Currently viewing the tag: "local news poverty"

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.

By STEPH WECHSLER
Special to the RJRC

Moderator Christopher Waddell (Carleton University journalism professor) and panelists Edward Greenspon (Public Policy Forum president),  April Lindgren (Ryerson School of Journalism instructor) and Allan Gregg (Earnscliffe Strategy Group principal) discuss the journalism industry’s financial woes at a Canadian Journalism Foundation panel.

Although Canadians value journalism and believe it is essential to a well-functioning democracy, they don’t want to pay for it, concludes a new study that examined the state of Canadian news media.

A survey conducted as part of the Public Policy Forum (PPF) report, “The Shattered Mirror,” found that the Canadians surveyed do not make a connection between the news industry’s layoffs, closures and other financially-induced problems and what this means for the amount of news available to themselves as readers.

“They assume much like dancers will always dance, painters will always paint, journalists will always cover stories,” said Allan Gregg, principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group, which conducted the poll.

“They make no linkage whatsoever to the absence of revenue to news gathering organizations with the inability to pay journalists.”

A 2016 Reuter’s poll cited in the PPF report showed that only nine per cent of those surveyed in Canada pay for online news.

Gregg was joined by April Lindgren, academic director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre and Ed Greenspon, president of the Public Policy Forum, at the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Jan. 28 talk: “The Changing Ways Canadians Get Their News.” The panel discussion followed the release earlier in the day of the forum’s report and its policy recommendations.

The survey of 1,500 Canadians, conducted this past fall between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2,  found that 70 per cent of respondents think that news has a major role to play in democracy and 60 per cent think that journalists play a major role.

When they were asked to assess the consequences of the decline of news organizations, 73 per cent of people surveyed said having less investigative reporting would be a serious problem and 69 per cent said having less coverage of local news would be a serious consequence of news media decline. Having no one around to keep politicians honest or hold powerful interests accountable were considered serious problems by 68 per cent of respondents.

Gregg said the survey results also suggest Canadians hold journalists in high regard –so much so that they balk at the possibility of the government intervening to bail out the news business. Only 25 per cent of those surveyed said they believe government should help struggling news businesses. Respondents said that journalists’ ability to act as watchdogs on power would be compromised by government involvement in the news industry.

“It is the very thing they value most about news – its role in democracy, especially holding the powerful to account – that forms the objection to government doing anything to get the industry out of the dilemma it obviously faces,” said Gregg.

Forty-four per cent of survey resonsdents said they agreed they would be concerned about journalist’s ability to cover governments if said governments financially supported the news business. Another 24 per cent indicated that they strongly agreed.

Although the poll data make it clear that Canadians feel inundated with news, most said they had little to no information about the industry’s economic challenges.

“Fewer than half – which is kind of ironic – have heard, read or seen anything about news organizations facing business and financial difficulties,” said Gregg. “(It) is not part of the public consciousness.”

He pointed to possible explanations for the disconnect between the importance Canadians place on journalism in democracy and their lack of awareness of the news industry’s financial woes: “They haven’t really come to grips – they haven’t started thinking about the demise of newsgathering organizations – what it means to me as an informed citizen,” he suggested. “Or they simply reject the premise that declining news gathering organizations would result in the decline of availability of news.”

Lindgren, who leads the Local News Research Project, has been investigating what she calls “local news poverty” in Canadian communities. Her research, she says, suggests that local news is available unevenly across the country and is increasingly at risk. Data from The Local News Map, which she created with the University of British Columbia’s Jon Corbett, shows 171 local news outlets have closed in 131 communities across the country. The list of closures documented on the crowd-sourced map includes 120 community newspapers.

Another study by the Local News Research Project examined the output of local news outlets in eight Canadian communities and found major differences in how much reporting they did on the local race for MP during the 2015 federal election.

“Where you live is a big factor in the availability of local news,” Lindgren said, noting that her research shows digital-first outlets do not seem to be filling the gap left by the loss of more traditional news producers.

Greenspon said the challenge in writing the PPF report was “how do you design something that supports journalism without the government gaining undue leverage?”

Some of the report’s 12 recommendations, he said, are “no-brainer(s),” including changes to Canada’s charitable status laws. Current rules that limit the resources a charity can devote to advocacy before having its status revoked have historically limited charitable funding of journalism initiatives in Canada.

The report says the “chilling” provisions related to charitable giving reflect “priorities and mores of 19th century England” and removing them could foster the sort of robust not-for-profit, charitable foundation-funded accountability journalism has seen in places like the U.S and Germany.

The “Shattered Mirror” report also recommended the creation of a Future of Democracy and Journalism Fund, to first be financed through an initial investment from the federal government, and then ultimately funded through the taxation of digital advertisers based outside of Canada. The money would be allocated to digital innovation initiatives outlined in the report and the fund would be overseen by an independent board.

The report also recommended:

  • providing additional funds to CBC online to eliminate ad sales.
  • supporting Indigenous news organizations and training journalists to increase the amount of reliable Indigenous journalism.
  • creating an institute for the study of journalism and democracy.
  • establishing legal advisory services for small, young and university news outlets to pursue accountability journalism “without fear of reprisal.”
  • overhauling the Copyright Act’s fair-dealing clauses to enable content creators to retain stronger intellectual property rights to their work.

Audio of the CJF panel is available in full.