The mass layoffs of more than 600 people at Metroland Media Group, along with the news that Nordstar plans to stop printing most of its 70 community newspapers across Ontario, spells trouble for a healthy democracy, say industry experts.
The layoffs included 68 journalists, while the Nordstar cuts mean no more community papers covering everything from the fight for a local hospital to late-night school board meetings. The company’s six daily newspapers, including the Hamilton Spectator, Peterborough Examiner, St. Catharines Standard, Niagara Falls Review, Welland Tribune, and the Waterloo Region Record, will continue both in print and online.
Karim Bardeesy, the executive director of the democracy group The Dais, and himself a former journalist, says that isn’t good news for accountability.
“There’s some evidence that in news deserts or places with less attention on local politics, there’s some relationship between that and more 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 bit on their toes.”
As laid off journalists look to their next steps and those who remain try to do more with less, experts like Bardeesy stress that the layoffs affect everyone in a community. Bardeesy says an all-hands-on-deck approach is needed to respond to the situation.
He says politicians or activists can’t take the place of well-resourced journalism to dig 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 aimed to be that kind of journalist.
He told CBC Toronto his stories about issues like housing resulted in council debate and policy shifts. But on Friday, he learned he’d be losing his municipal affairs reporter job at the Vaughan Citizen, a Metroland paper.
“It made me feel good, because there was a real cause and effect there,” he said. “Without a local reporter, I think that there is going to be a missing gap.”
The layoffs and elimination of physical papers are also worrisome to some who hold 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 taken out ads in the physical paper, calling it a key communication tool for seniors in particular. Community events, information about potential developments and candidate events during an election are posted in the paper, she said.
“We had a full page print that would show what is happening within our community,” she said.
She says the town will look to try and close the communication gap, but it won’t be easy.
Roy says many issues, like the push for a new hospital in Whitby, received most of their coverage from the local Metroland reporter.
“In comparison to Toronto, we don’t get coverage and the information does not get shared to our local community,” she said. “The local paper is the avenue of the delivery of the news that covers ourselves.”
The dangers of shrinking newsrooms
It’s unclear how the layoffs were distributed. CBC asked Metroland for a breakdown by paper, but did not receive a response by publication time.
The company said in a statement last week that the “the media industry continues to face existential challenges,” referencing the changing preferences of consumers and advertisers.
April Lindgren, a journalism professor at Toronto Metropolitan University researching local news, says many of the local newsrooms affected were already understaffed.
“These newsrooms typically had maybe three or four, if they’re lucky, people,” she said. “This is a significant blow to small newsrooms.”
Lindgren says it’s now less likely a journalist will be able to stay for a full council meeting or cover a school board meeting.
The local journalism landscape already had less competition than ideal, she adds. With various other outlets closing or laying off people over the last several years, the recent cuts by Metroland only worsen the situation, she says.
An opportunity for misinformation to spread
Lindgren says the absence of “timely and verified independently produced news” also creates more space for misinformation, disinformation, and speculation to proliferate.
Brent Jolly, president of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says he worries fewer news sources will leave more people turning to unverified information on social media.
Journalists spread thin will also likely have less time to focus on investigative pieces that often take more time, he says.
Jolly says the CAJ will advocate to all levels of government to support local news. It will also try to help the journalists affected by these layoffs.
If the situation continues, he says: “I think what we’re going to get is more journalism based off of press releases, which makes us susceptible, frankly, to being manipulated by the messages of politicians or lobby groups,” he said.