Nothing has worried me more about the future of Ontario democracy lately than the news that dozens of papers in the province will be shuttered. A deal between Postmedia and Torstar will result in the closing of 38 community newspapers in Ontario. News media has been in crisis over the last couple of decades. Newsrooms and coverage has been contracting, investigations and critical reporting shrinking. Newspapers are hollow shells of what they once were.
The journalism in most smaller and medium-sized cities and towns has been severely lacking in the twenty-first century. The fourth estate is fighting a rearguard action against irrelevancy and insolvency.
The simple truth is that journalism, especially mass reporting, has been critical to the healthy function of our democracy. We are less than a year away from municipal elections, and only a few months from a provincial election. The next elections will be much the poorer without their commentary and coverage.
As I write this I can hear the criticism clear as day. The newspapers had a narrow viewpoint, a small ownership base, they were/are a dying medium that failed financially and failed to adapt to new circumstances and alternatives exist to take their place. These, for the most part, are valid critiques. However, we have not seen a website, Twitter account, etc. replace a newspaper and truly fill its function. The journalism could be relied upon to be factual, even with editorial bias.
Let's consider some of what we have lost in these communities and others. Newspapers during an election can be counted upon to at least profile all the candidates for office for their audience. Newspapers often organize debates and moderate them. Perhaps most importantly they provide a platform for candidates to communicate to the public en masse without expending great amounts of money. I've worked on campaigns and the hardest thing is getting the public's attention. Newspapers and local media catch a distinct audience in a geographic audience and can serve them meaningfully and deeply.
Then there is the usual coverage of day-to-day politics and government. How are public institutions faring? What issues confront the community? How do changes in laws and policies or events impact local people and organizations? Newspapers have been failing in some of these respects, but nothing has offered their reach, capability, or public service.
As we move forward we risk depriving the public of objective sources of local information. Our civic life will only be poorer in their absence until alternative models can be arrived at.