I remember the first time I heard of ‘The Scope’. I was at a party of some sort at the grad pub on campus, and ran into Elling Lien, who I’d known since high school. He’d been away for some years so we spent a few moments catching up and I asked him what he intended to do now that he was back in town. He explained that he and Bryhanna Greenough – who I also met that night – intended to start up a local newspaper, focusing especially on local arts and cultural happenings. Inwardly I rolled my eyes; outwardly, I wished him luck and bought the poor soul a beer.

Despite my initial skepticism that night – which I was polite enough to disguise – Elling and Bryhanna proceeded to do just what they said they were going to do. And, with the aid of an impressive array of contributors, writers, artists and supporters, they proceeded over the next seven years to produce a newspaper that was not just a vibrant accessory to the city’s incredible music and arts culture, but they created a paper that in fact became a core component at the heart of that culture.

The sad thing about artistic and cultural endeavors of all sorts is, however, that no matter how creative they are and no matter how much of an impact they have on the world around them, at some point they come to an end. Every band, every television show, every literary phenomenon: the special and magical feeling they impart in reflecting a sense of our culture back to ourselves is by nature an ephemeral and fleeting gift.

And so it is too, sadly, with The Scope. After seven years of publishing, December will see the last issue, and the vibrancy of the city’s arts and music scene will be a little less bright because of it.

No shortage of accomplishments

The Scope has been more than just a newspaper – it has been a cultural phenomenon as well. One journalism professor, commenting on the announcement of its closure, stated that “there’s still an opportunity for someone else to fill the void.” Well that may be, but surely few will be able to fill the shoes left by Bryhanna and Elling and the rest of The Scope’s remarkable team. They’ve molded their papers over the years not just with the aim of making profit, but with the aim of building community. Restaurant reviews, columns on local architecture, coverage of new shops and businesses, user-submitted content, and all with a particular local flavour: the paper reflects not just a desire to ‘fill a void’, but a desire to share a love for Newfoundland and Labrador that is expressed with a rarely paralleled degree of wit, creativity and insight.

And then there are other initiatives they invented or supported, such as the RPM Challenge – encouraging and supporting the creation of local music – or the Atlantis Music Prize (Newfoundland and Labrador’s version of the Polaris Music Prize). The Best of St. John’s Survey. They dreamt big – and more often than not made their dreams a reality.

They saw beauty in obscure, forgotten and graffiti-filled corners of the city, and encouraged others to find beauty in such unique places as well. They asked questions many of us wondered but never bothered to ask: what is this strange object here? What is the history of this old building? What’s the truth of this local legend? What’s the best food truck in town?

The other sub-text

Many are saddened by The Scope’s imminent departure, and rightly so. It will leave a void that will make it more difficult for musicians, writers, filmmakers and others working in the arts, music and creative industries to promote their work. It will make it harder for event organizers – from festival organizers to club owners to local bands – to get the word out about their events, and for people to keep track of all the great events that happen in the city. For many ex-pats and tourists, the first thing they do upon arrival in town is pick up a copy of The Scope to find out what’s happening and what they can do while they’re in town. It helps create and amplify the buzz which St. John’s avid music and culture scene has assumed. All those articles in national media about St. John’s being the new hip spot for tourists to visit? Publications like The Scope play no small part in building the buzz and the overall atmosphere that conveys such an impression to visitors and to locals alike.

“It’s business – if there’s demand, another product will appear in its place.”

That’s a typical reaction we often hear when a newspaper shuts down. It’s a superficial and not entirely correct reaction. Newspapers are not like shoe stores, or burger shops. For one thing, they play an enormously important and vital role in our society (not to downplay the importance of burgers, mind you…).

As Robert Picard (an expert on media economics at Oxford) has observed, “newspapers have special political and social roles and functions in society that have not been well served by other media…there is an understanding that economic factors other than reader demand influence the success or failure of newspapers, particularly advertiser choices.” And there is an argument that “the state should intervene in economic markets when their workings inhibit achievement of desired social outcomes.”

What he’s saying in intellectualese is what Stephen Osborne, editor-in-chief of Canadian literary magazine Geist, put more bluntly: “No quality magazine with limited circulation can survive without subsidies and it’s always been that way…you need subsidies over and above advertising.”

Governments have historically provided subsidies to newspapers and other publications out of a recognition that they are vital to the health of our culture and our democratic society. Many of those subsidies are being reduced or withdrawn in this era of government cutbacks – but this is occurring at precisely the same time as advertising revenue is plummeting for newspapers. The result: our ability to know what’s happening in the world around us is shrinking just when we need to know the most. And even fairly non-political papers like The Scope play an important role in letting us know what’s happening in our culture and society.

Newspapers have never been profitable. Some of the big ones manage – hence the merging and monopolies in Canada’s newspaper publishing scene – but for local independent papers the situation is brutal. And these are the papers that play an important role in informing us about our regional communities. In many places, it’s actually easier to learn what’s happening in the wider world via large state-funded media like the BBC or the CBC than it is to know what’s happening in our local community spaces.

The advertising apocalypse

Newspapers rely on advertising, often for at least half of their budgets. But advertising has been one of the biggest hits of the recent economic downturn. A recent article in Columbia Law School Magazine lays out the grim situation (in some ways things are even worse in Canada than in the US):

With the advent of the Internet, Craigslist and a host of other sites now compete with newspapers for classified and other ads. Revenue from print ads fell by 23 percent industry-wide from 2006 to 2008 and by another 30 percent in 2009. This is a body blow to the newspaper industry, since even the diminished total still represents 90 percent of all newspaper revenue. In addition, the proliferation of online content is not helping; only 8 percent of the industry’s advertising revenue comes from online ads, and the percentage has stopped growing.

And local community papers – especially free ones – face bigger challenges anyhow. Many of the big advertisers, intent on evidence of “value for dollar”, concentrate on advertising in the bigger (provincial/national/international) publications. Often those bigger publications are the ones that are able to afford market surveys to demonstrate their popularity and readership, which smaller papers can’t.

But…the Internet.

Ah, of course. In an era of over-saturation of information, the Internet lets us know everything – so what’s the big deal?

Well, but who writes the Internet? People. In the absence of solid local papers, we’ll be reduced to relying on the unreliable half-truths babbled by bloggers, or on online promotional sites run by bands, writers and creative producers themselves – people who are already starved for time and underpaid for the main thing they do, which is producing their music/art/film/whatnot. Does this make sense? Without professionals paid to cover what’s going on on a regular basis, adhering to a professional standard and code of conduct, we’re all gonna suffer.

And yes, there will still be local media after The Scope. There’s The Telegram, CBC, and so forth. But even these forms of media have had budgets slashed and are relying increasingly on freelancers, which reduces the quality and scope of what they’re able to cover. Many reporters have to scramble to file multiple stories a day. What does that say about the quality and depth they’re able to produce? I’m not dissing local media – there are fine writers working for local media organizations. But they’re only human. Without adequate funding and resources they can only do so much.

And, as many media researchers observe, the most important thing when it comes to maintaining a vibrant free press, is what they call ‘plurality’: many papers reflecting many voices. This is what ensures breadth of coverage and diversity of perspective in our society. And every paper that goes down takes a little part of our society and culture with it.

So, what do we do?

Government and advertisers (and by advertisers, I mean businesses operating in the province) need to pay heed. Government needs to provide financial supports, subsidies, grants, funds, and tax breaks for local media. It benefits all of us. The spin-off benefits are countless. The more voices reporting on our arts, music and culture means the more our arts, music and culture industries are able to grow, benefiting every sector of our community. This is a benefit to both our society and our economy.

And advertisers. Businesses. Oh, where do I start with you? It is vital that you do a better job of sharing your wealth and profits by supporting local media. Don’t think of it as merely being an investment for your business – think of it as being an investment for your community. If I may invoke the late Honourable Joseph R. Smallwood, he once rebuked the province’s “millionaires today, making their money and living with their families in a capital-hungry province,” for concentrating on “quick-return enterprises” instead of spending money in ways that would “strengthen the fundamental economy of the province”. Well, this is one perfect example. All these people supposedly benefiting from Newfoundland and Labrador’s supposedly “have” economy – where are they?

Certainly not on the pages of Newfoundland and Labrador’s newspapers.

A closing homage

But let us end on a positive note. The looming closure of The Scope leaves many of us sad for many reasons, but there are positive lessons to draw from it as well. The fact that Elling, Bryhanna, and the rest of their crew were able to produce such a high-quality publication for so many years despite such a grim backdrop as I’ve painted here, is stirring testimony to the resourcefulness, determination and creativity of people like them who pursue tasks of great vision and inspiration and who succeed at them longer and in greater ways than anyone would think possible. They’re a testimony to what can be done, when the will to turn dreams into reality is there and is coupled with talent and perseverance. And they’re a testimony to the spirit that some people are willing to endure great personal hardship and immense workloads, driven on by a love for their community and a desire to support that community and its many creative expressions. Let us not be demoralized by the end of The Scope, but let us celebrate what it has brought to our community for so many years and in so many ways.

And let us ensure that its example inspires others to pursue great and remarkable dreams for the love of their community as well.

 

St. John's independent arts & culture newspaper The Scope is publishing its final issue this month.