By DOUG FIRBY
In the many thousands of words that have been written about the collapse of Canadian daily newspapers, there is a parallel good-news story that has been untold.
There are places in Canada in which newspaper circulation is actually stable or growing, and where reader loyalty is as strong as it has ever been. Places where people still pick up the paper and read it front to back to find out what's going on in their community.
These places, as you might have guessed, are not Canada's mid-sized to large cities, where the spectacular decline of local print media has created an appalling news vacuum. Rather, it is in community newspapers that serve the hundreds of small towns that form the heartland of the country.
It is no easy ride, but community newspapers enjoy relative stability in comparison to their bigger cousins. One Ontario paper I recently encountered claims a circulation penetration rate of 89 per cent — meaning nine out of 10 households in its circulation area buy and read the paper. Those kind of numbers were seldom matched by daily newspapers even at the height of their popularity.
Community newspapers have held true for a number of reasons. Unlike other media, these newspapers tell stories about their communities — stories you can't find on a news wire. Readers cannot find their mix of local news, events, sports and advertising anywhere else. Readers often feel a personal connection, or sense of ownership, with their community newspaper. If they don't like a story, they can call up and complain. Editors and owners belong to the same social clubs, churches and hockey leagues as their customers.
Local businesses, in turn, view community newspapers as the best bet for effectively reaching consumers in these small markets. Their markets are "captive" — i.e. generally too small for the big guys to try to move in.
Corporations have made inroads in some smaller communities, especially in the Golden Horseshoe area between Toronto and Niagara Falls. Yet those efforts have brought mixed success, at best, and in some cases total failure (leading to the closure of some small papers).
Their cost-saving tactics are often what doom them to failure. Companies try to recover the cost of purchasing a small paper by cutting staff. There are cases, in fact, in which the only reporter left at a "local" paper doesn't even live in the community the paper represents.
This is a fatal tactic, especially in communities where the personal connection is everything. In the little southern Ontario town of Petrolia, for example, the community was so disgusted by what has happened to its local paper under company ownership that local advertisers supported the emergence of an independent competitor. When a corporate paper puts virtually nothing into a community (and yet expects to take our profits through advertising revenue), it's not really that hard to provide a better product.
All of this is not to say small papers have an easy ride. This past weekend, publishers, editors and business managers from Ontario's community papers gathered in Toronto for an annual conference. They spoke of the many worries that cloud the crystal ball: ongoing trouble attracting national advertisers, the difficulty in retaining talented young staff who get richer offers from bigger markets, and adapting to the digital age in which a solid web presence and social media strategy are an essential part of the mix.
There will be papers, no doubt, that will give up the fight and fold, as some have. Yet for those who stay, strive to adapt and keep their eye on the ball, it's hard to imagine a future without a community newspaper in some form.
They will survive because nobody else is going to tell the stories they do — about local births and deaths, local heroes and hooligans, the wise and foolish decisions of the local council and prospects for the minor hockey teams. The heartland has shown, time and again, that they will support a local news source that lives and breathes small-town Canadian life.
It makes you wonder whether, in that sense at least, the small towns of Canada are so much different from the big ones. The stories that impact us most, whether in Corner Brook, N.L, or Vancouver, B.C., are the ones about our neighbours.
Political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.