Journal Métro Média local media

Only fools would rejoice over local media closures

Métro Média and its 30+ hyperlocal publications — including 17 print newspapers, 11 of which served the Montreal area — suspended publication last week.

The surprise announcement that Métro Média and its more than 30 hyperlocal publications — including 17 print newspapers, 11 of which served the Montreal area and 5 in and around Quebec City — suspended all publications last week hit me hard. 

While the announcement wasn’t entirely unexpected within the larger context of budget constraints and a suffering media industry that’s been dealt blow after blow for years now, it was still incredibly sad news. I can’t emphasize just how much the industry has changed since I first started working in it over two decades ago. Numerous outside factors have contributed to advertising plummeting, media outlets cutting staff, consolidating and, yes, shutting down for good. In the past few years, Quebecers have seen important indies and digital platforms that produced original local content, like Voir, Huffington Post Québec and VICE Québec, shutter down. 

According to the Local News Research Project, since the pandemic began, 78 news outlets across Canada have permanently closed, including 65 community newspapers. Now we can add 17 more to that number. These publications mattered — not only to staff, management and readers, but also to the thousands of local creators, artists, innovators and newsmakers who relied on their coverage. One can argue that when one outlet closes, others often move in or pick up the slack. But not always. At some point we start dealing with a gaping hole in local news coverage. 

Local journalism is vital

It’s admittedly hard to see Montreal’s only English daily paper holding on for dear life these days. It’s alarming to see the Meta ban jeopardizing both local mainstream and independent news coverage. Outlets like Ricochet Media, The Rover and Pivot Québec, provide vital public interest journalism, while local indies covering Montreal culture and its ever-vibrant arts and life scene, like Cult MTL, are equally needed. I’m not saying that mainstream and legacy media aren’t also taking a hit with the Meta ban, but it’s primarily affecting those with the least reach and financial resources to fight back. 

In Métro Média’s case, the City of Montreal’s decision to cease Public-Sac also harmed the company irreparably since it relied on it for the distribution of its papers. While I support the city administration’s efforts to be more environmentally conscious, more efforts should have been employed to offer some sort of viable alternative to the media company, allowing it to continue its role covering hyper-local news.

I think the most frustrating part about the announcement has been watching people who don’t know the difference between a byline and a banner now rejoicing that “media propaganda” has taken a hit. We’re living in an undeniably chaotic information age and the fact that far too many people lack social media intelligence and media literacy skills is only contributing to this confusion. Many of us, however, appreciated Métro Média’s focus on local news (sometimes news and angles no one else in mainstream French-language media would cover) and the much-needed balance it provided with its opinion columns in a media ecosystem often dominated by right of centre pundits.

Local news matters for civic engagement

Watching local media outlets disappear or whittled down to the bare minimum is deeply disconcerting as a citizen and a voter. It’s not a good thing when media outlets disappear. Research has shown that, in communities without a strong print or digital news organization, voter participation declines and corruption increases. Researchers have also observed significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races and incumbents more likely to win re-election, as well as a reduced overall sense of community. Lack of local accountability also contributes to the spread of misinformation and deliberate disinformation, political polarization and reduced trust in media. In other words, there are very real civic implications — a decline in government transparency and civic engagement — when local media shrinks. 

As someone who started her career in community newspapers, covering and reporting on hyper-local stuff, initially as a journalist and later on as news director, I’m also frankly tired of seeing the disparaging way some speak of local journalism as if it’s unworthy of respect and support. I spent my early years in weekly local newspapers back when TC Media (Transcontinental at the time) owned most of them in the Montreal area (and beyond). Some of these papers had been around for over 100 years serving their communities. Yes, at their worst some were admittedly vehicles for borough press releases, an extension of their public relations departments, focused on local fluff pieces. But at their best they punched way above their weight, exposing questionable local political decisions, doggedly following bylaw changes, real-estate transactions, dubious borough budget spending and much more. 

Radio-Canada journalist Jeff Yates compared the demise of Métro to “hearing that your childhood home caught on fire,” and in many ways that’s exactly what it felt like for many of us once affiliated in some shape or form with hyperlocal community news. Many of the journalists and photojournalists you now rely on for excellent reporting in mainstream daily news, at the local, national and sometimes even international level cut their teeth in the newsrooms of community Montreal papers like the West Island Chronicle, Westmount Examiner, Le Messager de Verdun, The Monitor (NDG) and Cités Nouvelles. Many award-winning Quebec authors also started in those very same newsrooms. 

They were (and still are) hard-working, talented, dedicated reporters and photographers, and I assure you they agonized over getting the story right. It’s why, despite the challenges, a Pew Research Center survey of nearly 12,000 working U.S.-based journalists revealed that 77% of journalists would still choose their career all over again. Local reporting matters, and we lose far more than most people realize when media outlets that deal with the uber-local and often mundane stuff no one else covers disappear. 

Democracies need more watchdogs

While social media has indeed become a vehicle for some of that information, it does not replace the added layer of scrutiny on local borough councillors, policy makers, developers, industry executives and those politicians who go into public service for all the wrong reasons. We, the public, lose when local news dies. And those who now rejoice, regurgitating generic catchphrases they barely understand and popular Republican talking points, like “go woke, go broke,” have basically bought the lie that a five-minute Google search on the internet can adequately replace years of honing your skills and painstaking fact-checking. Those who want to cast an informed ballot rely on a healthy media ecosystem.

In a world where many people can’t be bothered to read past a headline, journalists are the ones following up on citizen concerns at the borough level, tallying up budget totals, questioning campaigning politicians and evaluating their past performance, checking demands for a dérogation mineure regarding zoning changes or scouring through pages and pages of tedious government bylaws and fine print to find that questionable line inserted casually in there by someone who’s hoping no one’s looking. Journalists don’t always get it right, but most of them sure as hell try. 

Journalism may be an industry but it’s not just a business. It’s a public good and it performs a vital public service. It’s why we need both local and national governments stepping up to address the local-news crisis and more public funding and support for media outlets. We need growing recognition in the philanthropic sector that journalism produced in the public interest is critical for both a healthy grassroots democracy and the quality of our local governance. We need more journalism, not less. 

News deserts benefit no one. Except, perhaps, for those that they do. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.