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This is one of a series of 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 SIERRA BEIN
Staff reporter

During the Ebola epidemic that spread across West Africa, local journalists were forced to redefine their roles, from reporters to humanitarian workers, say researchers who are still investigating the media crisis that overlapped with the 2014 health disaster.

Some days, the journalists tasked with reporting on Ebola weren’t even coming back to their editors with stories, says David Secko, science communications researcher and chair of Concordia’s journalism program. Instead, they were busy helping to deal with the outbreak and educate people on the ground.

“They also had to be community members, take hygiene kits, and show people how to wash their hands instead of writing a story about how to wash your hands,” he said.

“So we start to see them almost taking on the lead role of what the Red Cross and [Doctors without Borders] would have done in helping. And that [role] switches as the crisis gets worse and worse.”

In collaboration with the World Federation of Science Journalists, Secko and his team conducted over 30 in-depth interviews with local journalists to understand what went wrong while reporting during that year. Some challenges the journalists said they faced had to do with a lack of proper communication from the health organizations and a lack of experience reporting on a health crisis.

Some journalists interviewed in the course of his study said that they even helped dealing with corpses and burials. Some of them said that they became “protectors” of their communities.

Secko presented his work during a panel on new research methods at Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism June 4.  While his fellow panelists spoke about advancing analytic tools and understanding data, the former microbiologist focused on the power of learning through lived experience. By interviewing journalists, he aims to find solutions to problems they faced.

“You have to think also about the uniqueness of what they were dealing with,” he said. “Talking about Ebola is very different than anything else they had seen. Very different than anything they had come across before. That unfamiliarity and the unwillingness of government to share information with them.”

But, Secko says that each person he interviewed, at some point, talks about a “flip” in the role they played during the outbreak.

“The health authorities themselves did not really digest the information. The first information brought great fear. So at the start for those who remember, what the health authorities were releasing was basically just Ebola can kill,” he said.”Not all of this is set up for more than 30 dialects that the non-local messaging doesn’t care about.”

“We have journalists start to say things like ‘we fulfill our duty to communities at any cost.’”

The viral disease kills anywhere from 50 to 90 per cent of people who contract it, with symptoms similar to Malaria, influenza and other potentially life-threatening diseases. The outbreak was believed to have started in December 2014, but it wasn’t until March 2015 that it began to gain media attention—something WHO received heavy criticism for.

The Ebola outbreak killed over 11,000 people, many of which critics of West African governments and WHO say could have been prevented.

Secko said that this type of research is important to teach us how to change both documented and undocumented decisions that had taken place, such as the physical work journalists ended up doing during the outbreak.

“Why are we always talking about the same ideas? Even though the challenges and the contact might change and health and science journalist it’s particularly true,” he said.

“I’m often interested in ‘what haven’t we heard yet?’ Or ‘what don’t we know yet that might impact these things?’”

Secko says he is hopeful that his work will have practical uses in the field and that his findings could be applied to other outbreaks in the future.

This is one of a series of 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

Small market newspapers are being stripped of local content by “predatory” chain ownership groups, a new study suggests.

John Miller, a professor emeritus at the Ryerson School of Journalism, compared local content in the Northumberland Today, the daily newspaper published in Cobourg, Ont., with local news published by its predecessors. The Cobourg Daily Star and the Port Hope Evening Guide amalgamated with the weekly Colborne Chronicle in 2009 to form Northumberland Today.

Since the merger, the amount of local content featured has sharply declined, Miller concluded. His quantitative analysis shows that widely-circulated syndicated material with little relevance to Port Hope or the surrounding area has replaced locally-relevant coverage, and the audience noticed: Northumberland Today, which now only reaches 2,600 people daily, is losing 500 readers every year.

Northumberland Today is now owned by Postmedia, whose primary aim, Miller says, is to extract revenue from its newspapers rather than support good journalism.

“We have to invent a word for that kind of ownership,” Miller said during his presentation at a recent conference on the future of local news. “Gnawing-off-their-own-limbs chain ownership might be more appropriate.”

With the exception of a $17.8 million profit in the first quarter of 2017, which was largely the result of one-off debt restructuring last October, Postmedia has long been losing money, primarily due to a high debt load and declines in print circulation and print ad revenue. During that time, its journalists and editors have been offered voluntary buyouts, faced layoffs, and been merged with other newsrooms.

Miller, Marc Edge, a professor at both Canada West University and the University of Malta, and Adam Szynol, an assistant professor at the University of Wrocław in Poland, discussed the concentration of media ownership on a panel moderated by Ryerson School of Journalism associate chair Ann Rauhala. The session was presented as part of Is no local news bad news? The future of local journalism, a conference held June 3-4 at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Syndicated material now makes up 75 per cent of Northumberland Today, Miller said, while Port Hope-focused content has fallen to six per cent from 41 per cent in 2008. Area news, which includes news about surrounding communities, has also declined, he said, albeit not as much.

“It leads me to believe it’s not a local paper anymore,” says Miller.

Instead of focusing on hiring good reporters and supporting local newspapers, Miller said Postmedia is extracting money from them, leaving editors at local newspapers with too few resources to commit to community-focused work. Even the opinion pages—essentially free, local content—have gone from three or four pieces per day 20 years ago, to none today because people aren’t invited to write in, he says.

“[The editor] seemed to be willing to print letters to the editor,” says Miller, “But the newspaper has lost its engagement with the public.”

Publishers, says Miller, are crucial to building and maintaining relationships with the community.

Nonetheless, he noted, several publishers, including at Northumberland Today. have been cut by Postmedia and replaced with regional managers.

Despite the dire headlines, Edge argued that Postmedia’s financial troubles have been greatly exaggerated.

The company’s $352-million loss last year, for example, includes a $267 million writedown—a devaluation of its assets—which Edge says is only a loss on paper. On an operating basis—the day-to-day costs and revenue of the business, without all the debt—Postmedia reported an $82 million profit. In a study of publicly-traded newspaper owners going back to 2006, Edge found that on an operating basis, none had declared an annual loss.

“The myth of newspaper poverty is alive and well,” says Edge. “Perhaps more so than ever.”

He said newspaper owners have been happy to leverage the hard-times myth for regulatory leniency. In British Columbia, he said, the Competition Bureau, the federal agency tasked with investigating anti-competitive behaviour, has been “derelict in its duty.” Since 2010, Glacier Media and the Black Press, which collectively publish nearly 150 community newspapers in B.C., have bought, sold and traded newspapers, and then proceeded to close 20 of them after they changed hands. One 2014 exchange included a total of 15 newspapers, Edge noted, of which more than half have closed. Their dealings, he said, have created regional monopolies in B.C.

“This is classic anti-competitive behaviour,” Edge said. “Buy your competition, close it. This is clearly tit for tat, quid-pro-quo stuff, and yet the Competition Bureau does nothing.”

The multiple newspaper closures, he said, mask the financial reality that Glacier Media and Black Press are both doing well.

Until the 2008 recession, Glacier, which is publicly traded, enjoyed 20 per cent-plus profit margins, says Edge. That fell to between 15 and 20 per cent in subsequent years. The average profit margin for a Fortune 500 company, he reminded the audience, is 4.7 per cent. Glacier’s most recent financial statement reported a 15 per cent profit margin.

“The newspapers they’ve been closing have died not so much as a result of natural causes,” says Edge, “But as a result of premeditated murder.”

Although Black Press is a private company, Torstar, which is public, owns a 20 per cent stake. From that, Edge estimates that Black Press is profitable.

This is one of a series of 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 JASMINE BALA
Staff reporter

The disappearance of archived pages from the Internet Archive poses a threat to research and the preservation of news as the first draft of history, researchers heard recently during a Ryerson University conference on the state of local news.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit digital library with collections of books, movies, music and archived web pages from across the world. Its most popular feature is the Wayback Machine, which allows researchers to save webpages and search through their database of archived pages. Some pages that may have been previously accessible, however, have disappeared.

“If you are a site owner and you ask for something not to be displayed in the Wayback Machine that has been captured via automatic global scale crawling, then it will not be accessible,” Internet Archive’s web archiving director Jefferson Bailey said during a June 3 panel presentation hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism.

Under copyright laws, he said, the Internet Archive team is legally required to make these pages unavailable to users upon the request of the page owner.

The two-day conference brought together about 100 journalists, educators and scholars. Bailey was featured on a panel organized by the News Measures Research Project, a major research initiative led by Duke University’s Philip Napoli. The project’s goal is to identify the factors that play a role in determining the health of local journalism in different communities.

Carrie Buchanan, a journalism professor from John Carroll University in Ohio who attended the panel, said she has discovered that archived pages she was counting on as part of her research on three hyperlocal news sources in Cleveland, Ohio have vanished from the Wayback Machine.

Buchanan noted, for example, that archived pages published by the Cleveland Heights Patch prior to 2014 have now disappeared.

In the case of Canada, the ability of site owners to remove archived pages presents problems on a larger scale with companies like Postmedia, she added.

“Somebody might attempt to take all of the old versions of Postmedia out of the Internet Archive…I think it’s a significant issue,” she said. “If this stuff is a public trust, maybe there needs to be some kind of movement to keep news in the public domain even though it’s privately owned.”

“It’s really not good when you think about how much of Canada’s history is in those old newspapers,” she said in an interview during the conference.

“Maybe all of that public material that was previously in the public domain could be removed, even from the Internet Archive. And that really scares me.”

Buchanan suggested that a transfer of ownership might be the reason for the disappearance of the Cleveland Heights Patch pages: AOL sold Patch to Hale Global at the beginning of 2014.

“If I were the new owners, I might not want people to see how good it used to be,” she said, noting she thinks the quality of journalism from Patch has declined. “I might not want people to know that there was very detailed local coverage by quite a few different reporters.”

Buchanan said she relies “extensively” on the Internet Archive and even though there are some challenges in using the Wayback Machine, “this is one of the great resources that we have for research into what’s happening to journalism.”

Research projects like the News Measures Research Project use the Internet Archive to curate archived pages and generate research datasets. After creating and testing a methodology that looks at the number of news outlets in each community and the quantity and quality of stories being produced, Napoli, the principal investigator of the project, said they are now examining local news across 100 random communities in the United States.

Two members of Napoli’s team, Rutgers University’s Matthew Weber and Kathleen McCollough, joined him on the panel to present their latest research. They have identified all of the online webpages for media outlets in those municipalities and with the help of the Internet Archive, have created a week’s sample of content to analyze.

Bailey said that research like this is a “great example of research intent” pairing with “preservation intent.”

This project alone, Bailey said, involves gathering content from 663 local news sites. Altogether that amounts to more than two terabytes of data and 19 million documents. Documents in this case, he added, means URLs.

While the rest of Napoli’s team have been analyzing the news content, Weber has been working on the network data by mapping hyperlink connections between sites.

“There are some really cool things you can do with the archive, in addition to just being able to utilize it to map connections that exist between websites,” he said. “It gives us this really unique snapshot of what content is and was on news media websites and related websites over time.”

Napoli says he hopes to have the analysis of the 100 communities completed and characteristics of an unhealthy local news ecosystem identified by the end of the year.

This is one of a series of 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 JASMINE BALA
Staff reporter

Local news matters because it fosters debate, instigates major social change and connects community members, participants at a recent conference on the future of local news were told.

“Does Local News Matter? Tales from the Trenches” offered four perspectives on the impact local journalism can have on a community and what happens in its absence. The presentations took place June 3 as part of Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, a conference hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

Local news, the panelists agreed, matters now more than ever.

Social change cultivated by local journalism

Reporting by the Toronto news media on carding – the police practice of stopping, questioning and documenting people who haven’t committed any particular offence – played a major role in changing a practice that disproportionately targeted young Black and Indigenous men, said panellist Knia Singh, a community activist and lawyer in Toronto.

Knia Singh, lawyer and community activist in Toronto (Courtesy of Knia Singh)

“When you accurately report things that are of huge social interest, it gives the community inspiration to keep going because it says somebody is listening. And that was the point with our community,” said Singh, who was named one of the Toronto Star’s People to Watch in 2014.

Singh said Star reporters Jim Rankin and Patty Winsa successfully brought the carding issue to the forefront of public discussion with their “Known to Police” series based on freedom of information requests for carding data as well as interviews with citizens targeted by the practice. Although Black residents make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, Rankin and Winsa found that they accounted for 25 per cent of carding stops between 2008 and mid-2011. Black people, Rankin and Winsa wrote in their series, are more likely than white people to be carded in each of the city’s police patrol zones.

“Honestly, without Jim Rankin and Patty Winsa taking this on and putting their necks on the line, this issue wouldn’t be [discussed],” Singh said, noting that the reporters went beyond statistics to tell the stories of community members who were regularly stopped by police as a result of racial profiling. “Responsible, brave journalism really made it happen.”

Local coverage like this, Singh added, connects communities to produce social change.

The data analysis, freedom of information requests and hard-hitting reporting by local media  resulted in provincial legislation banning random carding that came into effect this year. Police officers, however, can still collect personal information during traffic stops, while executing a search warrant and when someone is being arrested or detained.

“The more something is covered locally, the more people understand and connect with the issue. And if you’re not covering a story, your community is not connecting,” Singh said. “What you’re presented with on a regular basis becomes your reality.”

Blogs filling gaps left behind by local newspaper

Cutbacks to local news coverage leave a vacuum in municipal coverage that special interests are jumping in to fill, municipal communications specialist Brian Lambie warned attendees at the local news conference.

Brian Lambie, president of Redbrick Communications (Courtesy of Brian Lambie)

Lambie, president of Redbrick Communications, said that when local newspapers such as the Midland Free Press closed in Midland, Ont., blogs covering municipal politics emerged to take their place.

“If we look at who is behind [these local blogs], we don’t really know,” he said. “They won’t tell you who they are.”

Following the newspaper closure, many of the blogs were “more right leaning,” he said, noting that they were successful in getting more right-wing candidates on council.

To combat this, he added, someone created the left-leaning blog midlandcommunity.ca.

Lambie said one reason to be concerned about the lack of clear accountability for blogs is that they may have an agenda the public is unaware of.

There are suspicions that one blog in particular is being run out of the police station, said Lambie, who is the media contact for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO). “We think it is an IT manager within the police station, which means it’s being run with the approval and understanding of the police.”

“And one of the hot topics there is whether or not they should get rid of the Midland police force and replace it with the OPP. As you might have guessed, there are a lot of stories that say you shouldn’t.”

Lambie said another consequence of newsroom cutbacks is that journalists aren’t verifying information.

His team, for instance, put out a top 10 list of Canadian mayors on Twitter based on their engagement levels and follower counts. Twitter Canada, he said, took the idea and posted its own version of the list for the top 25 largest communities in Canada.

Lambie noted that Barrie mayor Jeff Lehman, who has a significant social media presence, was left off the list because his city didn’t make the top 25.

Lambie quickly sent off an email with the subject line “Mayor Lehman short changed by Twitter survey,” with screenshots of Lehman’s Twitter follower count and hyperlinks as evidence. To keep the conversation going and to push the Lehman story further, he tweeted about it.

“Now, this was covered by the Barrie Examiner, it was covered by CTV News. Neither of them contacted us to find out if it was real,” he said. “This story gets shared…across Southwestern Ontario. There were important stories in Southwestern Ontario that should have been covered that day but they weren’t because this took the place of it. It’s not fake news, it’s all real. But it’s entirely manufactured.”

Extreme voices amplified in the absence of local newspaper

The void left by the closure of The Guelph Mercury, Guelph’s 149-year-old daily newspaper, has been filled by extreme voices that have replaced straightforward accounts of civic issues and debates, says James Gordon, Guelph’s city councillor for Ward 2.

After the Mercury closed on Jan. 29, 2016, online news websites did emerge to replace it, Gordon said, but in many cases their comment sections have become a forum for divisive hyper-partisan views.

“When you see those online comment sections, it seems to be – politically speaking – the most right-wing extremists that will respond with their comments.” Gordon said, noting that he thinks comment sections get more attention than the actual story. “They get first in, so they get the largest and most noisy voice and it’s really skewed from my standpoint as a politician.”

James Gordon, Guelph city councillor (Courtesy of James Gordon)

Right-wing blogs pushing alternative facts and misinformation have also gained lots of traction among Guelph residents who don’t know where to go for their news since the Mercury closed, he said.

 

These biased online blogs and comment sections are reasons why there needs to be a “greater movement to examine what we lost with our local journalism,” Gordon said. Without the Mercury, he added, the city has been left without nonpartisan and in-depth investigative reporting.

It becomes “normal” to look at “bullet points on social media” as news, he said, and “we almost forget the value of what would come from an actual paid subscription from…local media newspapers.”

The community, Gordon added, needs to be aware of this gap and recognize that it’s not “effective to expect those free local biased sources” to provide them with the “actual information” they need to make informed decisions.

A viable economic model for local newspapers, however, is not likely when community members don’t want to pay for good journalism: “In your job as journalists, increasingly, you’re expected to do your job for free. We are not valuing our artists, our creative sector and our journalists, so that’s why it’s not economically viable to create a local newspaper anymore,” Gordon said.

An educational process is necessary to teach people “the value in supporting [news outlets] – not just supporting from a community level – but supporting with your dollars,” Gordon said. “We have to be able to say what you’re getting for free is not of the same value.”

Future of local news feeds our appetite for “basic” information

The power of connecting people to each other is fundamental to the future of local media, said Kristy Hess, a communications professor at Australia’s Deakin University. She argues that Facebook buy, sell and swap pages – today’s classifieds pages – are evidence of this phenomenon.

Kristy Hess, professor at Deakin University in Australia (Courtesy of Kristy Hess)

Citing her research, Hess noted that on one page she examined, there were postings for a lost dog, a lost engagement ring and even announcements of pregnancies and wedding anniversaries.

“Buy, sell and swap pages are snazzy digital versions of the 18th-century newspaper – an era when shipping notices, newspaper properties for lease and goods for sale dominated the front pages,” she said.

“People’s appetite for this basic type of information shouldn’t be overlooked. Rituals such as birthdays and marriages, for example, are by far one of the most significant dimensions of local news and yet underappreciated in scholarship about the media.”

There’s more to local news than just the journalistic philosophy of objectively standing outside society to report the truth, Hess added. The Facebook philosophy of connecting people with each other is “clearly a good one because Mark Zuckerberg is now a multibillionaire at a time when the business model of news has crumbled.”

By JASMINE BALA
Staff reporter

Scholars, journalists and educators from around the world will gather in Toronto this spring to discuss the state of local journalism, develop new research initiatives and explore solutions for communities that are underserved in terms of access to local news.

“Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” will take place June 3 to 4, 2017 on Ryerson University’s campus in downtown Toronto. Organized by more than a dozen journalism scholars from across Canada and hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre (RJRC), the purpose of the conference is to inform and promote public discussion about the state of local news and provide a forum for an exchange of ideas among researchers, practicing journalists and journalism educators.

“In discussions about the media, we tend to think a lot about what’s happening at the national level with national media or the big players,” said April Lindgren, the RJRC’s academic director. “But the reality is many, many people in many, many communities get a lot of their information from their local media – or at least they used to.

“This event will be an opportunity to highlight problems and share ideas, research methods and information about possible solutions for communities where the critical information needs of citizens aren’t being met.”

The opening day of the conference will feature two panels that are open to all members of the public and are free of charge. The first panel will provide an overview of local news-related research undertaken by scholars in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.

The second consists of speakers who will provide first-hand accounts about why local news matters: “We wanted to look really concretely at the impact of reporting in communities,” Lindgren said. The lineup of speakers for this panel includes a representative of Toronto’s black community, who will discuss the impact of the Toronto Star’s coverage of random police checks on minority communities, and a city councillor from Guelph, Ont. who will talk about the availability of local news in the aftermath of the closure of the Guelph Mercury daily newspaper.

On Saturday afternoon and Sunday, conference registrants will also hear from more than 50 speakers on topics that include:

  • new research and methodologies, including the results of a major project that is investigating the availability of local news in 100 U.S. communities
  • experiments designed to improve the quality and quantity of local news
  • issues related to police and crime reporting at the local level
  • the challenges faced by local newspapers and television stations
  • the impact of media ownership/concentration on the provision of local news
  • local news coverage in Indigenous communities
  • the role of schools of journalism in meeting local news needs
  • how local news can foster understanding in diverse communities

The conference takes place amidst growing concerns over the state of local news media in many jurisdictions. In Canada, the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee held hearings over the past year on how communities are informed about local news through broadcast, digital and print media.

Think tanks have also joined the local news conversation. After observing that “towns and cities continue to lose their local news sources, major city newspapers and TV stations are bleeding staff and the industry is scrambling to find ways of securing revenue and holding the public’s trust and interest,” the Institute for Research on Public Policy launched a series of articles exploring the future of Canadian journalism.

The Public Policy Forum, meanwhile, recently released a new report that includes survey results indicating that 69 per cent of respondents think having access to less local news coverage is a serious consequence of news media decline. The same survey also suggested that while Canadians value journalism and believe it is essential to a well-functioning democracy, they don’t want to pay for it.

CLICK HERE to find out more about conference sessions that are open at no cost to non-registrants or to register for the full program ($75 for regular registration; $30 for students).