Mass layoffs of more than 600 people at Metroland Media Group, coupled with news that Nordstar plans to stop printing most of its 70 community newspapers across Ontario, spell trouble for a healthy democracy, industry experts say.
The layoffs included 68 journalists, while Nordstar’s cuts mean there will be no more community newspapers covering everything from the fight for a local hospital to late-night school board meetings. The company’s six newspapers, including the Hamilton Spectator, Peterborough Examiner, St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review, Welland Tribune and Waterloo Region Record, will continue to be published in both print and online.
Karim Bardeesy, executive director of the pro-democracy group The Dais, and a former journalist, says it’s not good news for accountability.
“There is some evidence that in news deserts or in places with less attention to local politics, there is some relationship between that and greater local corruption,” he said.
“The presence of journalists in the community keeps those in power and those who were trying to court those in power a little alert.”
As laid-off journalists consider their next steps and those who remain try to do more with less, experts like Bardeesy emphasize that layoffs affect everyone in a community. Bardeesy says an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to respond to the situation.
He says that politicians or activists cannot replace journalism with good resources to delve into an issue.
“Sometimes it just takes one journalist working in a local community to really draw attention to what might be happening at the city level,” he said.
‘A missing gap’
Brian Capitao aspired to be that type of journalist.
He told CBC Toronto that his stories on issues such as housing resulted in council debates and policy changes. But on Friday he learned that he would lose his job as a municipal affairs reporter at the Vaughan Citizen, a Metroland newspaper.
“It made me feel good, because there was real cause and effect there,” he said. “Without a local journalist, I think there will be a gap.”
Layoffs and the elimination of physical roles also worry some in political power.
Whitby Mayor Elizabeth Roy said she is “very concerned” about how community members will get the information they need.
Roy said the city has long run ads in the physical newspaper, calling it a key communication tool, particularly for seniors. Community events, information about possible developments and candidate events during an election are published in the newspaper, he said.
“We had a full-page print that would show what’s happening within our community,” he said.
She says the city will try to close the communication gap, but it won’t be easy.
Roy says many topics, such as the promotion of a new hospital in Whitby, received the most coverage from the local Metroland reporter.
“Compared to Toronto, we have no coverage and information is not shared with our local community,” he said. “The local newspaper is the way to disseminate the news that covers us.”
The dangers of reducing essays
It is unclear how the layoffs were distributed. CBC asked Metroland for a breakdown by newspaper but did not receive a response by the time of publication.
The company said in a statement last week that “the media industry continues to face existential challenges,” referring to the changing preferences of consumers and advertisers.
April Lindgren, a journalism professor at Metropolitan University of Toronto who researches local news, says many of the affected local newsrooms were already understaffed.
“These newsrooms usually had three or four people, if they’re lucky,” he said. “This is a hard blow for small newsrooms.”
Lindgren says it’s now less likely that a journalist will be able to stick around to attend a full council meeting or cover a school board meeting.
The local journalism landscape already had less competition than ideal, he adds. With several other outlets closing or laying off people in recent years, Metroland’s recent cuts only make the situation worse, he says.
An opportunity for misinformation to spread
Lindgren says the absence of “timely, verified, independently produced news” also creates more room for misinformation and speculation to proliferate.
Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says he’s concerned that fewer news sources will lead more people to turn to unverified information on social media.
Dispersed journalists will also likely have less time to focus on investigative articles that often take longer, he says.
Jolly says the CAJ will advocate for all levels of government to support local news. It will also try to help journalists affected by these layoffs.
If the situation continues, he says: “I think what we are going to get is more journalism based on press releases, which makes us susceptible, frankly, to being manipulated by the messages of politicians or pressure groups,” he said.