The power of place: When “local” is more than a catchphrase
This is one of a series of features, news articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit: localnews.journalism.ryerson.ca.
By ANGELA LONG
This is cottage country—Canadian Shield, white pine, and wildflowers lining the road. Around every bend, atop every hill, a lake seems to sparkle in the distance. The Haliburton Echo—”proudly serving the Highlands since 1884″—sits along Haliburton’s main thoroughfare, Highland Street, with a view of Head Lake. A plaque commemorates the building’s heritage status: Laking House, circa 1917.
The Echo serves all of Haliburton County, a 4,076-square-kilometre area bordering Algonquin Park to the north and the City of Kawartha Lakes to the south. The county’s 18,062 year-round residents can get their news from three local papers and two radio stations. The four full-time Echo reporters almost always meet their sources in person. They visit classrooms, ball fields, cottages. They attend the Wilberforce Carnival and the Festival of the August Moon. They are invited to fly Citabria airplanes on Young Eagles Day and wobble on paddle boards at the Home and Cottage Show. They meet with three elderly women who have spent a year making a quilt for a soon-to-arrive Syrian refugee family. The women call the quilt’s colour scheme—rose, lavender, pale yellow—”Haliburton Happy.”
But it isn’t always so “Haliburton Happy” around here. The county is one of the poorest communities per capita in Ontario. Nearly a quarter of its children live in poverty. The Echo documents the challenges of its little corner of rural Canada—reporting on homelessness, inefficient emergency response, service cutbacks and losses. Coverage of these issues creates near-instant results. Anti-gay vandalism at the entrance of Prettypaws Pet Boutique and Spa elicits hundreds of messages of support for the owner and a county-wide campaign where businesses display rainbow stickers that say Safe Zone—I am an Ally. When the town of Wilberforce’s only bank, Scotiabank, says it’s closing and tells residents to drive 30 minutes to Bancroft instead, the Highlands East reeve threatens to withdraw the township’s entire $10-million account.
Whether it’s a township’s millions or a loonie auction’s hundreds, local news covers the full spectrum of civic engagement. In this and many other ways, rural and small-town media outlets play a different role than their urban counterparts, says Joe Banks, a professor and journalism program coordinator at Algonquin College.
“You can’t really compare apples to oranges,” says Banks, who began his career at the Echo in the 1970s. “It’s a different set of priorities. You are an everything person in a small rural paper. You do it all.” You cheerlead, you inform, you investigate.
A study conducted by the New Rural Economy—a national initiative conducting research in 32 communities across Canada since 1996—calls local media’s relationship to the community “critical,” both in creating links within the community and building bridges beyond. Local news outlets can be directly connected to a community’s capacity-building—the ability of a community to transform assets and liabilities into desired outcomes, the report says. In other words, a healthy local news ecosystem creates a healthier community.
Since his stint at the Echo, Banks has watched Haliburton transform from what he calls “a tired little town out of the 50s” to a “perked up” civically engaged community hosting farmer’s markets, an arts and design college, theatre groups, even an opera school. He attributes this transformation to “an extension of a vibrant media scene.”
With a population that has grown by more than 1,000 year-round residents since 2011, more and more people are calling Haliburton county home. But population growth is an exception to the rule of rural Canada.
When the Haliburton Echo first opened its doors in 1884, nine out of 10 Canadians lived in rural Canada. Now, only one in five live in what Statistics Canada defines as rural or small town communities—towns and municipalities outside commuting zones of centres with populations of 10,000 or more. Along with a declining population, numerous studies have found rural Canada suffers from high unemployment rates, low immigration numbers, and lack of infrastructure. Rural Canadians also experience a greater number of health risks, including shorter life expectancies, and higher rates of suicide, accident, and disability.
“We have been neglecting rural Canada,” says the 2015 State of Rural Canada report.
As rural Canada weakens, urban centres strengthen. Thirty-five per cent of the national population live in three places—Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal—endowing those cities with what a recent article in Policy Options calls disproportionate economic power and an oversized media influence.
While researchers, journalists and policy makers grapple with the loss of media outlets throughout the country and its possible after-effect on democracy, the unique needs of media outlets in rural communities are often overlooked. From advertising models to internet connectivity to a reader’s relationship with the media— rural solutions differ from urban ones. Communication channels are an essential component in the formula to building community resilience, say researchers from the University of Missouri, the National Academies of Sciences, the Keewaytinook Okimakanak and the International Federation of the Red Cross. For rural communities, a healthy local news ecosystem isn’t just about a healthy democracy, it’s about survival. Local news isn’t just a catchphrase in rural Canada—it’s a lifeline.
“It’s of interest to all of us that these communities not only survive but thrive,” Maureen Kehler, Strengthening Rural Canada’s program manager for literacy outreach says from her home in the Fraser River Canyon, BC.
Robert Washburn, a professor of e-journalism at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont. says the recent conversations swelling around the definitions of “local” are urban-centric. In 2009, the U.S.-based Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy deemed local news “as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health.” But in a debate where local has come to mean anything from a neighbourhood in Montreal to a hamlet in Saskatchewan, the local news crisis can have very different meanings. “When we look at the issues that face the Toronto Star, CBC, and the Canadian Press,” Washburn says in a phone interview, “they are very different than the Belleville Intelligencer, which is a small city in southeastern Ontario of 67,000 people, or the Wellington Times, which is a newspaper that serves a community of 1,860 people.”
Washburn says such an urban-centric focus “doesn’t understand rural economies, social or cultural issues because they basically don’t know what it’s like to live in a rural area.” Local news in smaller communities, he says, should be examined through a rural lens. After working for 30 years in community news, Washburn says he sees a direct correlation between local news and a community’s economic survival. “And not just economic,” he adds. ”I could stretch it out to say cultural and social. I think it develops economic capital, social capital and cultural capital, and once that’s sustained people will want to stay and live in those areas.”
There are other reasons beyond the development of capital to cultivate the voices of rural communities, says Michelle Ferrier, the lead researcher for The Media Deserts Project in the United States.
“Local news is really the first cut at history, and it’s important to get it right, “ she says. “If we don’t have good local news and information, residents don’t have a good idea of who their neighbours are or what’s happening, we lose a sense of place and cohesiveness.”
In a system where media outlets have focused on more lucrative markets, the emphasis is on serving people with higher incomes, higher education levels. In most cases, they are also white. “Everybody else has been left to the remainder,” says Ferrier, associate dean for innovation at Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University. “We have huge swaths of people, whether it’s geography in the rural areas or in our very deep urban areas, as well as demographically, populations of people of colour, religious minorities and other immigrant populations that just don’t have a voice in our communities and therefore are fairly invisible in the larger national conversations that we’re having about what’s important to us as a nation.”
What does a nation lose when such populations don’t have a voice? Ferrier sighs. She points to the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and the fact that the awareness of “the deaths of our black boys as well as our black women and girls” first came from social media rather than local news.
When communities don’t have a voice, it’s more challenging to demonstrate a larger pattern, she says. “We see these as isolated incidences when in fact they’re part of a pattern of systemic behaviour by police and structures that are in place designed to minimize and diminish those voices.”
“We lose a richness to our local conversation, we lose a depth to our local news and information, and when we’re making decisions, we’re missing whole swaths of our population.”
For a Mohawk journalist in a small town of 8,000, Eastern Door publisher Steve Bonspiel says he feels it’s his duty to try and bridge differences and bring people together. “I’m not a journalist like a CBC journalist, or CTV, or any other,” he says in a phone interview from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory of Quebec. “They do their job. They go home. But I have to also add into that a kind of bridge building and way more education about our community than most people do.”
Bonspiel sees his paper, an award-winning Indigenous publication serving the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, as a conduit to educate both Indigenous and non-Indigenous readers about colonialism, assimilation, genocide, land claims and residential schools. “You know, when people in your communities are killing themselves at 12 years old because of the situation they’re in, when you have a boil water advisory for 15 years in your community and the government’s not doing anything about it, when you have a land claim that’s never been settled,” your job becomes much more serious, he says.
Local media outlets such as the Eastern Door are on the front lines of a new Indigenous awakening, says Bonspiel, an awakening of “Native people’s consciousness and our conscience too.”
“What we are as Native people—first and foremost—we’re environmentalists. We’re defenders of the land, we’re defenders of what’s right and what’s just.”
This connection to the land is an inherent part of Bonspiel’s newspaper. The masthead recognizes the Mohawk’s place as the “Keepers of the Eastern Door” in the Iroquois Confederacy.
In 1992, Kenneth Deer opened the Eastern Door in response to his people’s lack of voice during the Oka Crisis. Bonspiel, who bought the paper in 2008, carries on the tradition Deer started.
“There was nothing,” he says of the time before Deer. “Journalism did not exist here.”
Back in Haliburton, at the height of summer, an Echo reporter slings a camera over her shoulder and heads off to cover the historic-plaque unveiling at Miners’ Bay Lodge. The Haliburton County Historical Society offers to buy her lunch at the tuck shop. There’s a choice between a hot dog, a pogo, or a hamburger. Lodge owner Russ Wunker talks for two hours about the history of the area surrounding his 100-year-old board-and-batten building. He talks about the Ojibwa people in their birch bark canoes, the fur traders, the loggers. The audience listens, drinking bottles of pop from straws. He talks about the Echo, still here after 130 years. It was here when white settlers bought the land for 50 cents an acre, through two World Wars, over the years it took for HIghway 35 to be transformed from a dirt track to the paved highway and the din of vehicles you can hear from the dining room.
“This is history,” Wunker says, opening his arms wide. “History is all around us.”
In Local Journalism in a Digital World, Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller, both senior lecturers in communication at Deakin University in Australia, argue that by examining the importance of local news through the lens of democracy, we’re missing the point. The true power of local news, they say, is the power of place.
Local news develops local knowledge, they say, and connects readers to communities in a way nothing else can match. It has the power to educate, bridge divides, prevent divides, create awareness, celebrate diversity, especially in a rural context. In their book, Hess and Waller recount how that power of place exists from Ireland to Papua New Guinea to El Salvador to Turkey.
“A lot of literature suggests that geography is dead, that in a digital age we live in a globalized world, we live in a digital environment,” Hess said during an interview in Toronto where she attended a conference on the future of local journalism. But in the world of local news, geography is far from dead.
“It’s fundamentally important to defining local news,” Hess says. “You might look at print mastheads that have been around for hundreds of years, a lot of them will have the names of towns and cities in their masthead and they serve as signposts,” she says. “To be local is to be embedded in a place, in a geographic place, and so our connection to landscapes, to territory, is really powerful.”
The power of place is alive and well in Haliburton County. Place is the long finger of a lake, Kashagawigamog, named by those who originally fished its waters. Place is a 1940s cottage where a young Robert Bateman learned to paint. Place is a Garlic Festival where a farmer who’s been sowing the fields of Haliburton County since the ’50s hesitates before removing his sunglasses because one of his eyes is sewn shut. He smiles. A reporter clicks a photograph. The farmer fills a paper bag with three heads of Russian Red “for when you return to the city,” he says. “A little taste of Haliburton.”
A conversation about the future of local news that takes place near the shore of Head Lake on HIghland Street is very different from one held in a big city newsroom. Echo editor Jenn Watt walks up a flight of forest-green carpeted stairs past dozens of award plaques to her office. A handwritten Letter to the Editor sits on her desk. At least once a day her phone rings with a story lead.
“They think that their paper is like a friend,” Watt says. ”It’s part of the community.”
Unlike big city dailies, the Echo strives to give voice to the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. But this isn’t always easy. Watt talks about the types of things she learned at journalism school in Toronto where, she says, “courses don’t seem to take into account people in small places.”
“They think you’re going to always be in a city reporting, and you’re not going to have to buy your milk from that person, go through that person’s cash register, have that person service your furnace.”
Doing journalism in a small town, says Watt, means you need to be a jack-of-all-trades capable of reporting, taking photos, doing layout. It means that to pick up court documents you have to drive 90 minutes, that the District Health Unit is 200 kilometres away, that a large percentage of your readers don’t own a computer.
It also means that a nine-year-old winner of the 58th Annual Kennisis Lake Cottage Owners’ Association Regatta will pose for you, towel wrapped around his shoulders like a superhero cape. His smile might just make the front page. “Hey mom,” he yells, “I’m going to be famous!”