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Reflections on a funeral

We’re not talking about a hard paywall for our websites – news is still a public good and must remain so.But in addition to local advertising, we’re going to need a model that encourages reader support.

Last week an article from the Canadian Press appeared on our website: ‘A front row to our funeral’ about the erosion of Canadian local news coverage in 2023.

It hit pretty close to home: the story focused on the closure of Kamloops This Week (KTW), a paper that I spent five years at as its operations manager, that closed in October after 35 years of serving the community.

I was heartbroken for my friends and colleagues who, despite their skill, talent, hard work and dedication, had their livelihoods suddenly disappear. I was also heartbroken for a community that has lost an important institution that provided not just much-needed information for citizens and accountability for our public officials, but exposure and support to hundreds of community organizations worth literally millions of dollars over the years.

I also felt remembered pain – this wasn’t the first time I’d seen the death of a newspaper in Kamloops. I was at the helm of the venerable Kamloops Daily News, which closed after 80 years of service in January 2014 – just 10 years before.

I’ve found myself wondering why we didn’t learn enough from that horrible lesson to avoid repeating it.

Some of the issues go back decades. You could argue, for instance, that we should have charged for our content online from the first time we created websites nearly 30 years ago. Or that we should never have relied upon other companies like Facebook and Google to distribute our news online.

But news has been freely available to the public since the days of the town crier – and accessible to mass audiences since dawn of radio more than 100 years ago.

We conditioned you, the reader, to believe that news is something that someone else pays for long before any of us ever went online – and for decades, that worked, because we made our money from how we distributed the news, not by creating it. You paid for news with your attention, which we leased out to local and national advertisers.

Even those of you who pay for news through a subscription were never paying for the real costs of creating and delivering it – the rest has always been covered by advertising.

But the internet, and social media in particular, completely changed things. The cost of creating and distributing content dropped to zero and it became universally available and easy – and we jumped on that bandwagon with gusto.

Then social media and search engines took all that content generated by the public, businesses and media outlets and became the most powerful marketing engine ever known, accessible to the smallest local business. Which means your local newspaper, radio station or website suddenly found itself competing with two of the world’s biggest companies for local advertising – Google and Facebook – at the same time as we became dependent on them for a large portion of its online audience.

If I could jump in a time machine and stop us from ever putting news onto social media, I probably would.

But that’s useless speculation. Rather, what can we do to ensure that local news survives now?

The relationship between creating news and distributing it – the core of the advertising model – has changed fundamentally. It’s not gone, but in the long term, neither print nor digital advertising is going to be enough to fully support the real costs of reporting local news. Supports from government programs or from Google or Facebook will be helpful, but we can’t bank on them either as their priorities change.

That means readers are going to need to be part of the equation for local news to survive – not just with your attention, but with your financial support.

We’re not talking about a hard paywall for our websites – news is still a public good and must remain so.

But in addition to local advertising, we’re going to need a model that encourages reader support so that those who believe in local news pay what they can so that those who can’t afford to pay can still receive it.

That’s going to take some education. And it’s moments like newspaper closures, painful as they are, which we need to use to do that educating.

We may be talking to you in the coming months about what that will look like and how you can help ensure strong local media in your community.

We’re not good at asking for that help – but we’re going to have to get better at it.

Because I don’t want to see another funeral for local news.

Tim Shoults is publisher of the St. Albert Gazette and Vice President of Great West Media, which publishes community newspapers and websites covering more than 20 communities across Alberta.

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