Professor April Lindgren with the Ryerson School of Journalism is analyzing this important issue by mapping Canada’s diminishing local media coverage. We caught up with her to learn more.
What are you investigating?
I’m interested in finding out how well Canadian communities are being served by local news outlets. Our preliminary results suggest that while some places are quite well served with access to local news, others languish in what I call “local news poverty.”
Why did you start researching local news poverty?
I started thinking about the availability of local news a few years ago initially in the context of large suburban communities like Brampton, Ontario. It’s Canada’s ninth largest city and in terms of local media, there’s no local radio or television, no local daily newspaper and only a few online sites that don’t really focus on news. It has one community newspaper, the Brampton Guardian, but that’s about it. I was curious about how well the news and information needs of more than 500,000 residents were being met. Then in recent years we kept hearing about layoffs and the closures of local news outlets across Canada. That’s when I started thinking about how we might track and understand what going on with the local news landscape in smaller cities and rural and suburban communities.
What’s the significance of this research?
The Canadian news industry is in a state of upheaval and we’re really in uncharted territory when it comes to understanding what’s going on with local news. Earlier this year, growing concern about the availability of local news prompted the House of Commons Canadian Heritage Committee to launch hearings investigating how Canadians are informed about local and regional experiences through local news media. I’ve followed those hearings and what’s striking about the testimony is how often witnesses have pointed to major gaps in our knowledge about whether and how the essential information needs of individual Canadians and their communities are being met. This research is an attempt to fill some of those gaps.
What does your research entail?
The first component of the research is the Local News Map, a crowd-sourced map where visitors can add information about changes at local news outlets in their communities. (There’s also a survey that asks people out how well their local news needs are being met.) The second part of the research looks at eight Canadian communities during last fall’s federal election and compares how much local news coverage there was of the race to become the local Member of Parliament. Our preliminary results suggest residents in some communities had access to a lot more news about the local contest from a wider variety of local news sources than residents in other communities. We’re interested in why that might be and whether voters felt they had adequate information to cast an informed ballot.
Has the research yielded any surprising findings?
It’s still early, but the map is raising some questions, especially about the impact of media concentration. For instance, there are a lot of red X’s indicating closures for Quebec community newspapers. Many were shut down after Transcontinental bought Quebecor’s entire slate of community newspapers in 2014. In many cases, the closures reduced two-newspaper towns to a single newspaper market. This suggests to me that the impact of ownership on the availability of local news is something that requires more focused investigation.