In the many thousands of words that have been written about the collapse of Canadian daily newspapers, there is a parallel good news story that has been untold.
There are places in Canada in which newspaper circulation is actually stable or growing, and where reader loyalty is as strong as it has ever been. Places where people still pick up the paper and read it front to back to find out what’s going on in their community.
These places, as you might have guessed, are not Canada’s mid-sized to large cities, where the spectacular decline of local print media has created an appalling news vacuum. Rather, it is in community newspapers that serve the hundreds of small towns that form the heartland of the country.
It is no easy ride, but community newspapers enjoy relative stability in comparison to their bigger cousins. One Ontario paper I recently encountered claims a circulation penetration rate of 89 per cent – meaning nine out of 10 households in its circulation area buy and read the paper. Those kind of numbers were seldom matched by daily newspapers even at the height of their popularity.
Community newspapers have held true for a number of reasons. Unlike other media, these newspapers tells stories about their communities – stories you can’t find on a news wire. Readers cannot find their mix of local news, events, sports and advertising anywhere else. Readers often feel a personal connection, or sense of ownership, with their community newspaper. If they don’t like a story, they can call up and complain. Editors and owners belong to the same social clubs, churches and hockey leagues as their customers.
Local businesses, in turn, view community newspapers as the best bet for effectively reaching consumers in these small markets. Their markets are “captive” – i.e., generally too small for the big guys to try to move in.
There will be papers, no doubt, that will give up the fight and fold, as some have. Yet for those who stay, strive to adapt and keep their eye on the ball, it’s hard to imagine a future without a community newspaper in some form.
They will survive because nobody else is going to tell the stories they do – about local births and deaths, local heroes and hooligans, the wise and foolish decisions of the local council and prospects for the minor hockey teams. The heartland has shown, time and again, that they will support a local news source that lives and breathes small town Canadian life.
It makes you wonder whether, in that sense at least, the small towns of Canada are so much different from the big ones. The stories that impact us most, whether in Corner Brook, N.L., or Vancouver, B.C., are the ones about our neighbours.