Sue Google. Focus on “Hyper-local”. How Small Town Newspapers Hope To Keep The Lights On

On a typical Wednesday, Rob Vogt shows up early at the local Claresholm press office to label each copy and slip advertising leaflets into that morning’s weekly paper.

It’s the start of a long day. From there, he’ll rush to a long Willow Creek Municipal District Council meeting, drinking the cold coffee waiting for him in his car cup holder during the seven-minute drive.

He’s old school – he takes notes during the meeting with pen and paper, never logging anything, believing it’s becoming too much of a crutch for reporters.

Then it’s back to the office.

As the only journalist at the local press, he writes the weekly cover-to-cover subscription – about 20 articles a week, ranging from municipal politics to human interest – then does the layout on the publishing software Quark before sending it to print.

In total, Vogt works between 60 and 75 hours a week. He was in the local press since September 2001.

“It’s a passion and a calling. And I honestly believe that’s what I was supposed to do,” Vogt said.

Local Press editor and reporter Rob Vogt says the paper’s role in a small community like Claresholm is to provide accurate and reliable information, dispel local rumors and provide residents with a space to see themselves reflected. in the news. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

But the local press is struggling, with a declining number of pages. The classifieds section has shrunk considerably with the rise of free online options like Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace, and the phone rarely rings with inquiries from national advertisers.

“We’re a skeleton now,” said local newspaper editor Amanda Zimmer..

And the struggles felt by the local press are not unique.

Across Canada, 192 local news outlets have been launched in 134 communities since 2008, according to data updated last month from the Local Information Project.

But those statistics were drastically dwarfed by the number of closures over the same period – 466 local news operations have closed in 332 communities since 2008. The majority of them were community newspapers.

The data points to a turning point for many local news outlets that were previously profitable.

Hover over the dots on the map below to see the names of local news outlets in Alberta that have changed since 2008 as of April 1, 2022:

“There’s been a real jolt in the community newspaper industry,” said April Lindgren, the project’s lead researcher and journalism professor at Metropolitan University of Toronto.

“Now, ironically, over the past two years it has been a little less pronounced. And I think it’s because of the federal salary supports that have kept some local media alive. »

But these supports are not permanent.

The big question going forward, says Lindgren, is what happens when those supports disappear, especially if publicity is slow to return.

Take the matter to court

In Claresholm, population just under 4,000, some residents including Delma Austin go to the local press office to pick up their paper, label it and wait for them.

“I love paper. And I’m a big believer in that,” said Austin, whose work with the local seniors’ home was featured in a recent issue.

delma austin
Claresholm resident Delma Austin is president of the local senior center. She says the center had fallen on hard times due to the pandemic and membership was dwindling. This changed when Vogt wrote a story about the facility’s goals, which brought new members to the group. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Vogt and Zimmer say they are focusing on “hyper-local” news coverage in hopes that their newspaper’s subscriptions will remain steady.

But other publications are taking more drastic measures.

About 130 kilometers southwest of Claresholm in the community of Crowsnest Pass, Alberta, Lisa Sygutek says her publication, the Crowsnest Pass Herald, has seen its revenue drop by $80,000 to $100,000 from what it was. she was seven years ago.

lisa sygutek
Lisa Sygutek, owner and publisher of the Crowsnest Pass Herald, worked with Toronto litigation firm Sotos Class Action to file a class action lawsuit against Google and Facebook. (Submitted by Lisa Sygutek)

“I don’t get anything from Google, from the Facebook feed, from the advertising they do on our website. It’s pennies on the dollar. ” “, did she say.

That’s why Sygutek says she jumped at the chance to push back when approached by Toronto litigation firm Sotos Class Action earlier this year.

“I’m saying, you can’t steal our income anymore. You just need one person to stand up and say, enough is enough. And I was ready to do it,” she said.

The lawsuit was served on Google and Facebook in mid-March. It has yet to be certified by a judge, and the allegations have not been proven in court.

The suit alleges two things: that Google and Facebook agreed that they would not compete in certain areas of the digital display ad market, and that Google manipulated its internal systems that dictate ad sales, which, according to the lawsuit, hurt the publishers.

The Canadian class action lawsuit follows similar efforts against Big Tech in the United States in recent years.

In 2020, the Texas attorney general filed a similar lawsuit in multiple states, which alleged that Google abused its “monopoly power.” Google asked the court to dismiss this case in January 2022.

google office return delay
A sign is shown on a Google building on its campus in Mountain View, California in this 2019 file photo. The internet search giant says its advertising technology supports thousands of businesses, from small advertisers to large publishers , rejecting the claim that he colluded with Facebook to exploit ad markets. (The Associated Press)

A Google spokesperson said the company was unable to comment on pending litigation, but pointed to its previous statements in response to the Texas antitrust lawsuit.

“The complaint misrepresents our business, products and motives, and we are preparing to dismiss it based on its failure to present plausible antitrust claims,” ​​the company said in a blog post on its website Jan. 21.

In December 2021, Axios reported that more than 200 newspapers in dozens of states had filed antitrust lawsuits against Google and Facebook, alleging that the two companies had monopolized the digital advertising market.

Facebook’s requests for comment have not been returned by posting time.

Poverty news

Small-town newspaper closures are made more important in times of crisis, says Lindgren of the Local News Project, when Canadians rely on reliable sources of information.

And without local news sources, parts of Canada can turn into what have been called “news deserts,” or what Lindgren calls “local news poverty” areas.

“I define information poverty as a situation where the local media does not provide critical information or does not meet the critical information needs of the place, or the people who live there,” he said. she declared.

When such conditions take hold, residents are often misinformed about decisions made locally, are disconnected from community events, and may be exposed to misinformation that can take root without trusted, fact-checked sources.

These conditions have been accelerated by the pandemic, Lindgren says. She says collapsing advertising dollars will precipitate the need to find other sources of revenue, whether through government, philanthropy or the community.

“It’s a myriad of challenges we face,” said Evan Jamison, president of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association.

“The big question is, what will fund newspapers in the future? »

The town of Claresholm is about 125 kilometers south of Calgary and has a population of nearly 4,000. Like many small communities, his community newspaper has struggled in recent years. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

News Media Canada, the trade association for Canadian newspaper publishers, said it urges parliamentarians to pass the Online News Bill, also known as C-18among other policy fixes.

This bill would force companies like Facebook and Google to pay for the reuse of news produced by Canadian professional news organizations.

“This is great legislation that allows newspaper publishers – large city dailies and small community newspapers – to come together to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook to ensure that publishers are paid for content created by their journalists. Association president Paul Deegan said in an email.

He added that the organization believes in healthy competition and supports efforts that will lead to a “thorough examination of the practices of dominant digital players.”

The way forward is unclear. And although things are uncertain and remain in motion, other things remain unchangeable.d.

Vogt, the local newspaper reporter, says that if the newspaper’s doors ever close, it won’t be his decision. But he will continue to work until then.

“I find it interesting that in many ways what I did 20 years ago when I started here, I still do. It’s still paper and ink, we release it on Wednesdays, people buy it,” he said.

“I know almost all the subscribers. And I kind of have a personal relationship with them. And I like to think that’s going to continue in the future, don’t you? »

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