It's been a tough year for Canadian media. Already in 2016 we've seen several newspaper closures, including The Nanaimo Daily News, The Guelph Mercury, and The Northeast News, not to mention plenty of layoffs. Postmedia, the country's biggest newspaper chain, which runs local papers across Canada, is burdened by crushing debt. And it isn't just newspapers that are in trouble: on Tuesday, there were reports that Global's award-winning current affairs program 16X9 had been cancelled, its investigative team let go, and that BuzzFeed Canada was shuttering its Ottawa bureau.
The federal government is hosting a series of roundtables to talk about stepping in to help struggling journalists.
If they want to see how bad it's gotten, they should fire up a new interactive map displaying which areas are underserved by the fourth estate, a visualization of what's been lost and a way for communities to track what's still there.
This map, released mid-June, posts data since 2008 on news outlet closures, service reductions, consolidations, shifts to online-only, or launches (when they still happen). Clicking on any marker will pull up information about the outlet, and includes data such as the community it serves, transition type (whether it's a closure, merger, or something else), the date of change and the owner.
"I hope this news map will spark discussions and reflections on whether people care about local news in community," said the map's co-creator April Lindgren, principal investigator for the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University's School of Journalism. She worked as a journalist for 20 years, most recently as a reporter for the Canwest wire service before it was acquired by Postmedia.
She said the idea to create this news map began after she learned that Brampton, a populous Toronto suburb, doesn't have a dedicated local news outlet beyond The Brampton Guardian, which is published tri-weekly. "If you look at smaller communities like Peterborough [Ontario], they have a much richer media landscape than Brampton," she added.
There was also the wave of bad news from British Columbia earlier this year, where the Nanaimo Daily News shuttered after 141 years, and from Ontario, where the Guelph Mercury ended its print edition. In January, a study commissioned by the watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting warned that, without intervention, half of Canada's small- and medium-market television stations could vanish by 2020, and with them, more than 900 jobs.
Lindgren wanted this map to wake up listless Canadians who may be ambivalent about these closures and contractions. "News is vital to a well-functioning and vibrant community, as much as transportation and safe drinking water," she said. "Local news outlets hold political leaders accountable. If nobody is reporting from city council, no one knows what's going on."
One of the key features of the map, Lindgren pointed out, is the ability for anyone to add their own data. Although Lindgren and her research assistant were able to find information on news outlets dating back to 2008, she knows there will be gaps to fill.
Lindgren said the map only lists local newspapers, digital and radio outlets, but the next iteration will likely add magazine and online radio networks. She also decided not to include job cuts, since the specifics of cuts (or hires) are too difficult to confirm and therefore to track.
The project was primarily funded by a $15,000 grant via the Canadian Geospatial and Open Data Research Partnership, and developed at UBC's Spatial Information for Community Engagement (SpICE) lab.
Eric Plummer has been in the thick of local media's struggle to stay above water. He was editor of The Alberni Valley Times when its owner informed staff in October 2015 that the paper was "losing too much money and its business model wasn't working," said Plummer in an interview. The paper shut down after 48 years of serving Port Alberni, BC, population 18,000.
He and others agree that local news is essential to democracy. It's also important, he said, "in people's quest for self-realization, and this is the drive that separates us from the cows in the field."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified The Guelph Mercury as The Guelph Mercury Star. The story has been updated accordingly.