Continue 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 flyers into the morning weekly.

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

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

Then it’s back to the office.

As the only reporter for the local press, he writes the weekly by subscription from cover to cover – about 20 articles a week, ranging from municipal politics to human interest – then puts in the Quark editing software 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 meant to do,” Vogt said.

Local newspaper 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 each other reflected in the news. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

But the local press is in difficulty, the number of pages decreasing. 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 are now a skeleton staff,” said local press editor Amanda Zimmer..

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

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

But those statistics were drastically dwarfed by the number of closures over the same period – 466 local news agencies have closed in 332 communities since 2008. The majority of these 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 Alberta news outlets that have changed since 2008 through April 1, 2022:

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

“Now, ironically, over the past two years, that’s been a little less pronounced. And I think that’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 these mediums disappear — especially if advertising is slow to return.

Take it to court

In Claresholm, populated by just under 4,000, some locals including Delma Austin go to the local press desk to pick up their paper, labeled and waiting for them.

“I love the newspaper. And I’m a big fan of it,” said Austin, whose work with the local seniors’ home was featured in a recent issue.

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

Vogt and Zimmer say they remain focused on “hyper-local” news coverage in hopes that their newspaper 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 $80,000 to $100,000 from what it they were seven years ago.

Lisa Sygutek, owner and publisher of the Crowsnest Pass Herald, worked with Toronto-based 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,” she said.

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

“This is me saying, you can’t steal our income anymore. You just need someone to stand up and say, enough is enough. And I was ready to do that,” 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 lawsuit alleges two things: that Google and Facebook agreed that they would not compete in certain areas of the digital signage market, and that Google manipulated its internal systems that dictate ad sales, which , according to the lawsuit, harmed publishers.

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

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

A sign is displayed on a Google building on its campus in Mountain View, Calif., in this 2019 file photo. The internet search giant says its ad technology supports thousands of businesses, small advertisers to large publishers, dismissing a claim that it colluded with Facebook to exploit advertising markets. (The Associated Press)

A Google spokesperson said the company was unable to comment on ongoing litigation, but stressed its previous statements respond to the Texas antitrust lawsuit.

“The complaint misrepresents our business, our products and our motives, and we are preparing to dismiss it based on its failure to offer 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 monopolized the digital advertising market.

Facebook requests for comment were not returned at the time of publication.

News poverty

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 information sources, parts of Canada can turn into what have been called “information deserts” or what Lindgren calls “local information poverty” areas.

“I define media poverty as a situation where local media fail to provide critical information or meet the critical information needs of the place, or the people who live there,” she said. .

When such conditions take root, residents are often misinformed about decisions made locally, are disconnected from community events, and may be exposed to misinformation that can take root without verified trusted 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, philanthropic or community means.

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

“The big question is, what is funding 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 been struggling for a few years. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

News Media Canada, the trade association for Canadian newspaper publishers, says it urges parliamentarians to pass the Online News Bill, otherwise 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 media.

“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,” Paul Deegan, president of the association, 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 unchanged.

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 bring it out the Wednesday people are buying it,” he said.

“I know pretty much every subscriber. And I have some sort of personal relationship with them. And I like to think that’s going to continue in the future, don’t you?”