Local news is disappearing in Ontario, and that’s bad for democracy

OPINION: A study of the Northumberland Today newspaper demonstrates larger problems for small-town Ontario news, says John Miller
By John Miller - Published on July 27, 2017
store fronts in downtown Port Hope, Ontario
Just 25 per cent of the content in Port Hope’s daily newspaper is local. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

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Postmedia owns nearly half of the daily newspapers in Canada, including the major papers in Ottawa and three provincial capitals (Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg). It owns all the daily newspapers in several large cities including Calgary and Vancouver. And Postmedia’s dwindling finances mean that it could have to shutter completely or sell off assets in the near future. 

But more worrying than the fate of those major papers is the future for local news if Postmedia fails. The company owns most of the small dailies published in Ontario – 27, to be exact, in places like Chatham, Cornwall, and North Bay. In some of these communities, there is no other source of news, so Postmedia’s potential demise will affect those communities even more.

Northumberland Today is published weekdays in Cobourg and Port Hope, and since Postmedia took it over in 2014, the amount of local news coverage has dropped at an alarming rate. In 2008, 89 per cent of all its content – counting news, photographs and commentary – was local. Today, more than three-quarters of content is syndicated from wire news services like the Associated Press and The Canadian Press, and distributed to all Postmedia papers.

The change is so dramatic it would be incorrect to call Northumberland Today a local paper.

In 2009, Northumberland Today was created out of a merger of two long-standing local dailies, the Port Hope Evening Guide and Cobourg Daily Star, with the weekly Colborne Chronicle. The combined circulation of those papers was about 8,000 at the time. But by 2015, Northumberland Today’s circulation was just 2,696, making it one of the smallest of Postmedia’s Ontario dailies. It boasts that it is “Northumberland County’s No. 1 news source.” There is a weekly paper, owned by Metroland but no local commercial radio or television station.

The most dramatic change is on the paper’s editorial page. Before Postmedia owned it, the editorial, columnists, editorial cartoon, and letters to the editor were 100 per cent local. Today, the whole page is syndicated material. Most days there are no letters to the editor suggesting that the readership has drawn away from Northumberland Today.

A comparison of a week’s worth of Northumberland Today 2017 issues, and that of the Port Hope Evening Guide, one of its predecessors, in 2008 (when it was owned by Sun Media), and 1996 (when it was published by Southam), also shows huge declines in local reporting.

graph showing column inches of local news in Ontario newspapers

The percentage of Port Hope news declined from 41 per cent in 1996 to just 6 per cent in 2017. Local photographs have declined even more sharply – from 69 per cent to just 9 per cent.

Research shows that those most engaged in civic life tend to also be the most tapped into local news. It affects education systems, community safety, water quality, and even road repair. If we are not regularly and adequately informed, we lose our ability to hold institutions and officials to account.

Voter turnout in local elections is already critically low: According to the Association of Municipalities Ontario, average voter turnout in the 2014 municipal elections was just 43 per cent. Seventeen of the 389 jurisdictions returned their entire councils by acclamation.

With the decline of local news in papers like Northumberland Today, civic engagement is at under threat, and affected communities risk losing the ability to develop local solutions for their problems.

And that is not good for democracy.

John Miller is a professor emeritus at Ryerson University School of Journalism.

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