In the midst of a period in news history that can easily be characterized as both the best of times and the worst of times, the community of Richmond, British Columbia, is mourning the loss of one of its two community newspapers. This may not sound like cause for alarm, given that Richmond still has a community newspaper to serve its interests, but the loss is far greater and far more tangible than a cursory consideration of the news suggests.
For decades, the community of Richmond was fortunate enough to have two teams of journalists working hard to bring them the news and information that they need to make decisions that range from who to vote for to when to water their lawns. The Richmond Review and the Richmond News have enriched the lives of community members by helping provide them with the tools they need to be active citizens, thoughtful consumers and engaged members of the community. Both newspapers have supported, celebrated and encouraged excellence in the community and have helped to foster an informed citizenship. For decades, the citizens of Richmond had two newspapers looking out for their interests and inspiring a sense of community that has instilled a feeling of pride in residents.
Sadly, this is no longer the case. While the Richmond News is still standing, the Richmond Review published its last edition on July 24th, 2015. The Richmond Review, like most community newspapers, was so much more than just a place where stories were published on the news of the day. It was a real part of the community. The staff all had a sense of responsibility, and of obligation to the citizens they served. The journalists informed people about crime in their neighbourhoods, and what was happening at city hall. They wrote stories about election issues, and told people about exciting community events. More than that, the newspaper donated time and space to local causes, including the Richmond Christmas Fund, which helps to ensure everyone in the city has a happy Christmas. It honoured exceptional women in the community with the Ethel Tibbits awards every year. It celebrated the accomplishments of the many people in the community who were doing spectacular things. It had the best interests of the community at heart.
When it was announced that the paper would be closing, I was deeply saddened both because it was indicative of a larger trend in the news industry that is weakening the overall news ecology in communities across the country, and because, on a more personal level, the paper had played an important role in my life growing up and it was difficult to imagine life without it. My family has lived in Richmond my entire life, so I grew up in a house that always had copies of the Review sitting on the coffee table. My three siblings often had their names and pictures appear in the sports section – having excelled at so many things, their accomplishments were often considered to be local-newsworthy.
This celebration of achievement is a big deal for kids growing up, and it is rare for publications that are not community-based to celebrate accomplishments that happen on a very local level. The paper continued to play an important role in my life after I graduated from journalism school when my byline became a weekly fixture after I was offered a job as the paper’s Around Town columnist and as a general freelance reporter. For three years, the Review gave me the opportunity to practise the skills that I learned as a journalism student. For some of my colleagues, the paper gave them their first internships, providing them with training that has helped them to launch their careers.
Richmond is fortunate enough to still have a local newspaper, but the loss of the Richmond Review is still a huge blow to the community, and cause for concern. My personal experience with the paper and that of those around me exemplify two important benefits of strong community newspapers. First, they help to build communities and second, they provide a space for journalists to practise and develop their reporting skills. A third benefit of community newspapers, and a major reason why losing one is cause for concern, is because these publications contribute to maintaining society.
The first of these three contributions, community building, is essential even in a world that is becoming increasingly globalized. Community has the potential to ground citizens at a time when more and more of our lives are being acted out on a global scale. In this respect, the loss of a community newspaper is not just about the loss of local news coverage, although that is a big part of it. It is also about all of the contributions that the papers make to nonprofit organizations, the space that they provide for small business owners to reach the consumers that matter to them most, and the pictures they take and publish of kids after they do something great. The loss of local news outlets is truly a loss for the community as it means that there is one less place for people to be able to speak their minds about issues that are important to them and their neighbours and one less place people can turn to for the news and information they need to navigate their everyday lives.
Professional journalists play an important role in community building by using the researching, interviewing and writing skills that they have to tell the community’s stories. Journalists help us make sense of the world that we live in. They are the ones out there covering stories that help citizens to make decisions about who they are going to vote for, and what initiatives they are going to support. They give citizens the information required to take a stand against injustice and to demonstrate support for fellow community members. As such, it is important to consider what is lost in terms of labour opportunities when a newspaper closes down. When a community loses a publication, it also loses a place where young journalists can go to learn skills and start their careers, not to mention the fact that it means that seasoned journalists who have devoted their lives to serving a particular community end up being laid off and their expertise lost. These labour concerns point to the larger issue of decreasing diversity of voices. With one newspaper closure, Richmond lost three full-time journalists and a full-time editor who spent their careers looking out for the community’s interests. The loss of four journalists covering stories in the community also means that there are four fewer voices in the community’s news system. This is not exactly an ideal situation in a democratic society. Each person involved in the news contributes a unique point of view, so who is in the newsroom can affect a number of things including: which stories get published, on which page those stories are published and where reporters go to get their stories. Because of this, having a diversity of voices, as opposed to relying on a monopoly newspaper, can only serve to benefit citizens.
All of this matters if for no other reason than that democracy requires a healthy mediasphere. As media scholar Natalie Fenton (2011) argues: “although most commercial news organizations are first and foremost businesses, news is no ordinary commodity and is linked directly to the health and well-being of democratic practice” (p. 63). Canadian democracy requires us to be informed as local citizens. While globalization influences what news is important to us, we cannot forget that we live locally. Looking to community newspapers is essential, not only because we vote in city councillors, school board trustees and our mayors, but because at all levels of government we vote for people we want to represent the needs of our communities. As such, our democratic process requires us to know what is happening in our neighbourhoods. When community newspapers close down, that means that there is less space for news stories to be printed, which means that less information is being circulated. The Richmond community lost the space dedicated to stories about it that came along with, at one point, having two newspapers publish twice each week. Even though there was some overlap of content, I cannot help but be skeptical that, even after accounting for all of the double coverage of news and events happening when both papers were publishing, all of the news that used to be printed will magically fit into the news hole of one paper.
Richmond is not the only community to have recently lost a local paper. In 2015 alone, several community newspapers across British Columbia closed down. The Tri-Cities NOW, the Burnaby NewsLeader and the New Westminster NewsLeader closed on October 1st (Hui, 2015), and back in March, the Oceanside Star and the Courier-Islander both published their final editions (Braganza, 2015). These closures are the consequence of a large sale of local newspapers between Black Press and Glacier Media that have given each company monopolies in different parts of the province. “The deal lessened competition by giving Glacier a community-newspaper monopoly over the western part of the Lower Mainland and Black Press a monopoly in eastern suburbs of Vancouver” (Hui, 2015). This trend that is seeing so many local newspapers close is not something that has been isolated in British Columbia, or even in Canada – there were 101 local newspapers that were closed down across the United Kingdom “between July 2008 and August 2009” (Fenton, 2011, p. 65).
This is a trend that cannot be ignored. Sure, new technology, particularly the Internet, has helped to facilitate a media environment that
is characterized by the availability of a seemingly infinite amount of information. It is possible to spend the entire day online and never face an information lull. This is not inconsequential because it is easy to celebrate the volume of content that is available and possible, while forgetting to consider the types of content we are consuming. Quantity and quality of information are not the same things, and it is easy to lose sight of that online. The quantity of information available, and the ease with which anyone can produce and distribute their own content is a great benefit of new technology. It is why it is easy to say that journalism is currently in the midst of the best of times. The opportunity for more content to be created and distributed sounds very promising. But the quantity of content that is out there is also why it is now the worst of times in the journalism industry. The Internet has given us the capacity to post more content, but because it has caused chaos in terms of the financial model of newspapers, it has also led to less diverse content because there are fewer people working as professional journalists. It has also created a media environment where it is easy to get lost in a sea of content, and not all of that content is actually contributing to creating an informed citizenry.
In this age where we are faced with an often overwhelming amount of content, community news brings us information that impacts the decisions that we make on a daily basis and keeps us informed. This trend in closing down local newspapers should be taken seriously and as an opportunity for us to consider the direction the news industry is headed in. Steps need to be taken now to help rebuild a news industry that creates the conditions needed for community building and for fostering a healthy democracy. While pictures of kittens are amusing and abundant online, it is essential that news and information is being gathered and distributed that helps to inspire active citizens, thoughtful consumers and engaged community members. Community newspapers have the potential to ensure that this happens – for as long as they manage to survive.