Local newspaper feeling pinch from online media

Newspapers were once the only place you could read about what was going on in the world. Now you can get updates from your smartphone, but what you can’t get is the sense of community a physical newspaper brings.

According to recent data from Local News Project, between 2008 and April 1, 2021, a total of 448 news operations have closed in 323 communities across Canada. Community newspapers, which publish fewer than five times per week, account for 345 of the closings.

This trend is no stranger to northwestern Ontario communities. The Dryden Observer and Red Lake’s Northern Sun News are among the latest newspapers in northwestern Ontario to cease publication. The Ignace Driftwood also stopped their publication in November of 2018. 

Mike McKinnon and Eve Shine are co-publishers of The Atikokan Progress, a publication founded in 1950 by Bob Clarke, when Atikokan was a mining boomtown.

After Clarke and Norm Dyck retired in 1980, Vic Prokopchuk, a local entrepreneur, and Larry Fontana, then director of Education, bought the paper because they were afraid that a big conglomerate would take over and not support local journalism. It was not until 1994 that Shine and McKinnon bought the Progress and became business partners.

Atikokan’s population is about 2,800 and The Progress currently has about 1,100 subscribers, including ones that are out of town. The subscription has decreased by a couple hundred as the mills shut and residents left town.

Editor Michael McKinnon and summer reporter Julia Bailey, create the Atikokan Progress each week. They’re one of the last newspapers serving northwestern Ontario, in a media landscape strained by shrinking populations, shuttered industries and mounting competition from online media. – Eve Shine photo

McKinnon and Shine said they have already felt the change in the journalism industry by how residents started getting their news.

McKinnon said the most frustrating part to him is that for all the talk of the internet and the information available there, there’s precious little about Atikokan on the internet.

The Progress covers a wide variety of topics, including the hospital, council, different boards and meetings, McKinnon added.

“People think they are informed of what’s going on locally, by going on Facebook groups, but they aren’t,” McKinnon said. “What we offer, as a newspaper, is a curated guide to information of local interest.”

With social media becoming more of an echo chamber where you only see more of what interests you, McKinnon said a lot of people are losing sight of the broader issues that will affect them down the line. 

For instance, McKinnon said, there has been little online coverage of the nuclear disposal site in Ignace.

“We could end up being the nuclear dump of North America,” McKinnon said. “Pay attention, folks. I’ve also been covering Council and community business for 30 years. I can provide a much clearer version of what’s going on than fancily-worded press releases that sometimes come our way.”

That being said, the Progress is facing continuity challenges. Shine overlooks the bigger bulk of advertisements. She said they need the ads to keep going.

“The biggest thing that we’re all up against is basically Facebook,” Shine said. “We keep the history. I don’t think they’re going to be appreciated until they disappear.”

McKinnon echoed the concern, adding that with so much of the local news industry being up in the air, they have to find the money to keep the wolf from the door. McKinnon said when he moved to Atikokan, there were about 80 retail businesses. Now, McKinnon could only count 15.

With it being tougher than ever, the Progress has, for the first time in 70 years, begun charging for obituaries. Although it’s something they resisted doing, people appreciate the low price to place an obituary, compared to other publications.

“Nobody’s been able to solve the issue of how you fund news-gathering operations if you don’t base it on advertising,” McKinnon said. “That’s been the method for 300 years since the printing press started. Doing that online in a small town just economically doesn’t fly.”

Right now, it is a four-people organization, two co-publishers, Christine Jefferson-Durand, part-time office support and Julia Bailey, summer reporter.

And although the industry has changed, McKinnon said the challenging aspects of reporting have not. 

“Difficult stories are still the most challenging part, such as tragedies,” McKinnon said. “Scandals in a small town are also very loaded. There has to be a sensitive approach to covering these things.”

McKinnon and Shine are in it because they enjoy it. McKinnon’s favourite part about the job is capturing people’s attention when they are reading a story written by him.

“I have a place in the community. I’m a newspaper guy. I don’t consider myself a journalist. I’m rooted in Atikokan and this local community,” McKinnon said. “I strive to bring a broader perspective to bring the world to Atikokan.”

As for the future of the Progress, Shine and McKinnon said somebody is going to come up with a solution because local news is too valuable to lose.

“Read your local paper. Stay current with what’s going on around you,” McKinnon said. “It’s important. Don’t wait until the decision is five minutes away. If you follow local news, you’ll see what’s coming in your town and you will be better positioned to act to improve it.”