Why the “Sinking Ship” of Community Journalism Is Worth Saving
Chris Shepard explains why he’s leaving journalism:
“Frankly, working as a reporter outside of a major urban centre is no way to make a living. You can’t raise a family on a reporter’s salary. “
I know very little about working for a small-town newspaper, and less still about what that would be like in Nelson. But I do know this: this discussion matters. Small-town journalism matters.
Shepard goes into his own reasons why, some of which are disputed in his comments section, but here’s what I believe:
- as local government takes on an expanded role in everyday life (with a smaller budget), scrutiny and understanding of local politics is taking on an increasingly important role
- this goes double as aging infrastructure begins to challenge the abilities of local governments to meet even their basic duties
- and triple as we gear up for more and more conversations about how local resources should be used in a globalized economy
- the commercial model for comprehensive local news analysis in the modern age has yet to be developed, or at least widely distributed
I work for a northern B.C. current events show whose biggest target city is Prince George (which I’m not sure qualifies as a major center or not, but which at least currently supports one bi-weekly and one daily newspaper, one online-only news site, two radio-only newsrooms and one radio/television-news hybrid newsroom). But Prince George has by far the most robust news coverage of any of the other cities we reach and reflect. Most rely on a single weekly or bi-weekly paper, sometimes shared with multiple other cities, and perhaps a community radio station, and then us at a far more distant level. These papers are run by one to three people, and aside from reporting they are sometimes also responsible for lay-out, editorial, and advertising. Each of these takes away time for more in-depth analysis of issues.
Even on this shoestring of an operation, these outlets are an invaluable resource. I know because I read most of them on a regular basis in an attempt to keep a pulse on what’s happening throughout the north. Sometimes these stories get translated into an interview on Daybreak North. And sometimes those interviews get picked up by other outlets, and sometimes they even bubble up into the national news cycle, with coverage from the the Globe and the Post and others. But those stories may not have happened without that one reporter slogging away locally, single-handedly producing a paper and going to city council meetings or reading up on zoning disputes that no national outlet would bother with.
The irony of this is that the reporters often don’t get the credit for producing those original pieces of journalism that make their way into the provincial or national conversation, because the majority of people wind up hearing about them in the Vancouver Sun or on CBC without realizing where it originally came from. I know, because I’ve broken stories that got wider coverage without ever being credited at higher levels. That’s the nature of news– you can do all the work to break it, but once it’s out there anyone can go ahead and report on it.
Unfortunately, alarm-bells are being raised about the future of small-town journalism (or niche subject journalism, as the folding of Public Eye Online demonstrates). I know very little about how they operate, but I know they are a rich part of our national conversation. And apparently, they are in trouble. And this is something that should matter to us all.