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Opinion: Call for good community journalism is loud and clear

Need for local media is as strong as ever despite challenges for industry over past two decades.
Local media, whether on newsprint or online, is an important thread in the fabric of our society.

I’d never have guessed that the sound of a steel newspaper box creaking open and smacking shut could be so pleasant. But in a first week on the job full of pleasant surprises, that was one of the happier discoveries.    Just outside my window at the offices of the Burnaby Now, New Westminster Record and Tri-City News there are boxes holding the latest print editions of the papers. Early on Thursday, bundles of copies arrived for distribution and were loaded into the boxes. This brought a steady stream of readers seeking out papers to take with them – a flow of people that did not let up throughout the whole day.

It had been a while since I had been front and centre on publication day and witnessed newly printed papers change hands. When I started out in community news as a reporter in the Fraser Valley three decades ago, I made friends with the distribution people and would see the new edition of the weekly I worked for get loaded into vans behind the office and taken to stores and carrier pickup points. Later, when I worked for a daily in Vancouver, I would often watch with satisfaction as a customer at a corner store would buy a copy of the paper I had helped create the night before.

For the last several years, though – particularly during the worst of the pandemic – for one reason or another I would seldom see that important transaction as the final product reached the reader.

Of course it is a daily part of the job for community news organizations to keep continual tabs on online readership and shares and clicks, but it is by nature one step removed from real flesh-and-blood readers. So the wham of the newspaper box door last week was a gratifying reminder that the desire, the need, persists for the kind of storytelling that community media strives to create. Not just in the print editions, of course – though having started in community papers decades ago, pre-internet, I have an incurable devotion to newsprint – but also in the online face of local news organizations.  

Regardless of how it has made its way to readers, local news hasn’t had an easy couple of decades. As noted by the Local News Project, 466 local news operations – most of them community newspapers – closed in 332 communities across Canada between 2008 and this year. The launch of 192 local news outlets during that span helped offset that, but the loss is still deep.

Yet local news remains as important as ever – perhaps more important than ever. Like their bigger cousins that for decades dominated daily news coverage, community news organizations offer a crucial defence against the online tide of disinformation, hate and extremist lunacy that has only too easily oozed in to fill the void left by changing business models, tighter newsroom budgets and scarcer resources.

I don’t pretend to be able to know exactly what will happen to community news organizations in this country in the next decade or two, but I am optimistic. For one thing, outsize tech companies like Facebook, which have sucked in billions in revenue at the expense of smaller organizations that gather and publish news, are beginning to be made to pay more of their fair share.

For another, the desire is strong for even-handed, compelling coverage of the issues affecting our lives. That is something that will not change – and it’s something I am reminded of every time that newspaper box clangs open and shut.   Mark Falkenberg is editor of the Burnaby Now, New Westminster Record and Tri-City News.