Community papers connect with local readers in ways big city papers can’t
Small towns rely on their papers for a sense of togetherness—and that’s good for both the communities and the publications
Denise Smith doesn’t use the internet and she doesn’t have a smartphone. The small business associate from Grimsby, Ontario, reads one newspaper a week: The Grimsby-Lincoln News. It’s a community newspaper with a weekly circulation of 23,450 that covers the 238 square kilometre stretch between Grimsby and West Lincoln. There is no business or international section, and the only sports scores are from local teams, many of them from high schools or kids’ leagues. It may not be the most polished paper (a recent front page misspelled the words “doors” and “aboard” in the same headline), but the News still plays an important role in the lives of small town community members: it keeps them connected in a way that bigger newspapers cannot.
Grimsby is not the only town reliant on its community paper. The Ontario Community Newspaper Association has 313 members, each with relatively modest distributions and geographically narrow news scopes. Staffs are typically small, offices are local and the papers—especially the 118 owned by Torstar subsidiary Metroland—are stuffed with advertisements. Without these newspapers, communities across Ontario would lose an integral sense of togetherness.
Not that losing them is a concern. With print journalism in crisis, big papers, such as The Globe and Mail, are trying redesigns to draw in more readers while others, including The New York Times, have introduced pay walls to generate more revenue. But community newspapers remain well read because they offer stories that bigger papers don’t. In a recent issue of the News, the front page story was about the local fire department acquiring two new thermal cameras. Beside that was a news story on the release of Grimsby’s years-in-the-making economic growth plan and a throw to the details of an upcoming event that will allow locals to eat lunch with the mayor. In the back of the paper are the personals: stag and does, 90th birthdays and wedding and funeral announcements. Many bigger newspapers have removed this section in lieu of putting the information online. The community newspaper, however, aims to keep people in the loop, even if that loop has a pea-sized circumference. “They add a lot of personality to the paper,” says Mike Williscraft, the News‘s editor-in-chief, about the weekly personals he runs. “Everybody says, ‘I saw you in the paper.’ It’s a bit of a pride thing, too.”
Community papers supply information that drills right down into the core of the community, says Williscraft. “Dailies aren’t really armed to do that.” He adds that with the advent of social media platforms such as Twitter, which can break news quickly between press times, readers who don’t turn to the internet for their news are left out. “Traditionally, they are the technology-laggers,” says Anne Lannan, executive director of the OCNA, about people who live in small communities, particularly rural areas. “And if you look at the smaller communities, some of them don’t even have high speed internet yet.”
Grimsby does have access to high speed, but many people, such as Smith, are slower to embrace online culture at an urban pace. This is why the News is important to her sense of community. “It’s the voice of Grimsby,” she says. “A lot of people who work here live in the community, too. This way they can keep their finger on the pulse of what’s happening.”
Three hours northeast of Toronto is Peterborough, Ontario, another growing municipality. Lois Tuffin is the editor-in-chief of Peterborough This Week, a local bi-weekly with a distribution of 96,000, which is also published by Metroland. She agrees that community papers offer news and commentary that larger dailies don’t. “That’s the advantage of community papers,” she says. “We’re not competing with the internet and Perez Hilton for information. No one else is going to tell you about the kid from Bridgenorth who won the soapbox derby in Indiana. That’s what makes people pick up our papers.”
But these papers offer more than just soapbox derby news. When results of the Niagara Household Survey on healthcare were released last month, the original plan was to publish them online only. Realizing that senior citizens make up the fastest growing population in Niagara and that they are the largest users of health care, Williscraft convinced a Ministry of Health research associate to let him publish the findings in the News, as well as his other newspaper, Niagara This Week. “A lot of seniors don’t have computers or wouldn’t be savvy enough to find the information online,” he says. “Why wouldn’t we publish that?”
Williscraft knows that his readers want local coverage and not the en masse (albeit, still necessary and essential) reporting that bigger dailies offer. “That’s not our game,” he says. “They’re competing on a world scale, and we’re competing on a Main Street scale.” For the residents of small towns, Main Street may as well be Bay Street. That’s the hub of their community. “If we don’t tell it,” says Williscraft, “no one will.”
In the meantime, front page typos or not, The Grimsby-Lincoln News, and papers like it, will still have an important place in the lives of people who prefer the smear of newspaper ink on their fingertips to the tap of an iPad’s touch screen.