Reports outline devastation of local news

The Canadian Press
Terry Pedwell

OTTAWA–The number of articles generated by community newspapers in Canada has declined by almost half over the last decade, and many news organizations are trending toward not-for-profit business models to make up for a dramatic decline in advertising revenues, two studies released Tuesday reveal.
News coverage of local councils and other democratic institutions was down by more than one-third from 10 years ago, said a report from the Public Policy Forum called “Mind The Gaps–Quantifying The Decline of News Coverage in Canada,” which studied articles appearing in community papers across five regions of the country.
What was most striking about the findings was that the decline was consistent across almost all 20 communities studied, regardless of size or whether local papers were downsized or closed altogether.
“It’s down whether you lost your paper, you didn’t lose your paper, whether you’re big-, small-, or medium-sized, whether you’re French or English,” said Public Policy Forum president and CEO Ed Greenspon.
“There’s a consistent trend line down, down, down.”
Newspaper editors have put up a valiant effort to fight those trend lines to produce as much so-called “civic” news as possible, trying to protect the core of news that they believe is important to their audiences, said Greenspon.
As a result, civic news coverage, while still in decline, hasn’t dropped off as much as the overall trend, he noted.
The decline in the volume of articles coincided with downsizing and closure of newspapers, as well as a drop in advertising and subscription revenues, the report said.
Total net advertising revenues among daily and community newspapers across Canada fell from $3.87 billion in 2007 to $2.13 billion in 2016, according to News Media Canada, which touts itself as the voice of the country’s print and digital media industry.
“It’s a bloodbath,” said Greenspon.
During that same period, ad money collected by internet-based media exploded, rising from $1.24 billion to $5.48 billion, NMC reported.
A number of newspaper outlets have responded by transforming their business models–a trend Greenspon predicted would continue.
A higher-profile example of that move is Montreal’s La Presse newspaper, which announced in July that it was adopting a not-for-profit structure.
Previously owned by Power Corporation of Canada, the 130-year-old publication declared full independence from the company and that it would operate as a “social trust” administered by a former Supreme Court of Canada justice.
While it is impossible to know which funding models eventually will halt the bleeding of revenues from news organizations, if at all, there are trends emerging that could hold promise, said another report from the forum, entitled “What the Saskatchewan Roughriders Can Teach Canadian Journalism.”
The report, which looked at a number of new approaches to paying for journalism, is underpinned by a single theme, Greenspon said.
“People want news that is close to their community and reflects their community,” he explained.
“And that’s the key in the Saskatchewan Roughrider model.”
The CFL franchise is owned by a cross-section of the community, rather than a single controlling shareholder, the report noted, suggesting community ownership may prove to be the elusive business model that keeps the struggling newspaper industry alive.
“Whether this is superior to entrepreneurial ownership is certainly open to debate, but it may be the only way to go in some smaller or mid-sized markets,” said the report.
Still, the success of many of the not-for-profit ownership models being tried is predicated on money coming from philanthropic and public sources.
The federal government’s 2018 budget set aside $50 million over five years, starting in fiscal 2018-19, to support local journalism in under-served communities through one or more independent non-governmental organizations.
The Liberals have yet to unveil a plan for how that money will be spent.
The government also pledged to look at ways of encouraging private donations to journalistic endeavours, such as through allowing news organizations to qualify for charitable status under the country’s tax laws.