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The State of News Media in the Atlantic Provinces

The State of News Media in the Atlantic Provinces

Written by
Ashley Corbett
January 29th, 2019

Recent journalism grad Ashley Corbett examines the news media landscape in Atlantic Canada.

The State of News Media in the Atlantic Provinces

Halifax and the Citadel; Photo: Glenn Euloth

“But, isn’t journalism a dying art?”

“Oh wow… that’s a tough career choice.”

“Well, good luck with that!”

This was the reaction many of my loved ones had, back in 2012, upon hearing I would be heading to journalism school. Confusion. Alarm. Maybe even pity?

I understood this kind of feedback on my career choice, and I still do. Times aren’t easy for journalists and they haven’t been for a while.

I grew up in New Brunswick, where the news media scene is even more lacklustre than other places. J.D. Irving is the most powerful company in the province and one of the most well-established industrial conglomerates in the entire Atlantic Canadian region. Headquartered in Saint John, the company is involved with forestry, food, shipbuilding, transportation, and agriculture. In addition to this immense control of industry and, in turn, the job market, Irving also owns most major media outlets in the province under the publisher name Brunswick News. This ownership has led to a longstanding concern with regards to media bias. In 2006, the Canadian Senate released a report on media control that drew attention to the situation. Senator Joan Fraser, one of the co-authors, told CBC News: “We didn’t find anywhere else in the developed world a situation like the situation in New Brunswick.”

This kind of environment doesn’t exactly foster trust in the media, or an appreciation for the industry.

Nonetheless, I had made the decision to study journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’d always loved writing and telling stories, and, despite the mass amount of newspaper layoffs happening all over the world, somehow the decision still felt right.

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My career choice gave me a sense of purpose and I studied my pursuit with passion. Throughout my degree, I learned about the immense importance of news media: of holding the powerful accountable, of telling meaningful stories, and of factual reporting. I gained an appreciation for the sheer amount of work that goes into good journalism, from the interviewing process, to the fact checking, to the many cups of coffee. I felt excited to be part of this fast-paced world.

But my optimism wilted in my fourth year of study when journalists at the Chronicle Herald, Nova Scotia’s oldest independently owned newspaper, went on strike. It was January 2016 and sixty-one unionized newsroom staff (known as the Halifax Typographical Union (HTU)) took to the picket line to oppose layoffs and wage cuts. They were locked out. A few days into the strike, a group of journalism students, myself included, visited the strikers to show our support. In J-school, we had been taught not to become social activists, but instead to report on social activism. This cause felt different, though. This could be us.

In J-school, we had been taught not to become social activists, but instead to report on social activism. This cause felt different, though. This could be us.

It was brisk that day. Protest signs in hand, we walked up and down the picket line alongside journalists we admired. Feet shuffling, chanting in unison. A few hours later, I trudged back to my apartment, struck by how chilled to the bone I felt. This was when I really started to consider what I had been told all along but had chosen to ignore. Would I have job security? Would journalists ever be supported enough to do their jobs well? Through all of the excitement and passion in my program at school, there were always jokes amongst the faculty about how we were following a unprofitable path. I remember one photojournalism professor saying he was training the next generation of fast-food employees. At the time I had laughed it off. But after the protest, it really started to sink in.

The HTU strike lasted for nearly nineteen months, becoming the longest newspaper strike in Canadian history. During that time, the newspaper hired “scab” reporters, many from outside of the province, to replace the journalists on the picket line. The Chronicle Herald became a paper rampant with factual errors and typos due to the lack of experienced editors, journalists, and photojournalists on their team. In response, the union started their own newspaper called Local Xpress, which was later nominated for three Atlantic Journalism Awards. According to CBC reporting, the lengthy strike ended in August 2017—after I had graduated—when the HTU and the Chronicle Herald owners reached an agreement. The deal passed with a 94 percent vote. As a result, twenty-five original union members returned to the paper and twenty-six were laid off. Others got jobs elsewhere.

Amidst the strike over labour disputes, the Chronicle Herald still managed to grow. SaltWire Network Inc., which is now the largest owner of newspapers in Atlantic Canada, formed in April of 2017 when the Herald bought twenty-seven newspapers in the region from Transcontinental Media. The company operates thirty-five papers in the four provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

I had moved to Vietnam after graduation to write and teach, but, despite being away, I stayed on top of what was happening back home. I used this time to reflect on what I wanted to get out of journalism and whether I wanted to give it real “go” when (and if?) I returned home. At that point, almost all major news media in the Atlantic provinces had been bought by either the Irvings or Saltwire. The control of mainstream news was—and still is—at the command of a select few. I thought about how, when I had started school, I wanted to be a watchdog to power, and I wondered how journalists could ever truly have the freedom to hold the powerful accountable if their job security was controlled by a few of the region’s most powerful people.

During the strike, a prominent Canadian media critic visited Halifax. Jesse Brown, host of the podcast Canadaland, taped an episode called, “Is Atlantic Canadian Journalism Fucked?” He tapped into my concerns and questions.

On his panel sat Terra Tailleur, assistant journalism professor at the University of King’s College, and Tim Bousquet, editor and publisher at the Halifax Examiner. Brown begins the podcast stating: “The legacy media scene in Atlantic Canada frequently comes up, and has for decades, as atrocious.” Followed by a counterpoint: “... and yet,” he says, “there is sort of this proliferation of hopeful upstarts.”

At that point, almost all major news media in the Atlantic provinces had been bought by either the Irvings or Saltwire. The control of mainstream news was—and still is—at the command of a select few.

This set the tone for the rest of episode. Brown, Tailleur, and Bousquet discuss the industry’s turmoil in the region: the shrinking newsrooms, the layoffs, the media consolidation, and more. But they also managed to answer the question raised with a positive look ahead, pointing out the amount of independent media in Halifax. I’d venture to guess their focus on that city was because it’s the biggest hub and economic centre in the region, where much of this independent media trend is happening.

For a place of its size, Halifax is full of alternative news sources, many of which also cover news outside of the city. For starters, there’s Ku’Ku’Kwes, which is based in Halifax and is an independent site covering Indigenous news in Atlantic Canada. There is also allNovaScotia, which is business and political reporting behind a paywall; they recently launched a sister operation, allNewFoundlandandLabrador. Halifax also has an independent, free, alternative weekly newspaper called the Coast (full disclosure, I write for them). There’s also Tim Bousquet’s own Halifax Examiner, which is an independent, adversarial news site.

While not on the same scale, independent media exists outside of Halifax, too. The Independent is an online newspaper in Newfoundland, which publishes news and commentary, and L'Acadie Nouvelle is a French newspaper in New Brunswick and the only independent daily in the province.

Honestly, I wasn’t fully aware of this scene when I was in journalism school. But the more I’ve learned about it since I graduated, the more I think Halifax specifically has something unique going on; it’s a scrappy community with gumption. As a young journalist, this definitely gives me hope. It’s a good sign of what is possible, especially in the internet age. It’s also a good model for the rest of the region: that amongst media consolidation, independent news can exist.

When I returned to Halifax from Vietnam this past September, I considered searching for a steady job, but ultimately decided to keep freelance writing. My love for the work hasn’t faded, and I want to keep fighting for what I believe matters. Against the odds of industry trends and a crippling recent strike history, I’m not alone in this feeling. Journalists around me are fighting too: to do their jobs, to tell the truth, and to do it well.

A movement of media independence in Atlantic Canada is well underway, and I’m glad to be part of it. With so many upstarts, journalists have more freedom to hold the powerful to account. I recognize this isn’t the easiest process, especially since many small media organizations are understaffed and lack resources, but at least the option is there. And as this trend continues to grow, so too does my hope for the media landscape in the region.

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