Communities need local newspapers

Canada cannot allow Postmedia to control access to information

Anybody living in Manitoba from mid-July onward knew about the Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries (MLL) strike for fair wages and what it meant for the province — there was almost no way to get Smirnoff Pink Lemonade coolers, and right in the heat of dock season.

Those who live outside Manitoba probably won’t know that much about the strike. At the time of publication, the Free Press has published at least 16 articles keeping readers updated about it. The Globe and Mail, a major Canadian newspaper, has published two.

It makes sense for Manitoba’s biggest newspaper to have published significantly more on the topic than an Ontario-based newspaper, but that raises the question — what would happen without Manitoba news coverage? How would Manitobans know MLL pulled in a record profit this year but hadn’t negotiated a fair deal with its workers?

That information was not made available to everyone. It was obtained by the Free Press and reported to the public.

The truth is, Manitoba is far from a priority in Canada’s social, political or economic conversations. On the Globe’s website, Manitoba is one of the two mainland provinces that doesn’t have its own category, instead getting lumped in the “Prairies.” In contrast, Toronto and Ontario are two separate categories; so are Vancouver and British Columbia.

We need local publications so that we can inform ourselves when major outlets in the country won’t.

The Free Press is a large paper compared to many others in Canada, especially the others in Manitoba. It has the resources to operate as a daily paper. Compare this with the Opasquia Times in The Pas, Man. The northern Manitoba paper publishes biweekly with a staff of 10 people.

Since its creation in 1978, “the print industry and community have changed,” the Times acknowledges on its website. Yet the paper “continues to serve as the official record of The Pas,” describing itself as “an instrumental piece of the community’s daily life.”

The Opasquia Times is lucky: it’s owned by a smaller company that also owns other papers in the area. Other newspapers in the country — a large portion of them — are owned by Postmedia.

Postmedia hoards many of Canada’s daily newspapers, including two in Manitoba, 32 in Alberta and another 58 in Ontario. This increasingly monopolistic media landscape is endangering newspapers.

In the nine months ending May 31, 2023, the company had a net loss of $61.5 million. That’s an increased loss of $18.2 million compared to the same period the year prior. This trend will most likely continue.

Why do Postmedia executives want to own these newspapers when they hemorrhage money? It may be a corporate bid to gain control over access to information in Canada. If that’s the case, it’s working.

It’s no secret Postmedia is a conservative company. During federal elections, it runs articles in favour of Conservative candidates in several of its papers. In 2021, at least 20 Postmedia papers all ran identical opinion articles — no, political endorsements — with the headline “Best path has O-Toole leading way.”

Its political influence became so great that in 2015, former National Post editorial board member Andrew Coyne — now a columnist at the Globe — left his position, citing a “disagreement” between himself and Postmedia executives. The paper wouldn’t let him run an op-ed opposing Postmedia’s endorsement of former prime minister and then-candidate Stephen Harper, saying it would have “confused readers and embarrassed the paper,” Coyne reported via X, then known as Twitter.

If opinion editors on national mastheads can’t publish their own political opinions, do freedom of expression and freedom of the press exist anymore in several dozen of Canada’s newspapers?

Along with blocking opinions from being published, Postmedia has the power to strategically block Canadians’ access to information.

The company’s mass acquisition of titles has resulted in newsroom closures and a reduction in full-time reporters across Canada. In Manitoba alone, Postmedia closed community newspapers in Carman, Altona, Gimli, Morden, Selkirk, Stonewall, Teulon and Winkler, eight in total, in just 2020 — a time when misinformation flourished and communities needed reliable information most.

What happens when communities lose their newspapers? Think back to the Opasquia Times, “an instrumental piece of the community’s daily life.”

Aside from often being a social connection, the very glue that holds communities together, when people lose their newspapers, they lose information that can determine every decision they make. Ultimately, it threatens democracy as a whole.

Research shows corruption increases and voter participation declines when communities lose newspapers. The community glue dissolves. It leads to increased political polarization as well, often influenced by the misinformation and distrust in news that comes from a lack of reliable information.

We cannot allow one company to take the well-being of entire communities in its hands.

In 2019, the federal government launched its Local Journalism Initiative, a five-year plan to ensure the survival of community journalism. It had a budget of $50 million. The problem is, it runs out this year. The Free Press received funding for its education reporter. The same goes for the Winnipeg Sun’s northern Manitoba reporter. Come 2024, the fate of these positions is uncertain, and Winnipeg is at risk of losing reliable information on education in the city.

The Winnipeg Sun is owned by Postmedia, yet still received funding for local journalism. In 2021, with different government funding initiatives combined, Postmedia received over $52 million to stay afloat.

Outlet ownership must be broken up. Instead of federal funding continuously buoying a drowning corporation, the Canadian government should ensure community newspapers currently owned by Postmedia are independent both in operation and editorial content. The papers should receive funding directly, not through a company that refers to the newspapers as “brands.” And the feds should do so for more than five years.

The operating costs of rigorous journalism haven’t disappeared since the Local Journalism Initiative was launched. As the media coverage of the MLL strike is followed by a provincial election in Manitoba this fall, it’s clear that the need for attentive coverage of local politics spans political cycles.

One particular incident covered by both the Free Press and the Globe was when Progressive Conservative premier Heather Stefanson and MLA Andrew Smith, whose portfolio includes MLL, took shots at the Manitoba New Democratic Party, with Smith blaming the party “and their union friends” for the strike.

The Free Press article was one in a series of updates about the labour dispute, while the Globe saved its coverage for an attention-grabbing headline that wasn’t even written by its own reporter. It was a wire story from the Canadian Press written by a reporter in Edmonton, Alta.

Population-wise, Manitoba is smaller than Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta. That’s a good enough reason for the Globe not to devote too much newsprint to it. But people in Manitoba need access to up-to-date, regional coverage in order to be politically educated. That’s why we need local newspapers.

Holding our government to account is always necessary, but at a time when the public will determine who runs our province for the next few years, now it is absolutely vital, and it needs to be done by reporters on the front lines.

We need to be able to make informed decisions. Our communities depend on it.