face-to-face conversations between local editors and their readers will be facilitated by the Review in a bid to educate readers about how the news is curated, improve their understanding of what an editor’s job entails, and to help them put faces to bylines.

In keeping with its trust-building efforts, Pope said the Review is also in the process of redefining what kind of stories it wants to publish and in particular how it can make the journalistic process more transparent for readers.

“Our mandate is just much bigger [now],” says Pope. “When we think of ‘what is a CJR story?’ now, we think of [people in the newsroom], but we also think much more broadly” about how to include laypeople who are interested in learning about how journalists gather information and decide which stories to publish.

Local newsrooms in the United States, he added, are exploring a variety of other approaches to building audience trust. A recent Columbia Journalism Review article recounts efforts by the editor of a local newspaper, the Union-Bulletin of Walla Walla in Washington State, to address reader complaints that it was publishing “fake news.” The strategy focuses on open discussion and direct responses to every complaint.

In another example, Pope cited the efforts of a small Pennsylvania newspaper—one that is embedded deep within “Trump country”—to connect with readers who were voicing criticism on Facebook about the paper’s news coverage. The editors initially invited these readers to visit the newsroom to see firsthand how the editorial staff made decisions and produced stories. The detractors failed to show up for the tour. They were, however, eventually persuaded to sit down with the editors for lunch and a discussion about the journalistic process—an initiative that led some readers to rethink their negative feelings about the paper’s coverage.

This combination of communication and education, Pope said, is crucial to re-establishing trust between the public and the press, and to rebuilding a healthy network of smaller, local news outlets. It will also be central to forging a culture of subscription-based news media, which he predicted is the way of the future for the industry.

“The dependence on subscriptions does change the nature of these news organizations,” Pope said. The attendant risk, he added, is that editors will feel obligated to cater to their paying subscribers and media partisanship will increase.

Pope downplayed the possibility that subscription-based news media might also be a problem for people who can’t afford subscription costs: “I don’t have a lot of patience for that,” he said, pointing out that many people are happy to pay for subscriptions to services like Netflix and Spotify. “There is a willingness to pay for [these things]. We just have to make news one of them.”

In addition to rebuilding trust between journalists and the public, Pope said navigating these new funding models for smaller news organizations will also be critical.

“You have a role to play in all this,” Pope told the audience made up mostly of journalism students. “You need to get out of your bubble and go out and do your reporting, [meet] new people, spend some time on their territory. There’s too much reporting, I think, that still goes on online, and I think there’s a lot more you can go out and do in person.”

January 30, 2017

Staff reporter

Gavin Adamson, an associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, is working with a group of researchers aiming to improve media coverage of mental illness in Chile and Mexico. (Photo via Ryerson School of Journalism)

Ryerson journalism professor Gavin Adamson is part of a team that will be sharing best practices for reporting on mental health issues with researchers in Mexico and Chile.

The Canadian researchers were recently awarded a $20,000 Canadian Institutes of Health grant for the project Reducing Mental Illness Stigma in Latin America: Dissemination and Planning, which aims to counter negative perceptions of mental illness created by the news media.

Adamson, a co-investigator on the project, will be overseeing production and research in Toronto and working alongside his long-time research collaborator Robert Whitley, an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University. Whitley, who has been examining reporting on mental illness by the Canadian news media since 2005, has noted improvements in the coverage. He has produced the Mindset Guide on best practices for reporting on mental illness and an online course for journalists. The two initiatives, dubbed the “Canadian Model, ” explore how the news media contributes to negative impressions of people with a mental illness and provide tips for journalists on best practices for covering the issue.

Adamson, who will contribute expertise in media engagement and mental health journalism to the project, says evidence suggests that the guide has significantly improved the coverage around suicide reporting in Canada: “The coverage has focused less frequently on suicide methods and on blaming the affected people. Instead it has focused more on challenges around treating mental illness and identifying potential social supports.”

The result, he said, is reporting on mental illness by Canadian journalists that is much more sensitive, accurate and positive. Whitley’s research, for instance, has found that the number of newspaper articles about mental illness that are positive in tone almost doubled from 2005 to 2015, while the number of stories containing stigmatizing language fell by a third.

His research also suggests that stigma associated with mental health is high in Latin America, and that resources are not readily available for national anti-stigma campaigns. With the Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant, Whitley and the research team will travel to Santiago, Mexico and Concepción, Chile to present the Canadian Model to researchers.

“We’ll be able to describe previous Canadian action research that shows how helpful it can be to work with the media and with stakeholder organizations in addressing stigma rather than just analyzing text and identifying problems,” said Adamson.

Adamson said the Canadians the results of their Recovery Advocacy Documentary Action Research (RADAR) with their Latin American counterparts. RADAR provides people who have with mental illnesses the training and resources to create their own documentary films. The goal was to see if such videos challenge traditional media stereotypes about people who are mentally ill.

“In our research, people recovering from mental illness describe their own stories about their experiences by producing their own video,” Adamson said. “They describe the challenges they’ve had navigating the Canadian health system, for example, or challenges with social support systems, their experiences with recovery or with the police. The act of getting involved in telling their own stories may help.”

In addition to Adamson and Whitley, the research team includes scholars from Columbia University in New York and from universities and research institutes in Chile and Mexico.

Columbia University’s Franco Mascayano, a collaborator on the grant, conducted a systematic review of research papers and concluded that negative attitudes and prejudices toward mental disorders are prevalent in Latin America and that little has been done to address the problem.

Caption: Robert Whitley, an assistant professor of psychiatry, teaching at McGill University. (Photo by Jorge Gonzales)

“There is still a lack of resources for research,” said Whitley, who is leading the project. “The economies are improving but almost all countries in Latin America have an unstable economy. Over the past 10 or 20 years, these countries who were formerly dictatorships, have become democracies so the economy has improved incredibly and there is more freedom and money available in universities to do research on topics such as mental illness.”

Given this situation, Whitley says, the Canadian team will meet with mental health researchers and mental illness service-users in Mexico and Chile to outline what has been done in Canada and to hear from his Latin American counterparts as well: “I will listen to what they think about it– this will be a listening exercise. I do have something to contribute as I have done this study [in Canada] since 2005 but [Mexico and Chile] have a lot to contribute as well.”

Whitley will produce a research document that reviews past research related to mental illness, suggests initiatives aimed at reducing stigma in Mexico and Chile and discusses possible research questions and timelines.

The team will then lead a two-day workshop in Montreal to develop a research strategy and a focused plan to improve coverage of mental health issues by the media in the two countries.

Mexico and Chile were chosen for the project as they both have high rates of literacy, freedom of the press and widely-consumed media “Chile is one of the most developed countries and Mexico is moving up there but is less developed. We chose these countries because we saw opportunity,” Whitley said.

January 30, 2018

This is one of a series of features, news articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:

Staff reporter

Port Alberni, a city on Vancouver Island with a population of 20,000, was home to one of British Columbia’s 32 newspapers that have closed since 2008. (Photo by hern42, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Port Alberni is a typical British Columbia coastal town. Situated at the end of a deepwater inlet that meanders through the middle of Vancouver Island, it was colonized by MacMillan Bloedel and other logging companies before its temperate climate, surrounding mountains, and salmon drew in tourists who are colonizing it again. And like so many other small cities in B.C., it recently lost a newspaper.

Susan Quinn, the editor of the Alberni Valley News, wasn’t surprised when Glacier Media announced it was selling the Alberni Valley Times, her main competition, to Black Press. Aside from the rumours leading up to the deal, change of ownership at the Times was routine. Before Glacier bought it in 2011, the Times had been owned by Postmedia, CanWest, Hollinger, Southam, Sterling and an independent, non-chain owner. Quinn observed three of the sales from her perch at the News.

“It was just like when we heard CanWest was putting them up for sale, when Postmedia was putting them up for sale,” says Quinn. “It was almost anticlimactic.”

The sale was only part of a marquee 15-newspaper deal. In December 2014, Glacier Media agreed to sell 11 of its community newspapers on Vancouver Island—every newspaper except Victoria’s Times Colonist—to Black Press, its regional competitor. In a separate deal, Black Press sold its four Lower Mainland dailies to Glacier. After the 15-newspaper exchange, a wave of closures and layoffs played out, leaving Port Alberni and other two-newspaper towns with just one remaining publication, halving the diversity of local news, and halving the number of journalists reporting it, too. The 2017 Public Policy Forum report, the Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age, makes it clear that Canadian newspapers are at a crisis point — nowhere is that more clear than B.C.

Quinn knows this but nevertheless, she remains optimistic about the future of local journalism.

She isn’t alone. A recent survey of 420 journalists and editors at small market newspapers in the United States found that most were upbeat about the future of local news and their jobs reporting it. Damian Radcliffe of the University of Oregon and Christopher Ali of the University of Virginia, who conducted the survey and interviews with 60 other industry professionals, presented their work at a 2017 Ryerson University conference on the future of local journalism. Respondents’ optimism, they concluded, was rooted in their connection to their communities, and knowledge that they’re often the only storytellers in town.

That finding—if it can be extrapolated to Canada —makes Heather Thomson an outlier. Thomson, the former editor the Alberni Valley Times, left a year before Black Press closed it. She says leaving wasn’t her choice, but rather the result of disagreements she had with the managing editor about the direction Glacier was taking the paper. She warns: “I’m pretty belligerent about them.”

“They were dictating how we would report news,” says Thomson. “We were being told who we could use as sources when it came to politicians. We were being told what stories we could work and who we could talk to. I didn’t agree with that, and I pushed against it for too long, and they got rid of me.”

In an email, a representative for Glacier Media said it does not dictate what its newspapers cover, or sources its journalists should talk to: “Editors are tasked with responsible and appropriate coverage of their respective communities and publishers are the final authority on what is published.”

Thomson, however, says Glacier’s overbearing management of the Times eroded its connection with the community and that quality news lost ground to the business of printing it. For Thomson, the local intimacy of reporting on the community she lived in, of being the local watchdog — the quality that hundreds of local American journalists credited for their continued albeit weathered enthusiasm — had slipped away. Thomson left the industry because of it, she says.

“In Port Alberni,” she says,” it used to matter what happened in the newspaper. It mattered to people. It mattered to the company that owned it, that they had a respected place in the community as the storyteller, and I think that’s what’s changing.

“It’s not about the story anymore. It’s becoming just about making money.”

The Local News Map, a crowd-sourced effort to document changes at local newspapers and broadcasters from the Local News Research Project, recorded the loss of 32 newspapers in British Columbia since 2008. Only Ontario has experienced more losses.

Marc Edge, a professor of journalism at both the University of Malta and Canada West University, says the B.C. closures were effectively orchestrated.

“It seems pretty obvious,” says Edge, “that they’ve been working together and carving up the industry between them.”

Local News Map data of news diversity in Canadian cities represent how much single outlets dominate coverage.

Local News Map data of news diversity in Canadian cities represent how much single outlets dominate coverage.

The reason isn’t particularly complex. Black and Glacier owned competing newspapers in several cities across B.C., like Port Alberni, and by buying up and shutting down the local competition, dwindling ad revenue could be directed to one newspaper, instead of shared by two. The Shattered Mirror report says ad revenue has dropped to $881 million in 2015 from $1.1 billion in 2006. While Edge notes that the traditional argument for newspaper concentration has been that it results in better-resourced survivors that put out better quality, better-designed publications, he doesn’t equate it with journalistic excellence.

“Graphic design and layout,” Edge says, “aren’t always indicators of good journalism, particularly the diversity of viewpoints.”

Maybe one newspaper had to close. While Quinn and Thomson have different outlooks on the future of community newspapers, both expressed doubt that Port Alberni could have supported two of them, especially as both operations were investing more time in producing content for their websites. And it’s worth noting that while the Times had been in print for decades, the News was only established in 2006. For far longer than not, Port Alberni has been a one-newspaper town.

Still though, the calculated dealings between Glacier and Black Press, and accelerated rate of closures in B.C. beg the question: If ad revenue continues to decline—and the Shattered Mirror report projects that it will—will another wave of deals be made out west? Is the worst over? And if it’s not, what’s there to be optimistic about?

Even before she left, Thomson says she bemoaned the increased demands placed on her and her newsroom. The prospect of being laid off loomed, she adds, from the day she started at the Times. Only weeks into the job, CanWest, which owned the paper at time, cut hundreds of positions across its all properties “to put more focus and resources on generating content and less on packaging,” a spokesperson told CBC at the time.

“I remember calling up the managing editor at the time and asking, ‘Do I still have a job to come to?’ Thomson says. “That’s the feeling I had the entire time I worked at the newspaper. I was always wondering when they were going to close the doors.”

These days Thomson works in public relations. She predicts the situation in the news business will get worse before it gets better but she hasn’t written off the news completely.

“I think at some point,” Thomson says, “someone will figure out a way it’ll make sense. I just don’t know what that will be.”

Since the Times closed, Quinn has added another reporter to the newsroom, and the News has gone from a weekly to a twice-weekly publication. Her newsroom uses a new content management system, which she says has helped streamline operations. Both are tangible investments. Technology, she says, is driving change, and her reporters are expected to produce stories differently than before. Two steps back, one step forward.