In April, it was announced that several community newspapers in Manitoba would be shutting down. At first, the news was shocking and another excuse for “media experts” to comment about the death of the newspaper industry. At second glance, it made people wonder if massive corporations should own community newspapers.
Years ago, I worked at CanWest Global. It was when the company bought a bunch of national daily newspapers. It didn’t go over well when Asper-influenced business decisions and editorials polarized the content readers looked forward to. Basically, “We’re coming in and making changes from our offices far, far away. If you don’t like it, too bad.” (And look what ultimately happened with CanWest, right?)
The Winnipeg-based call centre saw no end of complaints from across the country about changes made in the different papers. I recall when the stock market information was taken out of the Ottawa Citizen without notice to readers. It was not a good day.
Decisions were made by people in other cities who didn’t consult with audiences before imposing their own creative direction on the product. The outcome was usually the same: People got pissed off, complained and cancelled subscriptions.
While it was sad to hear about the shuttering of Altona Red River Valley Echo, Carman Valley Leader, Interlake Spectator, Morden Times, Selkirk Journal, Stonewall Argus & Teulon Times, Winkler Times and The Prairie Farmer, the writing was on the wall in each of those communities, though probably not at the Postmedia offices in Toronto.
Do people living in a small town want their newspaper to have a Toronto influence? I wouldn’t think so. Yes, community newspapers are a business but first and foremost they are intended to serve the community. They aren’t meant to make people rich. They’re there to provide a service.
When someone from outside comes in and removes that local charm from a publication, it’s not surprising that people lose respect and their long-held loyalty.
The argument was that coronavirus and the resulting economic downturn led to advertising revenue plummeting. What a crock. The papers in those towns were crumbling for years because of the Toronto influence. (And I know that because I have contacts at some of those papers.)
It’s similar to when I started in book publishing. I approached buyers at Costco and Walmart about a regional book I wrote. I was shot down because I wasn’t backed by a major publisher. But I did the media circuit here and started promoting my book, The Official Guide to Being a Winnipeg Cheapskate, and went back to those buyers in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal with the local buzz and said, “Look, everyone’s talking about this book in Manitoba. You need to carry it.”
Sure enough, it worked and I got purchase orders – and then, of course, my first bestselling book. They didn’t see the initial need to support a local author in their local stores.
It’s common for people in those big cities to think they’re the centre of the country. That’s why people in Toronto have a reputation for snobbery. When you start to alienate other areas, people don’t take kindly to it because it makes them think they’re not worthy. Thus, the community newspapers that get swallowed up go under.
It’s sad that those once-respected publications will be no more but don’t blame the pandemic for the bad community relations in recent years.