September 7, 2016
by April Lindgren

Residents of Canada’s largest municipalities can obtain news from multiple sources, but it’s a whole other story elsewhere in the country. People who live in smaller cities and towns, suburban communities and rural areas have fewer options, and in recent years their choices have become even more limited. Traditional news outlets have been hit by cutbacks, consolidations and closures, while digital-first news sites often struggle to stay afloat.

Growing concern in early 2016 about the availability of local news led the House of Commons Heritage Committee to launch hearings on how local news media keep communities informed. The widely perceived “crisis” in local news has also prompted a team of Canadian researchers to investigate what they call “local news poverty.” In addition to exploring ways to monitor the supply of local news, they are investigating why some places are better served by local news producers than others, and whether online news sites or social media can fill the gap when more traditional media close or scale back.

The state of local news in Canada is a matter of growing concern because, as the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy concluded, news and information are “as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health.” The authors of that U.S. study argue that in addition to helping communities develop a sense of connectedness, access to information is essential in terms of holding public officials to account and making it possible for community members to work together to solve problems.

The first phase of the Canadian project involved the June 14, 2016 launch of a crowd-sourced local news map that allows contributors to provide information about launches, closures, service increases and service reductions at local online, radio, television and newspaper outlets. The map is a joint project of April Lindgren, lead investigator for the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University, and Jon Corbett, who runs the University of British Columbia’s SpICE (Spatial Information for Community Mapping) Lab. Their goal is to spark discussion about the state of local news, track changes in local news availability, and help researchers identify patterns and trends in the local news sector.

In the second phase of the project, Lindgren and Jaigris Hodson from Royal Roads University in Victoria are examining how news outlets covered local races for Member of Parliament during the 2015 federal election. The research focused on coverage in the Ontario communities of Peterborough, City of Kawartha Lakes, Oakville, Brampton and Thunder Bay as well as Brandon, Manitoba and Nanaimo and Kamloops in British Columbia. In addition to comparing the amount of coverage produced by local news media, the study will investigate the role of social media in keeping people informed. The researchers also surveyed residents in the eight communities, asking them where they got their election news and whether they felt they had enough information to cast an informed vote. Preliminary research results should be available by early 2017.

April Lindgren is an associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism and principal investigator for the Local News Research Project.