What’s wrong with local media?

What are the papers saying?“It’s about trust. Our relationship with our readers is built on transparency, honesty and integrity.” So opens the front-page piece in this weekend’s Connection, titled in all-caps, “Local News Needs Support ‘Now More Than Ever'”. It echoes the theme of”now more than ever” written for National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7. And some of it is eerily similar to what Bob Cox wrote about journalism on Oct. 2. Imitation is the sincerest form, I suppose.

Apparently the Connection only climbed on board six weeks later. But I suppose it’s better late than… well, no it’s not. At least during National Newspaper Week they could have justified publishing some of this gooey dreck.

The self-aggrandizing theme – begging for local support, whingeing that ad revenue is declining while boasting how great the paper and its staff are – is present on five pages in a publication that has limited editorial content even at its best. Trust us, we’re journalists, the copy screams. We’re pros. And in case you missed it once, they say it again and again and again.

The claim about declining advertising might be hard for readers to swallow, what with the paper fat with (by my count) fifteen thick store flyers in the latest issue. And it’s not like the paper lacks display ads – see my analysis below.

Let me start by saying that I worked as both reporter and editor for the local papers. I was appalled that such self-serving content (and so much of it!) was not just on the front page, but embedded throughout the paper. Is it in the best community interest to show a photograph of the reporters on the front page instead of a community event or group? That speaks volumes to me about the paper’s focus: itself before the community. This sort of content should have come as a special section, or displayed after the news.

The Connection was an independent paper back in 1990 when I first moved here, but was bought by Metroland – owned by TorStar – in 1992 or 93 (I worked there briefly as the editor/reporter/layout person before being hired by the Enterprise Bulletin). It has always been a one-person operation – the single reporter covering politics, police, events, sports and everything else – overseen by a regional editor, with contributed content and columns.

Nowadays they have to handle social media and online filing, too. Overworked, I admit, albeit a union job better paid than I ever was in newspapers. But inadequate staffing and poor resource use is a management failure.

Metroland has always been about advertising. It’s the free wrapper around the flyers (of Metroland’s 106 papers with 5.27 million circulation, only 15,300 are paid). That’s called a “community” paper although how much real community content is available depends on the publication.

Let’s take a closer look at this week’s paper and analyze the contents so we can see just how committed to local news and coverage the paper is. (I apologize in advance for any mistakes – there are some bits like the front page logo and some classified columns that may be estimates).

The paper has 44 pages, divided into six 11.5-inch columns (excuse me for being so imperial in my measurements). That’s 69 column-inches per page for a total of 3,036 column inches from front to back.

Of that space, 599 column inches are dedicated to editorial content of every sort, including photos, sports, community, events, news, columns and contributed material. That’s a ratio of about 19.7% editorial to advertising. Note there is an 11.5-inch masthead, too, making the total of non-ad space somewhat higher at 610.5 column inches. Even with that masthead included, the ratio is just 20% editorial to 80% advertising.

But let’s take a closer look at what’s in those 599 inches (all figures include photos, pull-quotes and headlines) in order of volume:

  • Community news (personalities, church, lawyers, babies, pets, Santa Claus parade): 196.5 inches (p.3, 14, 25, 28, 29, 31, 33 and 34)
  • Self-serving, self-promoting articles and opinion pieces about how great the Connection and Metroland are: 182 column inches (p. 1, 4, 6, 8 and 24).
  • Events: one full page, 69 inches (p. 30).
  • News: 61.5 inches (p.10, 16, 21 and 26). Note that the first item of actual news – and arguably the most important piece in the entire paper (the town being sued at the Ontario Supreme Court over a flaw in its clandestine airport deal although the reporter never asked who in town hall was responsible for the disputed lease… ) doesn’t even appear until page 10. Stories on p. 16 and 26 are about Clearview Township, not Collingwood. Total Collingwood news: a mere 22 inches. And the 5.5 inch piece on p. 21 is from a police report. 
  • Opinion (not including the self-serving two-column editorial: that’s counted above): 34.5 inches (16.5 for the cartoon, 18 for mostly irrelevant comments copied from social media – no letters or op-ed pieces).
  • Contributed columns: 33 inches (p. 23 and 27)
  • Other contributed content: 22.5 inches (p. 21 and 22)

Continue reading “What’s wrong with local media?”

Are facts inflammatory?

CensorshipInflammatory is the word I was told the Connection used this week in rejecting an ad by mayoral candidate John Trude*. That ad challenged some of the claims of one of his opponents by stating what actually happened at council this term in four areas: open and accountable government, the hospital redevelopment, working together with our municipal neighbours and sole-source contracts on major expenditures.

All of Trude’s comments are backed up by facts taken from the media, town agendas and town staff. Take for example, sole sourcing. You may recall back in 2014 that deputy-mayor candidate Brian Saunderson promised when elected he would oversee…

Change the purchasing policy to ensure there can be no sole sourcing of any contract for goods or services over $25,000, no exceptions.

But as the Trude ad points out, that never happened. In fact, just for sole-sourced legal consultants, the costs have ballooned every year of this term to more than $1.8 million: 2014 $268,000; 2015 $374,000; 2016 $414,000; 2017 $761,000,  and invoices are still coming in until at least year-end. By 2019 they will have topped $2 million – and that doesn’t include costs for sole-sourced consultants to create reports to justify the secretive Collus sale or the sole-sourced PR consultant hired to sell the town’s anti-hospital stance.

Is this inflammatory? Or simply truth that someone on the Connection staff didn’t want the public to read? How can the public engage in a conversation about these or other issues if the media hides them?

I suggest you ask a member of Trude’s campaign for a copy to decide for yourself. I’ve read it – it’s not an attack ad, it doesn’t call anyone names or make the sort of accusations and false allegations some candidates have been making as they go door-to-door (one council candidate was even served with a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer for doing this!). The ad simply states the facts – unlike some posts on social media about local issues and candidates, many of which spin conspiracy theories wildly distant from any semblance of factuality.

Since when does local media decide what the voters get to read or see or hear in an election campaign? Since when does local media decide for the voters what is appropriate? Isn’t that using the media’s position and power to unfairly influence the election in favour of one candidate?

Was the decision made because of personal bias or associations? Regardless of why, it’s still censorship.

Continue reading “Are facts inflammatory?”