There are unexpected losses when a local newspaper closes

Photo archives, opportunities for young journalists, and bronze lion statues. Just a few of the things that can disappear when a local newspaper closes
By Mark Brosens and Adam McDowell - Published on December 4, 2017
Almost two years after the Guelph Mercury closed, residents still feel the paper’s loss. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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​On November 27, Canada’s two biggest newspaper publishers announced a massive swap of titles. Torstar and Postmedia traded 41 community and commuter newspapers, of which 36 were designated for closure.

Most of the papers were located in Ontario. In the immediate aftermath, journalists and other commentators started asking questions about what this would mean for our democracy.  How, critics asked, would our local institutions be kept in line with fewer journalists covering them?

Meanwhile, as dozens of newspapers are wound down, many things disappear with them: readers, employees, histories, buildings, and other possessions.

Here, then, are some things that get lost when a local paper closes down.

A community loses a trusted name

Some of the newspapers closed in November had been open for more than a century — Ottawa Valley’s Kemptville Advance, to pick one example, had been publishing since 1855.

Even if local news is restarted by another organization, that organization can’t establish a reputation overnight. After the closing of the 149-year-old Guelph Mercury in early 2016, veteran journalists Rob O’Flanagan and Tony Saxon decided to keep pursuing local journalism, so they founded GuelphToday.com. The problem, as Saxon told the Globe and Mail last summer, is that while local people knew and trusted the old name, the new one didn’t carry much weight: “When you work for a daily newspaper in a community, that's a prestigious thing to do, because there is that deep-rooted history,” he said. But since starting GuelphToday.com, “people have been just a touch more reticent to open up and to take it seriously.”

That just makes it harder for local reporters to do their work.

Young journalists don’t get the chance to develop their skills

Many aspiring journalists, especially recent graduates, have traditionally entered the field via entry-level reporting jobs where the pay is poor, the town is small, and the main qualifications are enthusiasm and a reliable car. Mature journalists often look back fondly on their early-career days at small-town papers.  

Writing in the Globe and Mail recently, author and musician Dave Bidini noted the negative impact the closures will have on budding writing careers: “One of the things I observed while working at the Yellowknifer,” Bidini wrote — referring to a twice-weekly newspaper in the Northwest Territories — “was how journalists of tomorrow found their voice in places not named the Star, Post or Globe. Not only are we denied having local newspapers trained on local government activity, but breeding grounds for aspiring Leacocks and Callwoods are now bereft.”

Talking with J-Source earlier this year, Phil Andrews, who was the last managing editor of the Guelph Mercury, said the paper considered itself a venue for skills development — a sort of farm team, if you will, although given the paper’s habit of winning awards, perhaps “teaching hospital” would be the kinder metaphor.

A bunch of stuff might get lost

Newsrooms, especially long-running ones, are storehouses of locally significant items:  trophies, souvenirs, yellowing pages from yesteryear preserved in frames, and so on. But what happens to it all when the paper shuts its doors?

There could be a lesson for Postmedia and Torstar in what happened during the final days of the Guelph Mercury. Andrews says there were important pieces of memorabilia that ought to have been safeguarded, but weren’t. There was, for example, a bronze lion statue, given to the Mercury by the Thomsons, the famous newspaper-owning family. The family at one time gave its older titles “really significant bronze lion statue[s] that [were] emblematic figure[s] of the company,” Andrews says. (“And it would be the size of a goldendoodle.”) After some searching, Dawn Owen, a curator at the Guelph Museums, was able to find the Mercury’s lion in the Museums’ collection. Andrews says he wonders what became of an important Canadian Journalism Foundation award from 2007 too.

The paper’s staff lost track of these things because “during the final week of the Mercury, we had other things to think about,” such as impending unemployment, he says.

And the significance of the Mercury’s keepsakes might be overlooked had they been placed in the wrong hands. “Some stuff might have been regarded by strangers to the Mercury corporate story as junk when it was not that at all.”

These items may seem insignificant, but they speak to local history. Years before the Mercury closed, Andrews recalls, an employee asked to have the old door handles when they were being replaced with newer ones. “Think of all the hands that touched that door,” Andrews recalled the employee saying. “That door was touched by every mayor, every MP, every MPP.”

Owen says her institution worked hard to preserve the Mercury’s effects when it closed. Their collection includes newspaper boxes and signage that graced the exterior of the Mercury building. For 2019, the Guelph Museums will host an exhibit on the history of local newspapers.

Part of the community’s identity vanishes

Even though local newspaper subscriptions have been declining for years, the papers remain important institutions in small cities and towns. “Historically, having a paper was a sign that you had arrived as a community,” says Matthew Fells, the county archivist at the Simcoe County Archives.

Seeing your name or photo in the paper gave individuals meaning as well. Despite the Guelph Mercury being closed for almost two years, Andrews says he still has people contact him about once a month asking how to get a clipping from the publication, birth or death announcements, or “that photo of so-and-so after they won the high-school championship, because it’s their 50th birthday.” In the past a reader could have gone to the Mercury’s front desk and asked for these things. It might have taken a while, but the paper would have found it.

Plenty of materials from the recently condemned newspapers will end up in archives. But many communities across Ontario will find that it’s unclear where exactly they can look for that old clipping or birth notice.


Related:


The remnants of the paper may live on in a local archive ...

Following the recent closure announcements, Ontario archivists, eager to recover as many documents as possible from the condemned newspapers, scrambled to contact both of the companies involved — before important records end up binned or lost.

Archivists for two counties (Simcoe and Northumberland) and one major city (Ottawa) told TVO.org that they immediately reached out to Torstar and/or Postmedia with offers to help the companies safeguard their records for the future.

Community newspapers “give an amazing sense of the social, political, and economic climate of our area across almost two centuries,” said Abigail Miller, an archival services coordinator for Northumberland County, in an email to TVO.org. “It is difficult for those in my position to see [Northumberland Today] falter, because I regularly see how much an innocuous article can become a major connection point for researchers” — often long after the article is published.

Collecting and sorting the archives will be complicated. For example, a former Postmedia employee says that at the beginning of 2017, some of the Toronto Sun’s photo archives ended up at the Barrie Examiner offices when both papers were owned by Postmedia.

But as of last week, the Barrie Examiner belongs to Torstar and is no longer publishing. In other words, it’s possible — though not certain — that Torstar has come into possession of at least part of the archive of its long-time newspaper rival. In an email to TVO.org, Bob Hepburn, director of communications and community relations for Torstar said the company “has not confirmed that the boxes or photos are on the premises.”

Ontarians are now relying on these large newspaper companies to responsibly tidy up the unimaginable pile of records in their possession. “We are acutely aware of the historical significance of these materials and are getting a range of questions and suggestions from our local staff in Barrie and elsewhere,” Hepburn wrote. (Postmedia’s public relations department did not respond to TVO.org’s requests for comment.)

… or they may not.

Even after it becomes clear who owns what and where the records are physically located, not everything will be kept.

Paul Henry, archivist for the City of Ottawa, says his department is now evaluating which area newspapers should enter its collection (which already boasts 22 linear kilometres of records, including at least 1,000 artifacts and some 3 million images). “When we look at community newspapers, what we’re looking for is newspapers that really reflect the local voice,” Henry says. Papers with more locally generated content will have a better chance of being included in the Ottawa archives than ones that largely contain a lot of ads, or too much copy from wire services.

Henry stressed that when an archive does incorporate a defunct newspaper, it doesn’t just store the run of the publication (which is typically done on microfilm). Archivists also seek out in-house records.

After Thomson Newspapers shut down the daily Ottawa Journal in 1980, the city archives absorbed an enormous heap of its internal documents. “Sometimes we’re more interested in the records about the newspaper and not so much the newspaper itself. We want to understand the process of making the newspaper,” Henry says. “With the Ottawa Journal we got a lot of the internal correspondence, and the financials, and some of the editorial work, and the photo archives.”

From typed memos to pencil marks, it all adds up to evidence of the work that went on behind the scenes. For example: “When you look at the photo archives you can actually see the decision point because you can see the negatives and the prints actually have the photo editor’s comments right on them,” Henry says.

“What’s really interesting is that when you’re looking at community organizations like newspapers you get a real sense that a lot of this stuff is a labour of love … You get a real sense of the dedication of the staff and the people who work there.”

In other words, even if newspapers struggle to be appreciated by their owners and communities today, evidence of their value and commitment will be socked away somewhere. And perhaps at least the scale of what has been lost will be remembered.

UPDATE: After publishing this story, TVO.org was able to confirm the Guelph Mercury lion is in the Guelph Museums’ collection.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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