As post-tropical storm Fiona swept houses into the ocean in September, the team behind Wreckhouse Press were reporting on the ground of their hometown of Port aux Basques. They were documenting what was taking place.
They reported that a woman had been carried out to sea and later rescued; they shared harrowing footage of their community being submerged and torn apart.
All the while, editor-in-chief René Roy fielded questions from CBC and CNN as the world watched the weather on the west coast of the island.
It was an event like this that made many people pause and thank local reporters who were on the scene; at one point, the home-based news outlet tweeted they had to relocate due to the rising water.
Global News reporter Rachel Gilmore gave a shout out to them and the valuable post they hold as local news:
Local journalism is indispensable for healthy communities and a functioning democracy. And yet everywhere you turn, there seems to be less of it than ever before.
For the past few months, The Independent has been looking into the decline of print newspapers in Newfoundland and Labrador. Radio and television weren’t included in this search—although a cursory look at the radio landscape shows a number of regional Stingray-owned VOCM stations have closed over the past few years as well. In fact, its Corner Brook station was shuttered earlier this year.
In this report, we’re focusing on the newspaper business. But despite the many difficulties facing print journalism and the growing news desert across the province—especially outside St. John’s—it’s not all doom and gloom. We spoke with many small, independent newspaper editors who have carved out a sustainable niche through a consistent commitment to their communities—as well as a few others who gave it their best shot before moving on from a heartbreaking industry.
While faltering corporate papers may face collapse without state support to prop them up, lots of scrappy independent newspapers are proving that print is far from dead.
The Battle Against News Desertification
A “news desert” is an area that is underserved—or not served at all—by a local community news outlet. And these aren’t exactly rare; as you look across the country, many places don’t have access to reliable, relevant, comprehensive news coverage.
But the struggles of print journalism are not unique to this country, or even this continent.
Since the 1990s, advertising-dependent newspapers have struggled to adapt to the digital revolution—which radically upended the way people produced, shared, and consumed news, advertising, information, and culture. Large tech firms like Alphabet (formerly Google) and Meta (formerly Facebook) have fundamentally reshaped the media ecosystem around the world, undercutting the business models that had previously made many newspapers—particularly small- to medium-sized local or regional publications—viable.
Given the importance of quality journalism to the health of a democratic society, countries around the world are struggling to craft legislation that can preserve this vital public good from the impacts of a digital media market failure.
For instance, in 2021 Australia established a News Media Bargaining Code. This allowed news industry organizations to bargain with Big Tech for tens of millions of dollars in compensation for the way Alphabet and Meta have profited from distributing news content on their platforms without contributing anything to its production.
Meanwhile, beginning in 2019, Canada established the Local Journalism Initiative program to enable news organizations to hire reporters to cover underserved communities. They also established tax measures for QCJOs: “qualified Canadian journalism organizations” These measures included a labour tax credit for QCJO employees, a digital news subscription credit for QCJO subscribers, and special donee status for non-profit journalism organizations that employ enough reporters to qualify as a “registered journalism organization.” These policies have slowed the bleeding for some of the largest publishers and broadcasters in the country, but have done substantially less for smaller localized outlets.
Currently, the federal Liberals are working on new legislation: Bill C-18, the Online News Act. The aim of this bill is to translate the Australian model into a Canadian context while also avoiding its pitfalls. That is,where larger corporate media entities with more bargaining power could strike very lucrative deals with the tech platforms, and smaller, local, and more innovative independent outlets receive little or nothing.
Whether C-18 can accomplish this to anyone’s satisfaction is an open question, fiercely debated in Parliament—and among journalists themselves. But while the final form of the Online News Act remains to be seen, the problem it’s meant to address is growing deeper.
According to a Canadian Heritage background document on the federal government’s Online News Act released in April 2022, approximately 450 news outlets closed in Canada between 2008 and 2021.
Looking across Newfoundland and Labrador, you can see over the last 10 years that a vast number of local papers—typically owned by large corporations—have printed their last issue.
The Local News Research Project has tracked the closures with a News Poverty Map.
News Outlets Drying Up Across the Island
On October 3, Saltwire Network announced it would stop printing its Monday issue for four of its daily newspapers in Atlantic Canada—and The Telegram in St. John’s was part of that culling. (The Monday issue is still available online, however.)
In a press release at the time, Saltwire’s Chief Operating Officer Ian Scott said there were a number of factors that led to this decision—like the impact inflation has had on printing operations, as well as rising fuel costs.
“We’re responding to the market demand for how and where people want to see their content,” Scott said. As well, he said it wouldn’t impact staffing levels at the four papers. “If anything, this will permit us to focus more on the content, per se, and less on the most expensive channel for distribution that we have, which is, of course, print and physical distribution.”
In 2008, Transcontinental Media—previous owner of The Telegram—stopped printing a Sunday issue.
Transcontinental Media closed Placentia’s The Charter in 2013. And in March 2014, they shuttered The Georgian—a long standing community newspaper in Stephenville—as well as The Coaster, based in Harbour Breton.
In 2017, Halifax-based corporate outlet The Chronicle Herald created the Saltwire Network through its purchase of 27 Atlantic Canadian newspapers from Transcontinental; allNewfoundlandLabrador reported at the time that the deal was valued at $25.1 million. The following year, Saltwire started chopping and merging newspapers across Newfoundland and Labrador.
On July 26, 2018 four Saltwire Network papers printed their last issues—The Nor’Wester in Springdale, The Beacon in Gander, The Advertiser in Grand Falls-Windsor, and The Pilot in Lewisporte—to create a new publication called The Central Voice that was created to serve a broader area. Its first issue was released August 1. According to the CBC this merger resulted in five jobs being axed.
In a media release, Saltwire president and CEO Mark Lever promised that even with reduction in staff, the new paper would provide “more in-depth and extended coverage.”
“This includes stronger local coverage, editorial content and more space for community organizations to submit and share their good work.”
The Saltwire takeover has also gotten pretty tangly. In 2019, Saltwire Network filed a statement of claim at the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, alleging that Transcontinental had misrepresented the value of their assets.
The pandemic further destabilized the news environment. Only days after then-health minister John Haggie declared a public health emergency in 2020, many of the Saltwire-owned rural newspapers announced they were going on hiatus—some permanently.
The newspapers that never returned were weekly community newspapers The Northern Pen in St. Anthony, The Compass in Carbonear, The Gulf News in Port aux Basques, The Southern Gazette in Marystown, and The Packet in Clarenville. The Labrador Voice—the result of a 2019 merger of The Labradorian and The Aurora—also ceased in 2020.
The Western Star in Corner Brook was also a part of this culling, but in 2019 the new owners had already been reducing this paper. That year it went from a subscription-based daily newspaper to a free weekly paper.
But while things seem grim at Saltwire, there are many independently-owned community newspapers who still carry the torch for local journalism. As we saw earlier, one of these outlets is Wreckhouse Press in Port aux Basques.
The Independent spoke with editor-in-chief René Roy a few months before Fiona brought tragedy to Atlantic Canada, and made the west coast of Newfoundland international news, while also shining a spotlight on the small local paper.
Roy said he was spurred to launch a newspaper in August of 2020, which was a few months after Nova Scotia-based Saltwire Network closed numerous papers throughout the province—including Port aux Basques’ The Gulf.
“It was actually directly impacted by Saltwire’s decision to shut down their papers,” Roy told The Independent. “At the time, my sister was a reporter for them and they shuttered everything and so on and so forth.”
“So we decided a few months after—this was in the height of the pandemic—that there was a viable market for what I call hyper-local news. All relevant to the people who are buying the paper. So we decided to launch this as a result of that news desert you’re talking about.”
He formed the enterprise with his sister Rosalyn Roy, who acts as the editorial director and senior reporter. Shehad previously worked for The Gulf News.
The newspaper itself all came together quickly.
“We didn’t really think a whole lot about what we were doing or how big a task what we were doing truly was,” Roy said. “We just did it. And it started off better than we could have hoped.”
Initially, it was hosted on Facebook and there was a six month period before they had any newspaper delivery people. Now, they have a few hundred subscriptions and a large digital presence through the website. They also mail out to Alberta, British Columbia, and even Scotland.
“We’ve had a really good response and it’s stayed at that level since we launched,” Roy said.
While St. John’s is the home base for most of the province’s media outlets—both legacy outlets like CBC, NTV, VOCM, and The Telegram, as well as digital outlets like The Independent and allNewfoundlandLabrador—when it comes to Port aux Basques, Roy explained: “Well, we are it. The only other way you’re going to get any information about Port aux Basques or the south-west coast of Newfoundland is on Facebook. And you know what that’s like.”
“So when it comes to information, it’s us. That’s why we have such a large Facebook presence, because we have four or five thousand subscribers to our Facebook page.” He added they also try to stay up to date on what’s happening in the area.
It’s also a home-based operation, he said, and they have their own printing press. As such, the paper is a part of Wreckhouse Publishing where the Roy siblings also do printing for things like flyers, tickets, and posters.
At the start, it was just him and his sister working out of their home and putting in 16-hour days. Now, they also have a full-time journalist who’s supported through the federal government’s Local Journalism Initiative.
Roy said the previous “entities” that covered the area would provide information that was “let’s say, for Deer Lake or St. John’s or for the entire province or for federal information. But nothing that had a direct bearing on the person and their neighbour or what’s happening with the town council.”
He made the pitch that it’s important to support local news: “I would feel that getting the right information from a reliable source is a lot more important than just picking up a rumour off Facebook or some other form of social media.”
Building on the success of the Wreckhouse Press, the Roys launched The Appalachian last August. There wasn’t enough support for it at the time and it was shut down, but Roy said they plan in the next six to 12 months to start drumming up support for it.
“We feel that Stephenville is a place that’s starting to build and they need information, just as much as Port aux Basques and the south-west coast does,” said Roy.
While people say print media is dead, he firmly believes it isn’t. People still want newspapers as physical objects and he pointed out Newfoundland and Labrador has an aging and older population who are used to printed news.
“I still feel it’s important, especially with an aging population that’s something they’re used to,” he explained. “Something they crave and they miss. So if I can keep that going and expand on the company along with my sister, we’re not just a newspaper. We do everything else. We’re a full-service printshop.”
“If we do all of that and keep the newspaper Wreckhouse going, then everything should take care of itself. And then hopefully we can spread out up north: Stephenville, Corner Brook, Deer Lake. I mean, the sky’s the limit if the response is there.”
As far as he knows, he and his sister are the only ones who have started a press during the pandemic.
He explained that another benefit to being a home-based newspaper is precisely that they can do it all from home. So when the roads were washed out in previous disasters, they could still get the paper out to people who need that information, said Roy—who pointed out that often when the community is brought to the attention of the rest of the province it’s when there’s a disaster.
Being able to produce the news no matter the conditions also makes them dependable to the community too, he asserted. And they proved the point when Fiona battered the west coast.
But despite these successes, Wreckhouse Press is an anomaly: a small newspaper startup in a rural community at a time when other local news coverage has been evaporating.
Independent Local News is a Community Wellspring
The Northeast Avalon Times is a small, independently-owned newspaper that has been around for 22 years. It serves the area of Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove, Torbay, Pouch Cove, Flatrock, Bauline, and Bell Island.
It has boasted writers like Ray Guy in its pages and now features columns by people like Memorial University’s Dr Bill Montevecchi, among others.
This is a classic, regional newspaper that publishes once per month, said publisher and reporter Kathryn Welbourn. They have columnists, NL book reviews, editorial cartoons, and a comic strip.
“We provide professional coverage of municipal politics, regional issues, provincial issues from a regional perspective,” Welbourn told The Independent. “We don’t use Facebook. We don’t do stories that other media are doing. We go to public meetings.”
They read reports and minutes, conduct interviews, get tips, and write ATIPPs.
Around 3500 copies are printed monthly and the paper is supported by advertising. It’s free circulation, Welbourn said, and noted that it’s important to be a physical paper that people can pick up, as people could read a story that wouldn’t normally appear before them if it was online.
She also explained that a community newspaper should be an important part of a region, helping keep politicians accountable.
“It’s good to have community papers. The people who work at them they’re actually going and doing real things. They’re really interviewing local politicians. They’re going to meetings. They’re looking at agendas. They’re following the issue.”
Welbourn also said that, from her perspective, politicians have been less accountable since the pandemic started because they had this period where they didn’t have to see people. For example, on a provincial level politicians will have media availabilities, and only let people in to ask so many questions. “So it’s an accountability issue too.”
“I just know we have a very loyal readership and I think we’ve earned it,” she said. “We work really hard and we’re just doing basic solid reporting. That’s the mission of any community newspaper, I’m sure.”
Paper Grows on Trees…Money Doesn’t
Newfoundland and Labrador has more than 200 years of history with newspapers. The first paper to hit the press was by a printer named John Ryan, who was granted a licence by Governor Sir Erasmus Gower in 1806. In those days, someone couldn’t just start a newspaper; they needed the government’s approval to circulate. So it shouldn’t be surprising that this “newspaper”—Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser—was more of a proto-PR machine for the colonial government. Ryan’s masthead even featured the royal coat of arms, and its motto read “Fear God: Honor the King.”
A few years after Ryan’s paper had been around, Crown lawyers decided that the government couldn’t prohibit other presses from getting started. It signaled the start of a free press here. According to Heritage NL, there were 21 papers by the middle of the 19th century. They were focused in the St. John’s area and Conception Bay, and were very partisan. But as the colony’s population grew and literacy expanded, it changed the makeup of newspapers.
Today, the refrain people often hear repeated is “print is dead.” It has been a rough few decades for people who read the news, as well as those who work in the industry. It’s been walloped by a number of compounding factors—including the rise of the internet, which diverted advertising dollars from the printed page to social media platforms.
A growing monopoly of a few businesses owning all the newspapers has also been a strike against the newspaper.
In Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, veteran reporter Margaret Sullivan argues that the disappearance of local news is a threat to democracy.
Ron Crocker was in news for decades, working for The Telegram, Canadian University Press and later the CBC, splitting his time in editorial and managerial roles. He’s now retired from the industry and living in Nova Scotia, working as a senior investigator with the Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman. He also recently published Ray Guy: Portrait of a Rebel, a biography of his colleague and friend, put out by Boulder Books.
He was around when the Telegram was owned by the Herder family, whose family had started the paper in 1879. It stayed in family hands until they sold it to Thomson Newspapers—now Thomson Corporation—in 1970.
“If the owners were sympathetic to public service journalism the papers could really do things, you know,” Crocker recalled to The Independent. “The Telegram and the Herders had that ethos. They were public service people. But particularly after Confederation they were making a ton of money. All of a sudden they were benefiting from national advertising.”
That injection of cash started in the 1950s but expanded in the 1960s. He said that motivated the Herders, with some pressure from their new staff, to spend money on quality journalism.
He cautioned against seeing this with rose coloured glasses, though. At the time, local journalists weren’t paid particularly well—or at least not what their peers at The Toronto Star or Montreal Gazette were making (though there was still money for travel).
When asked if there’s a dichotomy between locally-owned newspapers and the corporate ownership we see dominating the ecosystem—like TC or Saltwire—Crocker was cautious with his response.
“Typically people who run massive newspaper empires like the Thompsons of old—I think they have a more intense business profit orientation,” he explained. “The idea was to basically increase the bottom line, increase shareholder value in public companies and so on. And to kind of stay out of trouble.”
They’re attracting business advertising and the news is loftier stuff, so the less you can spend on the latter, the better, he explained. On the other hand, he said there are checks and balances that have to do with circulation. You need people to be buying your newspaper to attract advertisers.
When it comes to middle-size and smaller cities like St. John’s and Corner Brook, “they have obligations to their communities that distant management might not have or distant ownership might not have. So it can cut both ways. It can cut in the direction of doing what appears to be best for people in the community, having a kind of social and civic responsibility built into their journalism.”
But in the other direction, he said the more famous example would be the Mount Cashel abuse scandal. In his Ray Guy biography, he recounts how two reporters had the story of what was happening inside the orphanage years before it ultimately went public—but the article was killed.
“It shows the extent to which even a very good newspaper person—and Steve Herder was one of them—could still be in a sense held hostage by powerful interests in the community,” Crocker explained. He added he thinks in this case it was a wrenching experience for the Herders, particularly Steve Herder, and said there’s no doubt the wrong call was made.
So the one side of local ownership is that they have responsibility to the community and sometimes that manifests in better journalistic service. Whereas in other instances, it can mean fetters that harm the community.
But Crocker also said that if people don’t have access to local news, they default to Facebook. And while Facebook might be full of local information, that is not journalism. It’s not vetted or curated or researched. But it is a place to go.
“So the loss of any actual journalism—any reporting where somebody might go to the town hall and cover a public meeting—that kind of civic activity at the local level is impaired when there’s no local reporting,” he explained. “The loss of weekly newspapers all over Atlantic Canada and North America has been a significant loss.”
The other side effect has to do with what happens if you only consume social media: it is easy to fall into a groove where you only consume content that enforces your already-held beliefs, prejudices, and attitudes. Getting high-quality journalism, like subscriptions to The New York Times or The Globe and Mail, are very expensive. Few can afford multiple subscriptions like that, Crocker said. And that does nothing for local information.
To go back to the town hall example, many communities are missing the coverage when it comes to bylaws and funding for the local fire department. He said it’s hard to get that kind of information.
He said it will be interesting to see how the federal intervention works out, pointing out that most journalists are cynical about it.
“My sense is that if you’re going to have people pulling your strings, there’s not much difference having the federal government to pull them than to have Walmart pull them,” he noted.
Politicians can be voted out and they’re never going to be as meddlesome as your main commercial advertiser, he explained.
Moreover, he doesn’t think there’s a business model for high-calibre, small journalism at the local level for it to survive.
The pandemic has had an impact on news outlets, as revenue from ads has been shown to have dropped—though there have been news startups popping up across the country. The number of people who’ve signed on to subscriber-based news has also grown a little bit.
What about a newspaper that operates completely online?
allNewfoundlandLabrador first opened in 2015 and launched in early 2016. It has always called downtown St. John’s its home, wrote editor Alex Bill.
He wrote that the St. John’s newsroom has seven reporters, and they work with colleagues in the company’s other news rooms at allNovaScotia—which has been around for more than 20 years, allNewBrunswick, and allSaskatchewan. The different newsrooms share resources (like copy-editing) and the company has around 40 employees. Across its newsrooms, there are 16,000 subscribers—and a subscriber can read the issue from the other provinces.
allNewfoundlandLabrador focuses on business news, and recently broke the story that Premier Andrew Furey visited the luxury fishing lodge owned by billionaire John Risley in July of 2021— who heads one of the companies aiming to launch a wind-powered hydrogen-ammonia plant on the Port au Port peninsula.
“I think we fill a crucial role in covering stories and issues that aren’t getting attention, but of course we aren’t alone,” wrote Bill. “With the slow—in some cases fast—decline of some traditional news media, it’s essential that alternative news media be able to grow.”
“As for our contribution, while other news media provide a great deal of coverage on political figures, there’s relatively little coverage of the people that drive business in this province, who are enormously influential,” he explained. “It’s how business works here, how it’s changing, who’s making it happen, who’s growing and who isn’t. And that incorporates politics, art, culture, immigration, Indigenous reconciliation, sport, philanthropy, technology and a much broader range of topics than what many people think may fall under ‘business news.’”
When asked how allNewfoundlandLabrador has been able to continue in a time when newspapers are being cut, he responded: “we’re a relatively low-risk operation, we appreciate every subscriber, and we only grow as fast as they do. We are also hyper-focused on news content: it’s a no-frills operation, with limited advertising. Of course, being entirely online means we have no printing costs.”
“But the basic reason is that our reporting is a product enough people are willing to pay for,” Bill added. “That’s not always easy for some news media to grasp. A story that may get more page views may not get people to pay money.”
Their news is behind a hard paywall. If you head to its website, the current rate is $15 for four weeks for an introductory single rate—whereas its regular rate for up to three users is $39 per four weeks.
Bill explained the reasoning behind the paywall option: “It provides consistency and stability. I focus on the stories, so our publisher and chairperson is probably better placed to answer these questions. But for us to take this route, and to take it so much earlier than other publications—many of which are now trying to balance subscription revenue with advertising—is a big part of our success.”
“I don’t think everyone can do it,” he added. “Not everyone wants to pay for news, so there’s a market there for the free product. And it is likely easier for business news than some other categories. But there are other models out there, from non-profits to variable patron support, and I’d like to see more news media explore them.”
The Scope Retrospective
In 2006, an alt-weekly newspaper launched in St. John’s—though its start was at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Elling Lien was a one-year journalism student and for his final workshop he took part in the magazine course where he focused on creating what would become The Scope. That year he returned home and launched it with co-founder Bryhanna Greenough.
For their first run they printed 6,000 issues, but by the final issue in December of 2013 that number was 23,000.
“We never really thought we’d get rich doing something like that, you know,” Lien told The Independent. “That’s not what you set out for. Getting to a point where we were able to pay our bills was hard.”
“We kept putting a lot of money into it and making sacrifices along the way,” he continued. “Operating out of our living room. On a very extended period. And doing well enough, staying afloat and paying everybody. And being reasonably well respected. People picking us up. But yeah, translating those advertising dollars into money at the end is hard. Because there are a lot of things that take that money away from you along the way.”
He also spoke on the physical importance of being in print: “The physical presence of the thing was something we really valued. We recognized the power of newsprint to be an object. It demands some attention.”
The business model they took was something that also had to be balanced. When The Scope was getting started, Lien said they reached out to Halifax’s popular weekly newspaper The Coast for advice. The general model when it came to these types of papers was that there needed to be 60% advertising and 40% content. More advertising means that a paper can be bigger, he explained. So the question becomes: how big can the publication be?
Since The Scope closed, “the landscape has changed so much just in the time The Scope has been away. I think The Overcast did a great job of occupying that space but they too recognized that it was tough to make those dollar bills,” he chuckled. “And that’s unfortunate. Independent media needs money to run. And where you get that often falls to advertising.”
There are various models news outlets can use, said Lien, pointing to the subscription model, paywalls, hosting fundraisers throughout the year—and one he particularly likes is the tip jar where people can pay what they can.
Another change in the landscape that made print difficult was the rise of the internet, as classifieds that were formerly printed in papers went online.
The Scope was succeeded in 2014 by The Overcast, but that paper folded in early 2019 and there’s no longer an alt-weekly arts paper filling that gap. When asked what people lose out when they don’t have these types of publications, Lien said: “For the Overcast and The Scope, to have someone paying attention to the arts and helping not only promote but just elevate certain things. It’s really valuable because now you have to do all that work yourself.”
So if you’re an organizer for an event, you have to post it on social media and hope people see it in the blur of scrolling. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Or you can use The Independent’s Events Calendar!] The Scope focused on its listing section, reaching out to people to see what was happening—so they built a comprehensive list of things going on. Now people expect the individual or organization to put it online but not everyone will do that. So being comprehensive was something readers found valuable, he said.
The Overcast Cast Off
Founding editor and publisher Chad Pelley started The Overcast not long after The Scope closed up shop. The website launched in January of 2014 and in February it released its first in-print issue. By the time it closed in February 2019 it had run an unbroken streak of 61 issues, Pelley told The Independent.
Out of the financial models out there, Pelley said, “I went with the ad revenue model, because as a community paper, it was important that the paper remain free and readily available to anyone.”
He also wanted to offer something different than what some of the other news outlets like CBC or NTV were doing, explaining he didn’t want to break news but expand on what was happening.
“Ultimately, the goal was cover-to-cover entertainment, in the format of news. Its aim was a fun, but informative read about the people, places, history, and culture that make this province the place it is, for better or worse.”
While it was always popular, it still shuttered after five years in print.
“I folded the paper in 2019 simply from burnout,” Pelley explained. “The readership was solid, but a free community paper runs on ad revenue, and that was never quite enough money for me to hire the staff The Overcast needed to really thrive, or at least so that I didn’t have to be publisher, editor, contributor, admin person, even some days, delivery driver. Even keeping up with emails and generating stories for our writers was a full time job.”
“It never turned off. It was always something, weeknights, weekends,” he continued. “Eventually, a passion project that intense wears you out. The appeal of not every aspect of a business relying on me felt pretty strong, as did the notion of a true two week uninterrupted vacation. “
Even though he’s moved on from the news, he said he still misses it and wonders if there was some model he could have used that could have kept The Overcast going. He pointed out there’s funding for literary journals, so why are newspapers different?
All in all, he said he’s glad The Overcast’s closure happened when it did—before the pandemic hit. Afterall, he said the paper’s bread and butter were event listings, which simply didn’t happen during lockdown and later restrictions.
Today, there is no alternative arts community newspaper filling that niche in town, and for Pelley, that isn’t a good thing.
“Papers continue to do what they’re doing: merge into larger and larger conglomerate mega companies whose fingers are further and further off the pulse of your hometown. So there is no true local or community paper anymore. Thankfully there remains regional CBC, that’s free and easily accessible.”
Advocating for a Critical Eye to News
Craig Westcott—the editor and publisher of The Shoreline, Irish Loop Post, and The Pearl News —also made a pitch for the importance of local news.
“Whether it’s a community paper or a national paper or a city paper, they’re all pretty important in terms of connecting to people within their readership areas and informing them of local politics and events and personalities and whatnot,” he explained.
In addition to council news and politics, his papers have profiles and sports coverage and things that seem to indicate “the local world hasn’t gone to hell in a handbasket,” which he called important because it can give people reassurance.
National and international news has been hectic, especially with the pandemic. For instance, the ongoing war in Ukraine is often in the headlines, which can lead to a negative world view.
“So it’s nice to know there’s still things working and operating and there’s positive life at home,” Westcott said. He also added that the news desert isn’t unique to this province, but it is a massive issue.
“The scariest part when you use the term ‘news desert’ for me is that it applies to the whole country and the western world,” he explained. “With the demise of bigger papers especially, and newspapers and independent outlets and whatnot, is that [they are] being replaced by social media. And social media is unfiltered.”
Westcott said news that’s spread over social media is put together by people who don’t have the training journalists have on how to gather and organize information and report information in a fair and objective manner. Instead, it’s created by people who have “an ax to grind” or are working to promote an agenda, and produce a distorted view.
While he said it’s good for people to think critically, people who lambast “mainstream reporting” often don’t apply that same critical mindset to the flamboyant things they see online.
He also gave a look into the business side of the news, where he operates as an editor along with one reporter, though he said he usually has two. He said in the past, newspapers would get a lot of government ads from the federal and provincial level but that has seriously been reduced as they’ve gone onto sites like Facebook. They will get ads from some MHAs, he added.
When these newspapers shrink or disappear altogether, there are consequences to the people. Westcott said people are less informed and don’t have the information to make decisions on who to vote for and why they should vote for a particular candidate, for example.
“They lose information, legitimate, objective information on issues,” he said. “And things affecting their community and their street and their town and their province and their country. They lose all of that. And it makes them vulnerable to misinformation.”
He also argued that now all newspapers are facing the same challenges, and that a small community newspaper like the ones he runs might be better positioned to survive.
“Community newspapers are facing a struggle but not so much as the larger daily papers,” he noted. “In fact, the stories about the demise of larger daily papers—that’s affecting the community papers more by association.”
“So people see another daily close and they hear a daily is struggling or a newspaper chain is struggling and they think that it’s true for all papers, but there’s still a market for local community news,” Westcott concluded. “It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of risk but there’s still a market there and an appetite especially, which is the important thing. An appetite on the part of the public for local community news. I think print newspapers are still the best way for that.”
Wanna Start a Newspaper?
When asked about the barriers to starting a newspaper, Chad Pelley had some words of optimism.
“I don’t think it is too difficult to start up a paper, nor prohibitively expensive,” he said. “I needed about $10,000 to buy racks, build a website, print first issue, pay all contributors to first issue, and get the second issue going, and from there, ad revenue sustained us.”
In addition, a smaller paper is cheaper than a bigger operation and he also had fewer staff. Freelancers, for instance, were paid per article rates as opposed to heftier salaries, he explained. And on top of keeping those costs down, his paper was focused on the St. John’s region so he didn’t have to calculate expensive logistics to get it shipped great distances.
However, Pelly cautioned that there is a limited amount of money that a free community newspaper can make.
“So what it requires to run a community paper is two things: being okay with wearing many hats or working many roles to keep costs down and stay in the black, and two: making less money than you’d like to be making, despite all that time and effort.”
The Independent asked The Scope’s Elling Lien if he had any words to people who were considering starting their own newspaper. He said it’s not impossible to get started.
These days, he said maybe fixating on being in print might not be the best course. As well, he added it also depends on what your goals are with the paper. The Scope had a lot of things besides listings, like articles and some investigative work as well as its locally made comics. Over time, he said they also got more ambitious with what The Scope could do.
“The only way we were satisfied was by being ambitious and pushing and growing,” he explained. “And when we reached that limit, it was hard to be satisfied. Because we wanted it to be something more, everytime. But if you’re able to rein in your expectations, and be consistent…”
He added, The Independent is doing a good job on that, with small-scale arts coverage and doing excellent work and surviving. “It’s about showing up and being consistent and sticking to it.”
Lien also recalled what his journalism instructor, Stephen Kimber, advised Lien when he had asked if it was possible to start a newspaper: “‘Don’t do it. Your heart will be broken. But you’ll likely be able to do many things you’ll be happy with. And if you’re happy with that overall, then that’s fine. Do that.’”
“But yeah, it’s not easy,” Lien concluded. “It’s going to be painful and it’s very likely your heart will be broken. But you know, hearts mend. I survived. Emotionally I’m very happy now and I look back at The Scope and I’m very proud of it. And proud of the people putting it together and the work they were able to do and the people we were able to touch.”
With files from Drew Brown.
Disclosure: Elizabeth Whitten held a journalism internship with The Chronicle Herald in Halifax in 2015, prior to it becoming Saltwire Network and buying TC-owned newspapers. She has also written for The Telegram, CBC, The Overcast, and worked as a reporter with allNewfoundlandLabrador.
Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.
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