Chad Skelton
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Ties that Bind

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When their subjects and sources are their friends and neighbours, can the thousands of small-town reporters in Canada tell the whole story?

Most small towns don’t have mass murderers, serial rapists or serious career criminals to worry about. But for whatever reason-be it boredom, foolishness or people’s belief they’ll never get caught on isolated rural highways-many have their drunk drivers.

On Friday, May 16, 1997, at a routine checkpoint in Markham, a town just north of Toronto, one of those drunk drivers was alleged to be Merlin Dewing, the most powerful and highly paid bureaucrat in the neighbouring town of Whitchurch-Stouffville.

It wasn’t until the following week that Joan Ransberry, a staff reporter at The Stouffville Tribune and a 20-year veteran of the community press, received a tip that Dewing, the town’s chief administrative officer, had been charged with impaired driving. She called him at his office on Friday, May 23, around noon. He was not happy. He kept asking Ransberry how she found out about the charge, then accused her of sensationalism. “If you publish this, you will be embarrassing me and the town,” she remembers him saying.

The next day, the Tribune ran a small story on page three with the headline: “Alcohol Charge Laid Against Town’s CAO.” The tiny story caused huge problems. “They took the welcome mat away from us,” Ransberry says. Dewing and two of his underlings-the building director and parks director-stopped returning calls from the Tribune.

Over the course of the summer, it became difficult for Ransberry to do even the simplest article involving local government. A routine story about two parks in town getting new playground equipment became a major headache because the parks director wouldn’t answer questions. Meanwhile, reporters at The Stouffville Sun-which never ran a story on Dewing’s charge-found town officials as willing as ever to return calls and answer questions. (According to the Sun‘s editor, Jim Mason, the paper only reports minor criminal charges of politicians, not bureaucrats.)

Ransberry was fed up and wanted to attack the town head-on: she proposed running an editorial outlining how Dewing and the others were avoiding the paper. But the Tribune‘s then-editor, Andrew Mair, disagreed. “The town is our major source of news in Stouffville,” he explains; he didn’t want to make things even worse. So he took a “kid glove” approach, trying to convince Dewing and the others to start talking again. But Dewing ignored calls from the Tribune all fall.

“In a city it would not be allowed,” Ransberry says bitterly. “But they get away with it in these little places.”

Unfortunately, the Tribune‘s experience is not unique. Small-town journalists face constant frustrations and obstacles: publishers afraid to make advertisers angry, long hours with very little pay, pressure to cover only “good news” and publishers in blatant conflicts of interest.

It would be tempting to write off these problems as regrettable, but essentially unimportant compared to the goings-on at big, influential news outlets like the CBC or The Globe and Mail. But while it’s true that community weeklies are small-over half in Canada have a circulation of less than 4,500-there are also more of them. Do the math and you soon realize that community papers, as a whole, are a much bigger player than some assume. The roughly 100 French and English dailies in Canada have a combined circulation of about 5.2 million-a hefty influence, to be sure. But the total circulation of the country’s more than 800 French and English community papers is more than 10 million. While some of those copies are freebies that get chucked in the garbage with other junk mail, many community papers have readership numbers that are actually higher than the dailies’, in part because they come out less frequently.

And community papers are often the only game in town. Even in midsized Canadian cities there are usually at least a handful of competing media outlets. For example, in the Okanagan Valley city of Kelowna British Columbia, there is one daily paper, one three-times-a-week community paper, half a dozen radio stations and a local television station. But in your average small town, one paper (and in many cases, one reporter) is solely responsible for keeping an eye on town council, local business, courts and the police.

At the emergency response centre in Halifax, they heard no distress call, no SOS, no Mayday. Minutes before midnight, more than 100 kilometres off the south shore of Nova Scotia, the Cape Aspy sunk into the icy-cold Atlantic Ocean. It was only the ship’s automatic emergency radio beacon that notified those on shore that the ship was in trouble. Only that morning, 16 men had left Lunenburg port for a 12-day fishing trip aboard the 40-metre scallop dragger.

It took almost three hours before a rescue plane spotted flares fired from the ship’s life raft. Three men were found dead and two remain missing and presumed dead. By the time the 11 survivors began returning home on the morning of Monday, February 1, 1993, reporters from Halifax and across the country had come to the tiny fishing community of Lunenburg.

“The story of the Cape Aspy became a national story,” says Susan Corkum-Greek, editor of The Lunenburg Progress Enterprise, the town’s 3,700-circulation community paper. “You had media outlets from across the country sending reporters here, and they were all under pressure to get the newest twist on things.” Corkum-Greek was under pressure to get the story, too-the weekly paper came out on Wednesday and the community was desperate for news. But reporters at the paper knew of many of those who had been on the ship and didn’t want to bother them or their families. So while the staff at the Progress Enterprise published a story on the tragedy, giving the essential details of the accident and the names of those presumed dead, they let the community be. “We chose not to bother the families of the survivors that week,” Corkum-Greek says. “It was a conscious decision on our part….I was really torn about whether we were doing the right thing.”

An editorial published in that first issue after the tragedy explained the paper’s decision: “It is the job of the press to provide the facts. But…it is also our job to respect the community we serve, to know when to stand back and let our neighbours have their privacy.”

The national media showed no such restraint. A few days after the survivors returned, families of the victims went out to sea for a private ceremony to drop memorial wreaths into the water. As the ceremony began, an out-of-town television cameraman emerged from a broom closet and started filming.

For Corkum-Greek, the decision to give the survivors some time alone paid off-not only for her peace of mind, but journalistically as well. A week after the tragedy, the Progress Enterprise finally approached the survivors-who appreciated that their hometown paper had given them time to grieve. The story that ran the following week reconstructed the tragedy, with details none of the other major media got: “[Robert] Berringer was awakened by the feeling of water dripping on his feet. ÎThere didn’t have to be anything wrong with the boat for that to happen,’ he says. ÎThe portholes aren’t real tight.’ He simply pulled his feet away. But a few moments later Mr. Berringer noticed the engine slowing down and the boat took such a rear to starboard that he slid to the bottom of his bunk.” The story went on to describe how the crew struggled to put on survival suits on deck as the ship sunk, how they tried desperately to throw the life raft over the boat’s railing and how the wind pushed the life raft away from some of the crew who died in the icy water.

“In the end I think we were completely justified in what we did, and it worked out very much to our credit,” Corkum-Greek says. The following year, the article was named 1993’s Best News Story by the Atlantic Community Newspapers Association.

Small-town journalists are never off duty-in a small town, everyone knows who the reporter is and no one hesitates to pass on story ideas and complaints anytime, anywhere. Even serious illness can’t get you off the hook. When Joan Ransberry was working for the Ajax News Advertiser in the early ’80s, she suffered a severe bladder illness and had to be whisked away to Toronto for emergency tests. As she lay on a stretcher outside Ajax and Pickering General Hospital, ready to be loaded into an ambulance, a local man approached her to complain about a story. “I was in terrible pain,” she recalls. “And the reason I was accommodating this person was because I was full of Demerol-I was stoned right out.”

Reporters at small-town papers go to the same church, shop at the same grocery store and send their kids to the same school as the people they’re writing about. And while that means they have access to more sources than reporters in the big city could ever dream of, it also means many are tempted to pull punches. “Everything takes more courage in a small town than it does in a city,” says David Cadogan, publisher of theMiramichi Leader in New Brunswick. “If you’re writing an editorial about somebody, half the time you can look out your office window and see him.”

Mark Rickard, editor of the Victoria County Record in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick, knows this better than anyone. In 1988, his brother lost a leg during an army training exercise and Rickard decided to write a story about the injury himself. But there was a problem: his mother, still upset by the accident, didn’t want the whole town knowing yet that her son had lost a leg. Despite his personal stake, Rickard felt he had to tell the whole story.

Almost 10 years later, he reflects on his decision: “I guess I didn’t want to appear hypocritical. I expect people to be honest and open with me and I didn’t see the need to withhold the information.”

“My mother wouldn’t talk to me for almost a month,” he remembers. “[And] to this day, I’m certain she would tell you she doesn’t think what I did was right.”

Small-town reporters and editors constantly have to consider something those in cities rarely do: that if they do their job properly, they may lose friends and isolate themselves and their families from the community. Jim MacNeill is arguably the most respected small-town journalist in Canada. The weekly paper he publishes in Montague, P.E.I., The Eastern Graphic, is known for regularly scooping the Island’s two dailies and the CBC. In 1994, he was named journalist of the year at the Atlantic Journalism Awards, beating out many in the daily press. However, he is also a very lonely man. Some people in the community refuse to talk to him and he avoids making friends in town, for fear he’ll have to write about them someday.

“I think you have to accept that you haven’t got close friends in the community,” he says.

The very things that make small towns such nice places to live-neighbours looking out for one another, knowing everyone you pass on the street-make it difficult to pursue stories that show the community in a bad light. It can be very tempting to focus on just the good news.

“It’s got something to do with a sense of pride in the community,” says Rob Dykstra, chair of Langara College’s journalism program in Vancouver, B.C., who is writing a book on community papers. Dykstra says small communities often know a lot about the “skeletons in other people’s closets,” but prefer not to see the community’s problems in print. “So you might say, ‘This community is not journalistically well-served, because some of these stories should be reported on.’ But for the cohesion and the stability of the community, it’s better that these stories are not done.”

But Mark Rickard thinks papers do their communities a disservice if they lull them into a false sense of security. Stories about the town’s failures are just as important as those about its successes, he says. And a paper that doesn’t reflect both is being dishonest.

“You show me a community that doesn’t have domestic abuse. You show me a community that doesn’t have violent crime of some form or another. Where there hasn’t been something stolen recently. You show me a community where the weaker people…aren’t being taken advantage of by more powerful people. It doesn’t exist. It’s utopia. Find it, and I’ll move there. I’ll run the paper!”

At about 5:15 on the morning of Wednesday, October 14, 1992, Richard Rawa stood in the Tags Food & Gas convenience store parking lot in Athabasca, Alberta, and fired six shots at the store’s neon sign with a 38-calibre revolver. Fifteen minutes earlier, according to a distraught driver who notified the RCMP, Rawa had aimed at the driver’s car and fired once wildly into the air.

Constables Brian Scott and Greg Murphy arrived moments later. Spotting Rawa walking along the road, they ordered him to freeze and put his hands up, but he kept on walking as if he didn’t hear them. The officers tackled him and, as he hit the pavement, the revolver fell free from his body. Police found six spent rounds in the gun’s chamber. A further search of his clothing and the surrounding area turned up another six shell casings and 30 rounds of live ammunition.

In this town of about 2,300 people, the shooting spree was big news. At least The Athabaskan, then one of the town’s two weekly papers, thought so. It published the story on its front page the following Saturday, three days after the shooting, and ran several follow-up stories as Rawa went to court. (He was found not criminally responsible on account of mental disorder.) However, readers of The Athabasca Advocate (which came out the following Monday) found only a small picture of the damaged Tags sign on page three, with no mention of Rawa.

Stephen LaRose, then the Advocate‘s news editor, says he had a complete story on the shooting ready to run and was even planning to send it to Canadian Press. But then he received a call from management. “Basically, they said, ‘Just kill it.'” They never said exactly why, LaRose remembers, “[they] didn’t have to.”

Richard Rawa is the brother-in-law of Doug Madsen-who owned the Athabasca Super A grocery store, which took out a double-page spread in both papers every week. Madsen was furious at The Athabaskan for running stories on the shooting that he felt were unfair, and pulled his ads, leaving them only in the Advocate. “If the paper was going to…make us look bad, then maybe they didn’t need our business,” he says. His decision sliced 10 per cent off the Athabaskan‘s regular ad revenue and was one of the reasons why, soon after, the publisher sold the paper to the small chain that owns the Advocate.

In 1994, the Angus Reid Group surveyed 150 community publishers and editors as part of a study on community papers. They were asked: “Is your newspaper likely to be any more receptive to covering the activities of organizations that support [the paper] through advertising, or do you draw a strict line between your news and advertising interests?” While 48 per cent said they drew “a strict line” between the two, 40 per cent said they would be more receptive to advertisers and 12 per cent refused to answer. The numbers shouldn’t be surprising. Some small-town papers have such slim profit margins that losing even one major advertiser could stop the presses for good. And creating the “church and state” relationship between advertising and editorial that exists at the big metropolitan dailies is next to impossible at the many small-town papers where the owner both sells ads and edits the news.

Small budgets also mean stories aren’t investigated in as much depth. Many papers have only one staff writer who has to fill several pages of news every week. As a result, some papers run press releases verbatim without identifying the sources. One former political press aide remembers regularly feeding releases to a Montreal-area weekly. “They would use [the release] almost word for word….They ran it like a story.”

Small-town papers also have trouble holding on to talented journalists, because working for a community weekly is one of the lowest paying staff jobs in journalism. A study conducted by York University last year for the Canadian Community Newspapers Association found that many editors at community papers make around $25,000 to 30,000 a year. Reporters often make much less-some start at as low as $150 a week. In comparison, the weekly salary for a reporter starting at The Hamilton Spectator is almost $700. Only a few of the major weekly chains, like Metroland in southern Ontario, are unionized and pay wages that entice reporters to stay.

And the workload is brutal. A 60-hour work week is not unusual, and in towns where there is only one reporter, he or she is forced to be “on call.” Reporters are also often expected to help out by doing layout and photography, answering phones or dealing with circulation complaints.

Not surprisingly, then, community papers have become somewhat of a bush league for the dailies-with journalism grads working a year or two of long hours with little pay in the hope of moving on to something better. This high turnover means reporters rarely know the whole history of a story-they weren’t there when a bylaw was first passed or a zoning was approved, so they can’t fully understand what is going on now. And while small-town papers keep their back issues, few can afford clipping files and virtually none have an electronic database to help new reporters get up to speed.

Community weeklies also tend to be more tolerant of potential conflicts of interest. While the practice is not as common as it once was, publishers and editors sometimes serve terms as mayor or town councillor. Conflicts of interest don’t stop there. In Antigonish, Nova Scotia, the only paper serving the community-The Casket-is owned by members of the local Catholic church and refuses ads for abortion services and birth control. In Espanola, Ontario, a town southwest of Sudbury, the Mid-North Monitor‘s owner is the wife of the spokesman for the mill-the town’s largest employer. Last October, one of the Monitor‘s reporters, Bob Klager, says the owner hasn’t interfered with his reporting on the mill, so far. But the union contract expires in May 1998, and he wondered if she would still take a hands-off approach if there was a strike. “It’s in the back of my mind: ÎHow are we going to report this?'” he said.

Klager never found out. In late December, he quit, to work for The Sentinel Review, a daily in Woodstock, Ontario. “I think maybe the rules are a bit different up here,” he said before he left.

The community newspaper industry is so large and scattered that it’s difficult for mainstream journalism organizations to do anything to help. While most papers are members of their provincial press council, those only deal with complaints and can’t do much to address what doesn’t get into papers and why. The Canadian Association of Journalists has had some success signing up those in small communities, but is still primarily a big-city club. And because membership in the CAJ isn’t mandatory, it can only help reporters who want to get better. As President Tom Arnold says: “Ultimately, they’re more anxious to get out than to…change the system that they work in.”

The only organization in a position to improve ethics and quality at community papers is the one that represents them: the Canadian Community Newspapers Association. The vast majority of Canada’s English-language weekly papers, roughly 670 of them, are members of the CCNA through their regional groups. (French-language weeklies in Quebec are part of the sister organization, Les hebdos du Quebec.)

Robert MacKenzie is the CCNA’s communications manager. Only 26, he started working at community papers in high school-his first part-time job was taking pictures after school for The Palmerston Observer in Ontario, where he later became editor. Now he helps to organize conferences for the association and is editor of The Publisher, the group’s monthly paper. MacKenzie is only an employee of the CCNA-decisions about what the association does are made by member papers and their elected board of directors. But while it is part of MacKenzie’s job to make small-town papers look good, even he admits there are problems.

“You can look at a lot of papers and think, ‘Why do they even keep the doors open? Why are they in business at all?’ Because they’re not providing their readers with any substantial, useful information.” MacKenzie clearly loves the industry and is disappointed at how poor some of the papers are. But ask him why the CCNA isn’t doing anything to improve quality and ethics at the weeklies, and he becomes the PR man, insisting the CCNA has always been just a trade association. “We’ve never set standards for journalistic ethics or anything like that,” he says. “It’s just not [something] that our membership wants.”

The CCNA and its regional counterparts have always been more concerned with good business than good journalism. Most members are owners and publishers and the group’s focus is more on postal subsidies and getting a slice of the national advertising pie than ethics or giving struggling journalists advice.

In comparison, the Canadian Newspaper Association, which represents almost all of Canada’s dailies, has a written Statement of Principles to express “the commitment of Canada’s daily newspapers to operate in the public interest.” And while the CNA has no way of enforcing those principles, the statement-which refers to the operation of a newspaper as a “public trust”-calls for all member papers to declare conflicts of interest, provide a forum for different views, be a public watchdog and “guard its independence from government, commercial and other interests seeking to subvert content for their own purposes.”

The closest thing the CCNA has to a code of ethics is a 18-year-old, half-page “Definition of a Newspaper” that vaguely calls on member papers to operate “with a view to profit but in accordance with the highest ideals, ethics and traditions of the newspaper profession.” But that comes only after noting that a community paper “will be published no less frequently than twice monthly nor more frequently than three times weekly,” “will provide some form of validation of its circulation,” and “will have a known office of operation open to the public during normal business hours.”

It would be naive to suggest that a CCNA code of ethics would magically solve all the problems at small-town papers. Weekly publishers are notorious for being fiercely independent. And many of the problems small-town journalists face will likely never go away. But it would be a start. It would show that, at the very least, the association representing the weeklies that millions of Canadians rely on actually cares that its members are providing news that is balanced, objective and informative.

But while the CCNA is in the best position to improve journalism at the weeklies, it seems unlikely that it will. Which means that if things are going to get better at small-town papers, journalists will need to take the lead.

By the end of March 1998, more than 10 months after being given his Breathalyzer test, Merlin Dewing had still not been to trial. Though Dewing’s still not returning The Stouffville Tribune‘s calls (and refused to comment for this story) Parks Director John Crawley started talking to the paper again in October. And while Joan Ransberry still finds her problems with the town frustrating, after 20 years working for community papers, she doesn’t let it get her down.

She had the opportunity to work for a daily several years ago, she says, and even wrote some freelance articles for The Toronto Star. But she kept on returning to the smaller communities, to the brutal workloads, the low pay and the constant obstacles. Why? “A good newspaper is critical to the community. I don’t think it can function well without one.” Besides, she says, “it can be great fun.”

It may be hard to find good journalists in small towns. But every day, there are publishers and reporters in Canada’s small towns losing ads, making themselves outcasts in their community and working around the clock, trying to bring a higher standard to their tiny corner of the earth. Because they believe that what they do is important, that their community deserves to be informed. And that weekly papers are as essential to community, debate and democracy as the dailies are.

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