Currently viewing the tag: "local news"

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. 5, 2017

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Producer and broadcaster Jesse Wente delivers his keynote lecture at the launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge at Ryerson University. (Amanda Pope)

A website to help children understand the news, a mobile platform that provides newsrooms with better access to eyewitness videos, and an online platform for distributing newscasts on voice-activated devices were among the ideas-in-progress at the recent launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

Nearly 100 journalists, aspiring entrepreneurs and students attended the Jan. 25 launch of the Canada-wide incubation program in Ryerson University’s DMZ. The event was an opportunity to learn more about how to become one of five journalism startups accepted into the Facebook-sponsored program. The teams selected through the Challenge process will each have access to up to $100,000 in seed capital.

Participants attending Digital News Innovation: Framing the Challenge heard working journalists, scholars, DMZ leaders and officials from Facebook outline the selection procedure as well as specific journalism challenges in need of entrepreneurial solutions.

“These days, the most captivating footage of any event is usually captured by someone on the scene with a smartphone,” said Andrei Sabau, the founder of Seen, a platform he says will make it easier for news organizations to discover, verify and license photos and video published online. “While we can be certain that most events are well documented by those in attendance, the inability for news organizations to quickly and securely access that content leads to a slow dissemination of information. Global events take hours to be clearly communicated to the broader population, while many local stories are never covered.”

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, the DMZ and the Ryerson School of Journalism, will accept applications now through to March 9. The five applicants admitted to the program will be announced this spring. In addition to access to seed money, participants will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.

The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to accessing support for entrepreneurial ideas and early-stage startups, participants will gain access to high-profile senior mentors, workshops designed by digital news experts in Canada, workspace in Ryerson’s DMZ and the opportunity to work with investors, journalists, experts and researchers.

Richard Lachman, Ryerson’s director of zone learning, said that, among other qualities, adjudicators will be looking for applicants who are coachable: “If you are so fixated on your idea that you are sure you have the most brilliant thing in the world, you probably shouldn’t apply. We are hoping to help. We have expertise to help you pivot that idea, to alter that idea, to become coached with all the expertise around. We are looking for people who are open to refining their ideas based on the program.”

The $100,000 in seed capital will be dispersed in phases beginning with the release of $20,000 to each participant at the start of the Challenge. Each team will receive two more installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final presentation where teams will be eligible for another $40,000.

The launch included a mini symposium that explored journalism-related challenges, including how to attract and retain audiences, the impacts of an advertising-based model on traditional journalism, and the social impacts of obtaining news from platforms that weren’t purpose-built for journalism.

Jesse Wente, the event’s keynote speaker, identified the disconnect between news organizations and their audiences as a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

“When large institutions fail to be inclusive and at the same time their audiences are rapidly becoming more diverse, you have a recipe for irrelevance,” said Wente, an Ojibwe broadcaster and columnist on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. “What happens is you create…enormous gaps where people cannot find themselves in your coverage. They don’t see stories that represent them, that speak to the issues that are present in their daily lives.”

During a panel on the state of local news media, April Lindgren, an associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, outlined a list of problems besetting local news organizations.

“We need ideas that make it easy for local news organizations to engage with their audiences or build them; ideas that measure the impact of individual local news stories; … ideas that make it easier for citizens to contribute to local coverage; and innovations for older audiences that aren’t really digitally savvy,” said Lindgren, who leads the Local News Research Project.

She said her research shows that local news is at risk and unevenly available across Canada. The latest data from the Local News Map, which Lindgren created with the University of British Columbia’s Jon Corbett, shows that 238 local news outlets have closed since 2008, including 212 newspapers in 173 communities. Most were community newspapers that published fewer than five times per week.

Radha Tailor, a senior correspondent for the Bramptonist, said residents in Brampton are news deprived: “Brampton has a population of around 600,000 people, but we are limited on news accessibility. We don’t have our own television channel. There is a huge challenge in that people have not been interested in the news in Brampton for a long time. How do we make them interested?”

The lack of full time staff at the Bramptonist, she said, also means there is no time for innovation: “We have a small team of eight and everyone is freelance or on contract. We don’t have anyone there that is full-time.”

Laura Ellis, the head of online for English regions at the BBC, said the challenges faced by local journalism in the United Kingdom are similar to what is happening in Canada. The United Kingdom has lost about 200 local newspapers over the last decade, she said, along with about half of the journalists who once worked in local news.

The BBC, Ellis said, is seeking to address this “democratic deficit” by hiring reporters to cover civic institutions, placing them in local newsrooms, and sharing their content far and wide.

“We cannot go to council meetings and people are getting away with stuff,” Ellis said. “We now have 150 new journalists who will be covering their institutions, including local councils and health boards. They will be publishing stories everyday online and in the newspapers.”

While panelists outlined a long list of journalism challenges in need of solutions, many in the audience already had ideas in the works.

Trebble.fm is an online platform to distribute newscasts on voice-activated devices such as Google Home or Alexa. Armel Beaudry said his media startup makes it easier for audiences to find local content and for journalists to share news coverage. Local journalists, for instance, can share newscasts with their audience using “capsules”– audio messages that journalists can record through the platform to play to listeners.

With the loss of so many local newspapers, Beaudry says, “there is a need to better distribute local journalism. There are a lot of people who want news and content but there is only coverage with a broad appeal and a limited amount of coverage with a local appeal.”

Teaching Kids News, co-founded by Joyce Grant, is an online site that publishes stories about the news of the day with extra context and in language children can understand. The team of volunteer journalists working on the site also produces curriculum and grammar questions for every news article that children can understand and that is relevant for teachers and parents who are homeschooling their offspring. Grant said she would use the Challenge funds to pay the volunteers and build her startup.

“We’re looking for expertise and information on how to monetize our innovative idea,” said Grant. “It is really exciting to think we may be able to get into this program and learn what we need to learn. Everything that they’re offering is what we are looking for– a space to work out of, a community to get information from, and contacts and funding. This program can help us to take our idea that is solving a problem and build it.”

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

By RHIANNA JACKSON-KELSO
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.”

Jan. 23, 2017

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Caption: Journalist Angela Long learning to fly a Citabria airplane on Young Eagles Day – an annual event for aspiring pilots hosted by Stanhope Airport in the Algonquin Highlands, where Long was reporting for the Haliburton Echo. (Photo by Michael J. Hatton)

A recent graduate from Ryerson’s master of journalism program has received a $25,000 Canada Council for the Arts grant to write a book on how local news coverage strengthens rural communities.

Angela Long, who graduated from the MJ program this fall, said ongoing losses of local news outlets prompted her to apply for the grant to explore the role of local news at the community level.

“There has been so much ‘doom and gloom’ lately in the world of journalism,” said Long, who is now a freelance journalist based in Toronto. “No one has looked at any of the smaller, rural newspapers or media outlets and the positive work that they do and the positive influence they have on their communities and the hard work it takes to put together such publications.”

Long, 46, says the voices of rural community members are lost when local media outlets close down: “We are always focusing on what is going on with the bigger media outlets. So we are missing the big picture of what’s going on in these smaller communities and how much more impact there would be if they lose their media outlet. They are already not as heard as urban outlets.”

Long, who is the author of the poetry collection Observations from Off the Grid, plans to write about a study she discussed in her recent article on the future of local news called “The Power of Place.” The study’s authors “found that local media outlets play an important role in strengthening these rural communities,” Long said. “I’m interested in researching the connections between local information, media outlets and resiliency in rural Canada, for my book.”

After interning with the the Haliburton Echo between June and September 2016, Long saw how local coverage connected people: “When you know your neighbours and what’s happening in your community, people have a sense of place. I see the town of Haliburton as a case study for how a community can become so strong because of their local media working which gives a voice to your neighbour.”

Long noted, however, that the internship also opened her eyes to the challenges small newspapers face in this era of news industry disruption.

“There was talk at the Echo on how they were concerned about advertising, losing revenue and their competitor– the Highlander, who was becoming more digital-oriented,” she said. “The Echo was trying to resist going digital even though they had a sense that the journalism landscape was changing.”

Long said her desire to advocate for smaller newspapers was inspired by her observations of the important role the Echo and its hard-working reporters played in their community.

She said she attempted to write a feature on this issue called “The Fluff Stops Here” for a class assignment but soon realized a single article was not enough to tell the full story: “To give the people the voice they deserve for this, I think I need to do something bigger.”

Long said she hopes that by raising awareness of the importance of local news her book will lead to greater recognition of the reporters and editors in small newsrooms who tell the stories of rural Canadians. The grant will allow her to travel across Canada to conduct interviews and other research beginning this spring.