Don Caron didn’t mince words this week when he said, without immediate help, two local television stations in Thunder Bay could go dark by September, since they are being propped up by life insurance payouts.
“We are probably the most desperate of the stations that are sitting in front of you,” Caron, vice-president and general manager of Thunder Bay Electronics Inc., told commissioners Wednesday at CRTC hearings in Gatineau, Que., studying the future of local TV.
He said his company is only operating thanks to “significant” life insurance policies taken out on the former owner and general manager, both of whom died in the past year.
“We’re burning those non-broadcast assets to stay in business, awaiting to see if there’s some way we can work out and the commission can hear our plight of angst, if you will.”
And if those stations go out of business, it would mean not a single local television station for all of northwestern Ontario, which Caron noted is the size of France.
Local stations have repeatedly warned that they are in trouble, especially after special funding was eliminated in 2014. In Hamilton, all the newsroom staff at CHCH television were let go in December, amid a bankruptcy filing, though a small core of staff were offered new jobs.
A study commissioned by watchdog group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting is warning that without intervention, half of Canada’s small- and medium-market television stations could be gone by 2020, and with it, 910 jobs.
Ian Morrison, a spokesman for Friends, would like to see the return of funding directed at local programming, paid for by cable television subscribers.
“Everybody was chipping in to pay just a bit, so that small communities would have their television (stations),” he said, noting the fund was brought in after the 2008 financial crisis. “There wasn’t much of an uproar. It was the cost of being Canadian.”
The plight of small television stations was just part of the bleak news cycle about the media business in Canada this week.
The Guelph Mercury, owned by Metroland, a division of Torstar Corp., and the Nanaimo Daily News, owned by Black Press, stopped printing papers for the last time on Friday.
Both companies blamed poor advertising revenue and not enough subscribers to cover the costs of operations. Earlier this month, Torstar, the parent company of The Toronto Star, announced plans to close its Vaughan printing plant and contract out printing, eliminating 285 full and part-time jobs.
Tony Saxon, a long-time reporter at the Mercury, said the newsroom continued to do more with less, amid repeated cuts.
“We won’t be the last. Nobody wants to pay for news. It isn’t just a Guelph story,” he said. “We knew things were tough. We knew the train was coming, but we thought it was down the tracks. We didn’t realize it was right around the bend.”
Postmedia, weighed down by a mammoth debt load and increasing pressure to cut $80 million in costs by 2017, has just eliminated 90 journalist jobs across the country. It has merged newsrooms in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa – where a single staff will write for the two papers Postmedia owns in those cities.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said April Lindgren, associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. “That’s because nobody knows how to fix it. If somebody had the magic solution, they would be very rich.”
Some scoff at local journalism, suggesting the coverage isn’t very good and the reporters are uncritical observers of local politicians and business leaders. Others defend local journalism with the view they are watchdogs, doing investigations and revealing wrongdoing.
“I think the truth is probably somewhere in the middle,” said Lindgren, who is leading a research project on local news. “They are not lapdogs or watchdogs, but they are guard dogs.”
Local journalism is especially critical in small community, she said, even if it’s keeping people informed about a festival or what town council did. “Even if they didn’t go to the town square for the festival, it’s a shared experience,” she said.
Bruce Gillespie, associate professor of digital media at Wilfrid Laurier University, believes the challenges of falling advertising revenues along with surge in free digital information is magnified in smaller places.
“For the past 15 or 20 years, a lot of local news outlets have become part of the large news conglomerates,” he said.
“They become a small piece of the puzzle, especially when they don’t make a lot of money. They become an expendable piece of the puzzle,” Gillespie said.
And as resources are slashed, even less local news is included. First, there’s no high school sports coverage. Then school board or council meeting coverage falls by the wayside.
It becomes a vicious cycle, because readers have less reason to buy the paper, especially if there is so little local content, he said. Much of it is filled with wire copy or celebrity news, readily available elsewhere, often for free.
Many newspapers have moved to a paywall model, where readers buy monthly online subscriptions for access. The Toronto Star tried it, and abandoned it, opting instead to make its website free.
The Winnipeg Free Press has started a micropayment system, known as its Read Now Pay Later model, where readers are charged for 27 cents for every article they want, and are billed at the end of the month.
This program, unique in North America, is accompanied by a separate offering, including a monthly digital subscription for $16.99 for unlimited articles. Fees are waived for home delivery subscribers.
Since the program was fully implemented last July, publisher Bob Cox said 3,700 people have signed up the micropayment option, with one in three buying at least one article each day, and an additional 3,700 are paying the digital subscription.
“We consider it fairly good progress,” Cox said, noting before July they didn’t have anyone paying for digital content. “We have more paying subscribers than a year ago. I consider that progress.”
“As a society we don’t seem to value the things journalism provides,” said Scot Urquhart, a former CHCH-TV reporter and producer who lost his job in December. “We may value it after it’s gone.”
Randy Boswell, a journalism professor at Carleton University, believes people will care about local news if they have to confront a world without it.
“It is how people find out what happening in their community. It is how accountability of elected officials transpires. It’s how we celebrate achievements. It’s how we shame offenders of various kinds.
“It serves a great number of social purposes.”