By APRIL LINDGREN
A not-so-modest proposal for an annual census of local news outlets and a news poverty index
It is impossible to randomly choose a Canadian municipality and then find a current list of radio, TV, newspaper and online news outlets that produce local coverage for that community. No such searchable, all-inclusive database exists.
This is a major headache. The dearth of readily available, reliable information on local media ecosystems makes it more challenging for governments and charitable foundations to identify where the need is greatest as they explore ways to support local journalism. At a time when Meta is blocking news in Canada on its platform and Google is threatening to do the same, there’s no easy way for residents in a community to find out where they can go for direct access to local news. And researchers in Canada are hamstrung by the lack of comparative local data.
Studies in the United States have linked the availability of local news to election turnout and other forms of civic engagement. American research also shows that affluent communities tend to have more local news providers than lower-income communities.
We don’t have the necessary data to determine if the same scenarios are unfolding in Canada, where there has been significant local media churn: Since 2008, 511 local news outlets have closed in 342 communities while only 212 have launched in 150 places. Are there more local news outlets in affluent versus lower-income places? Is there a link between the number or type of local news outlets in a community and voter turnout? Where are Canada’s news deserts — places where there is no local news available?
Assembling a comprehensive, searchable local media directory for all communities in Canada is no easy task. Some local news outlets are difficult to identify from afar because they don’t have an online presence. Some may claim to cover local news when they really do very little local reporting. News outlets come and go so any list published now will quickly become outdated unless funding is available to track changes over time.
The CBC attempted to solve this problem with a digital Local News Directory that allows users to type in the name of a place and get a list of local news providers. The directory, however, relies upon industry associations to provide updates and that’s just not working. A case in point: As of Sept. 1, 2023, the list of local media for the eastern Ontario town of Prescott included the South Grenville Journal, which ceased publishing at the end of 2020, and didn’t include the South Grenville Beacon, an independently owned newspaper launched in early 2021.
There are industry-specific listings in Canada but they all have limitations so simply combining all of their data into one directory is no solution, even if there was a way to keep it up to date. Provincial and national newspaper industry associations, for example, have lists of daily and weekly publications in different communities, but non-member newspapers aren’t included. The Canada Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission website allows you to search for over-the-air and paid television services in different communities. The search results, however, say nothing about how much local coverage there is of far-flung communities in a station’s viewing area. Global Lethbridge, for instance, has a newsroom in Lethbridge, Alta., but the CRTC also lists it as a provider of over-the-air television service in Brooks, Alta., more than 150 kilometres away.
There are encouraging developments related to directories of online news outlets, but again, they have their own constraints. Researchers at the University of British Columbia are building a list of digital-born journalism organizations that they plan to share publicly and update regularly. The list, however, does not include Quebec publications. Project Oasis, a Google-supported university-industry initiative in the United States, recently identified 270 independent digital publications in Canada that report on a specific topic or geographic area. The database is searchable by place name but it will rely upon news organizations and the public for updates and new information so currency is likely to be an issue.
There is, however, a way forward.