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Feb. 3, 2017, 10:34 a.m.
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What happens when a mid-sized city loses its last daily newspaper? Guelph, Ontario offers a case study

“This problem is creeping up the ladder, from the small town that has 10,000 people to the decent-sized community that has 50,000 people to, now, a place that has over 100,000.”

For newspapers, death comes slowly, then all at once. One year ago, Canadian newspaper company Metroland Media announced that the 149-year-old “intensely local” Guelph Mercury, one of the oldest newspapers in the country, would stop publishing its print edition. The announcement came on a Monday; on Friday, Jan. 29, the paper printed its last issue, and Guelph lost its last daily newspaper.

In many ways, the outline of the Mercury’s decline is a standard one for the industry: Torstar, Metroland’s parent company, said that its print advertising revenue dipped 13 percent from 2014 to 2015, echoing declines felt at newspaper companies across the board. It was an afternoon paper, a type of daily that’s been particularly endangered for decades, and it counted just 9,000 subscribers at the time it stopped publishing, a 25 percent decline from two years prior.

But most North American newspapers have adapted to revenue and circulation declines by shrinking — not by closing altogether. And the Guelph Mercury story also diverges when you consider Guelph itself. The city’s population, 121,688 according to Canada’s 2011 census, grew at an average of 1.58 percent per year from 2009 to 2013, outpacing Ontario overall, according to official city data. It has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and is home to the University of Guelph. In other words, it’s the kind of market that, by conventional metrics, should be able to support a daily newspaper. This makes the Guelph Mercury’s closing either a natural extension of current trends — or the start of a disturbing new one.

“A lot of the communities that have been newspaper-less up to this point have been far smaller. What you’re seeing is that this problem is creeping up the ladder, from the small town that has 10,000 people to the decent-sized community that has 50,000 people to, now, a place that has over 100,000,” said Lee Shaker, an assistant professor at Portland State University who researches the civic and social effects of municipalities losing their news sources. “The trend in the industry hasn’t been for newspapers to completely collapse in this way.”

The closing of the Mercury left a void that, a year later, has yet to be filled. Like most local papers, the Mercury provided near-daily coverage of local government, doing its share of watchdog work. It was also a pillar of the community, running or sponsoring events such as an annual book donation event for children and a Thanksgiving charity marathon.

“The paper did a good job of putting its money where its mouth was and saying, ‘We’re a part of this community and a leader in this community and an investor in this community,'” said Phil Andrews, who was the paper’s managing editor when it shut down. (He’s now a communications consultant at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, as well as the editor of a new book project showcasing the work of former Mercury employees.)

But Andrews said he was more concerned about what the Mercury’s demise has meant for enterprising coverage of city government, which he and others interviewed for this story say has decreased significantly without the daily. (One example of the Mercury’s past work: The newspaper won a National Newspaper Award in 2010 for an investigative series called “The Hole Truth,” which investigated the local gravel industry.)

“It was a real source of pride among the staff,” Andrews said, “that we tried to punch above our weight in delivering deeper context to the community on things we felt it had to grapple with.”

Guelph, despite losing its last daily newspaper, isn’t entirely without local news sources, albeit comparatively less ambitious ones. After it shut down the Mercury, Metroland rebranded The Guelph Tribune, its twice-weekly free community newspaper, as The Guelph Mercury Tribune, largely in an effort to capitalize on the Mercury’s brand and existing digital audience. (The hybrid newspaper retained the Mercury’s domain rather than adopt a new one.) The paper, however, isn’t home to a lot of in-depth reporting. This may be a function of the Mercury Tribune’s staff size: While the Guelph Mercury had seven reporters on its final day, the Guelph Mercury Tribune has just three, according to its staff directory.

Still, Donna Luelo, the Mercury Tribune’s publisher, argues the twice-weekly paper is still able to provide significant local coverage, even though the new print product lacks the national and international wire stories that were important to some Mercury subscribers. “Online, we are able to do the same work, publishing international, national and local news, including breaking news,” she wrote in an email. She said that in the past year, the Mercury Tribune’s page count and news columns for local coverage have both increased. And unlike the Mercury, most households get the Mercury Tribune for free.

Another attempt to fill the void came from local news network Village Media, which just days after the Mercury closed hired a pair of the newspaper’s reporters and its top salesperson to launch GuelphToday.com. Village Media, which runs four other news sites focused on mid-sized Ontario communities, saw an opportunity to successfully apply its model to Guelph, which “has a real sense of community. People love it, and love to talk about it,” said Village Media CEO Jeff Elgie. “It shocks me that [Metroland] couldn’t make a daily newspaper in a market like that work.”

But while GuelphToday.com’s entry has been encouraging for Guelph residents, the site realizes it can’t replicate what came before it, at least not in the short-term. In-depth pieces are a rare occurrence on the site, a reality that isn’t lost on Tony Saxon, the site’s community editor and a former Mercury reporter. “Obviously, we would like to have the resources to do more in-depth pieces and longer stories. We just don’t have the time to do it,” said Saxon. Instead, GuelphToday.com’s primary focus has been on, in Saxon’s words, “a hodgepodge of softer stories” that readers want and respond to. “You have to cover the hard news, but you also have to be very conscious of what gets really good readership,” he said.

Phil Andrews praised GuelphToday.com, which he said has, in a short time and with limited resources, become “the go-to website for local current news developments and reporting” for the city. But those limited resources also limit the site’s ability to beef up its reporting staff and cover big stories. “At the Guelph Mercury, we routinely engaged in enterprising journalism that would pause the community and have them confront something with a lot more context,” said Andrews. “Those types of value-added journalistic products are exponentially fewer with the removal of the daily newspaper in the market.”

The overall disparity in coverage has not gone unnoticed among Guelph residents, some of whom have attempted to fill the news coverage gap on their own. Sites such as Guelph Politico, Guelph Bugle, and Guelph Speaks, which predate the Mercury’s closing, have dialed up their coverage of local politics and culture, in part to make up for some of the losses felt by the community. Chris Clark, a former Guelph Tribune editor, has also become a local news source on Twitter. Royal City Matters, which used Facebook to cover Guelph municipal politics, published for just a few months in 2016.

“If you look at Facebook or Twitter, you see a lot of people asking,’There’s an issue here, so why isn’t somebody looking at it?’ Most of the time they’re talking about things that someone who has a beat at the local paper probably would be covering,” said Adam Donaldson, founder of Guelph Politico.

Donaldson, who works on the site alone, realizes he can’t possibly fill the void left by the Mercury, so he’s attempted to differentiate his coverage by leaning less on text and more on audio and video. Guelph Politicast, the site’s podcast, runs interviews with local politicians and activists (Donald interviewed Phil Andrews in the most recent episode). Donaldson has also used Facebook Live to broadcast live recaps of city council meetings.

Guelph is slightly younger than the rest of Ontario (the median age is 37.7 years, according to census data, with University of Guelph students pushing the median age down further), so a print-dominant business might have been a tougher sell there than in other markets. But its relative wealth — it has the fifth-highest median household income in Canada, well above Toronto, Montréal, or Vancouver — should be a countervailing force.

“Guelph could absolutely support a daily newspaper — if people wanted one,” said Guelph Today’s Saxon. “The money is here, the advertising revenue is here, but quite frankly, people didn’t want it. It’s great to be nostalgic and romantic, and we all love newspapers, but there’s a reality to what people want, and you have to pay attention to that if you want to be a viable news business.”

It’s too early to say what the long-term ramifications are for the newspaper-less Guelph, but the question of what happens to towns and cities when they lose their newspapers is a major one among media researchers. In research published last summer, Rachel Howells, a research student at Cardiff University, surveyed the journalistic hole left when the Welsh town of Port Talbot lost its weekly newspaper. Her findings suggested a connection between the loss of local journalism, decreased awareness of local news among citizens, and, in turn, decreased levels of democratic engagement.

“As people migrate from relying on traditional media to the digital media environment, they become more disconnected from their communities, they know less about their communities, and they’re less engaged in those communities, which is all concerning,” said Portland State University’s Shaker. “If a community loses its newspaper, it stops being its own place. It becomes a satellite of something of something else, rather than having its own core identity.”

These concerns are real, but there’s still cautious optimism among those invested in building the future of local coverage in Guelph. “I always say that the good thing about the present difficulties with the media is that there’s no right answer, so you can try anything and see if it works,” said Donaldson of Guelph Politico. “In the immediate term, it seems like a rocky road ahead.”

Photo of The Guelph Mercury by Laurel L. Russwurm used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 3, 2017, 10:34 a.m.
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