Currently viewing the tag: "Local News Map"

By APRIL LINDGREN
Founding Director, RJRC

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

April 13, 2018

File 20180326 159087 pyzm21.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Who holds officials accountable when cities like Thunder Bay, Ont., rife with political and racial tensions, have no local reporters?
(Shutterstock)

There’s $50 million in federal government money on the table in Canada to support local journalism in the country’s under-served communities over the next five years.

What’s the best way to spend it?

Last month’s federal budget announcement is an acknowledgement that access to reliable, timely, relevant local news is a growing problem. Data from The Local News Map, a crowd-sourced tool that tracks changes to local media, shows that 244 local news outlets of all types have closed in 181 Canadian communities since 2008. Over the same period, only 75 new operations were launched.

We are starting to hear about the consequences of what I call “local news poverty” — situations where the critical information needs of communities are not being met.

When Postmedia and Torstar Corp. announced the closing of three dozen newspapers in late 2017, local mayors worried aloud about how to keep their citizenry informed. In Thunder Bay, Ont., a city churning with political scandal and racial tensions, the local newspaper at one point had no local reporter on staff to hold officials accountable. Wire copy and short items by the paper’s two photographers filled the pages.

The federal government did not dictate how its $50 million will be spent: It said only that the money will fund “independent non-governmental organizations.” And so the search begins for ideas worth supporting.

‘Local democracy reporters’

Experiments aimed at strengthening local news are already underway in other jurisdictions. In the United Kingdom, the BBC is paying the salaries of 150 journalists who are embedded at newspapers, radio stations, online sites and other local media organizations. These “local democracy reporters” cover local political and civic news and their stories are shared with more than 700 media outlets that have signed onto the Local News Partnerships Program.

The recently launched Report for America initiative aims to place 1,000 reporters in U.S. newsrooms over the next five years to fill gaps in community coverage. Report for America, funded by the Google News Lab, foundations and individual donors, pays half of each reporter’s salary; local news outlets and philanthropists must cover the other half.

The $50 million could be used to create a made-in-Canada version of these initiatives, but paying the salaries of legions of journalists isn’t sustainable over the long term: five years from now, when the federal funding is gone, the reporters will be gone too.

The money would be better spent on projects that build capacity in local newsrooms. The Local News Lab, another foundation-funded project in the United States, explores strategies for building a stronger local news environment in New Jersey. Drawing on this work and experiments in local newsroom sustainability across the country, it produces reports offering practical advice on everything from running effective crowd-funding campaigns to putting out a newsletter.

These resources help startups and other struggling local news outlets avoid common mistakes, and they are worth supporting. But a $50 million investment should also buy a more concrete, lasting contribution to quality news coverage.

Stories with strong local angles

The establishment of a Local News Data Lab would be a good start. The idea is borrowed from two recent data journalism initiatives in the United Kingdom. The BBC’s Shared Data Unit brings together experienced BBC data journalists and reporters seconded from the local media.

The local reporters build their skills as part of a team that uses data that is publicly available or obtained via freedom of information requests to produce national stories with strong local angles.

One recent project that made data on the decline of local bus services available to local news partners in an easy-to-use format resulted in dozens of local stories. The Shared Data Unit also provided local journalists with a background briefing document that outlined why the bus network was in the news, why the issue is important and what the data shows.

Graphs, question-and-answer interviews with experts and examples of localized stories were also included.

The Bureau Local, launched in March 2017 and run by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, is another U.K-based project that focuses on data journalism. Last year the Bureau’s journalists worked with local reporters and the volunteers in its network to produce a national story chronicling how victims of domestic violence were being turned away from cash-strapped crisis shelters.

The investigation, based on open government data, FOI responses, a survey of shelter managers and interviews with women who rely upon the shelter system, resulted in more than 30 local stories.

Political donations database

But we don’t need to look so far afield for an example of how a Local News Data Lab could enrich local journalism here in Canada. Reporter Zane Schwartz, this year’s Postmedia annual Michelle Lang Fellow, performed a great public service last week when he released Canada’s first centralized, searchable database of political donations.

Schwartz spent a year gathering six million records for provincial and federal donations — many of them in formats that were less than user friendly — and organizing them into an accessible database.

His subsequent story points to contributors who exceeded provincial caps on donations, donations to Yukon politicians from supporters who don’t live in the territory and numbered companies that make for a less-than-transparent system.

Schwartz invited engaged citizens and other media outlets to explore the data. Journalists who query the name of local constituency associations or their federal and provincial representatives are almost guaranteed a story.

A Local News Data Lab run by experienced data journalists could make this type of collaborative, investigative local storytelling an ongoing reality in Canada.

Possible partners?

If it operated under the auspices of a school of journalism, student interns could work with the professionals and get hands-on data journalism experience. Or it could collaborate with an organization like The Canadian Press — the national wire service’s news subscribers would be a ready-made network of local partners.

Sure, there will be instances where newsrooms won’t produce stories even when they are spoon-fed local data and a how-to-do-it story recipe. But overall, there will be more local investigative stories about issues that matter.

Student internships, newsroom collaborations and training opportunities for reporters in the field will build much-needed data journalism skills in local news organizations across the country.

The ConversationAnd if the lab proves its worth after five years, other funders may step up to keep it going. The Local News Data Lab will not singlehandedly solve the problems of local journalism in Canada. But public money invested in it would be money well spent.

Feb. 2, 2018

By AMANDA POPE
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

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: localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.

By GREGORY FURGALA
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.