How rural community newspapers defy industry challenges and deliver vital stories

This article on community news is written by Becky Zimmer, a freelance writer based in Humboldt, Saskatchewan with experience in farm, community, small business and sports reporting.

A younger man with brown hair and a beard is looking above the camera and holding a newspaper. He is outside and the sun is just rising behind a tree.

In the words of Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-changin’.

This is true for community newspapers as much as any other industry.

But just because papers are getting smaller, coverage areas are getting bigger, staff getting harder to retain, and confidence dropping in the reach of print advertising, this doesn’t mean the stories coming out of rural communities are any less important.

Talking with privately owned papers in rural Canada, they are seeing success in rural reporting for a couple of reasons.

Chris Ashfeild, has been a newspaper man for the last 30 years, and is now a publisher for Grasslands News Group, a company that owns five of the nearly 30 privately owned weekly newspapers in rural Saskatchewan.

Coming from a time when every community had some form of news, no newspaper can survive just covering one community anymore, he said.

“You need more personnel and more staff for that, but unfortunately, the dollars aren’t there to do that. So it doesn’t make it more challenging as far as putting out and getting a newspaper to press nowadays.”

Right now, driving from one side of their coverage area to another is two hours but he is lucky, he said. With good staff, he trusts that they do their jobs well and he can do what he needs to do without needing to pick up the slack in other areas of the office. Being a public figure, he also has time to get out into the community, whether that is on behalf of the business or for himself as a community volunteer.

Staffing goes hand in hand with putting out a well put together newspaper, he said, so you need those boots on the ground in the community.
With his position, he can make those staffing decisions or the most valuable use of his time without needing to appeal to shareholders from two or three provinces over.

“It becomes a totally different ballgame for how you operate a newspaper,” he said.

Daniel Bushman is finding the same thing as the owner and operator of The Watrous Manitou covering the Watrous and Lanigan areas of central Saskatchewan. Great staff and his family are the biggest reason he is able to keep the paper going.

Now in his early 30s, purchasing the newspaper back in 2014 so shocked the Canadian journalism world that he was the subject of a J-Source article for Angela Long’s series on rural reporting.

Working at the paper for years before, Bushman and the paper were fortunate, he said. There was an existing newspaper to buy and he cares enough to keep the paper going for as long as he can.

From making donations, sponsoring events, to just ensuring local coverage, Bushman’s focus is making sure a community that is supporting them is a priority. That mentality is keeping them viable, he said.

“If you pick up the paper and you can read about your family member who’s received a Queen Elizabeth the second Jubilee medal, you’re not going to find that in a different paper. Or if you can read about your daughter’s volleyball team who got a silver medal…the main street revitalization project in Watrous…or the emergency room disruptions in Lanigan and Watrous, you won’t find that somewhere else.”

For many people that “somewhere else” is social media but that has been in theory more than practice.

Not everyone has Facebook, said Bushman, so when people do advertise in the paper, they are often surprised at how well it works.

“I’m not gonna lie, I understand there’s value in the social media aspect of things, but at the same time, I feel like we still have a niche. Placing an ad in the newspaper, I think there’s value there.”

A stack of newspapers, representing community newspapers across Canada
As publisher of the oldest newspaper in Northern Ontario, Alicia McCutcheon didn’t expect to even work as a reporter, let alone take over the Manitoulin Expositor from her father who bought it in the 1970s.

Located on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron, McCutcheon takes the job seriously as the paper is the foundation for a strong community as well as its history keeper, cheerleader, and champion. Even to the little events that reporters may roll their eyes to cover, everything is important to somebody.

They are in a fairly unique situation being as isolated as they are, she said, but that doesn’t make the job any less important.

“We like to joke that we have a captive audience, so that’s kind of helpful, I guess, a little bit. But the community support has been very good.”

Demographics are shifting with more people moving to the area from bigger centres. Newspapers, including free ones that couldn’t penetrate the markets of Toronto, are a novel thing to newly arrived urbanites who are giving rural life a try and McCutcheon questions the integrity of the product in that case. However, she does admit that the Expositor’s subscription sales have also declined at an alarming rate in recent years, but they are also capitalizing on this online shift by introducing a paywall for their award winning website.

Members of the community haven’t complained, she said, as she trusts the quality of her newspaper. Both readers and advertisers notice the hard work that goes into it week after week.

Posted on June 27, 2023 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: 

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