Bad news

By Barry Rueger
Published: THIS Magazine
January/February, 2024
640 words
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THIS Magazine Jan/Feb 2024

One writer’s desperate howl for a good old-fashioned newspaper


I can still remember the linotype machines and drum-shaped metal plates of text and pictures that were loaded into the giant presses to print the paper’s pages.

They gave us a still-hot copy of that day’s paper. I kept it for years, and for decades I‘ve subscribed to the local daily newspaper everywhere I’ve lived. For the past year, that’s been in Liverpool, on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. Since arriving, I’ve realized that we’re in a news desert; a place where Facebook is the beginning and end of local news. That situation grew even worse when the Liberal government enacted Bill C-18, the Online News Act.

Since August, two months after Bill C-18 received royal assent, Facebook has refused to allow users to post Canadian news stories. For Facebook’s owner, Meta, leaving entire towns and regions with no local news whatsoever is a better choice than agreeing to pay the news organizations whose work Facebook users have been reporting.

Liverpool is a place where daily newspapers really don’t exist. Outside of one store in Halifax we can’t buy a Globe and Mail out here, there are no local dailies, and the tiny weeklies are hard to find. Nova Scotia’s largest paper, the Halifax Chronicle Herald, recently stopped printing on  Mondays, and has cut back on its home delivery. Still, every now and then one of the big papers or the CBC would run a story about Liverpool, and someone would post a link to it on a local Facebook page. Now, even that isn’t possible, and in the meantime, the prolonged death of newspapers continues.

In September the Hamilton Spectator shut down its newsroom, and its owner Torstar is ceasing to print dozens of small local papers, moving them online instead. Similar shutdowns are happening in small-town British Columbia.  It seems Southern Ontario and parts of B.C. are about to become news deserts just like southern Nova Scotia. Yes, you can still subscribe to many publications online, but there is a tangible difference between holding a printed paper and reading news on a screen. The printed page establishes the trustworthiness of the news outlet. Having trained reporters and editors and a physical printing press requires an investment that almost always leads to serious journalism. The time and money spent on reporters and editors is one reason why the New York Times and the Globe and Mail are still considered reliable. These publications have a long history as trusted news sources, and still feel a duty to maintain those standards. One may not like their editorial slants, but few seriously question the quality of their reporting.

In Liverpool, on the other hand, we just suffered through nearly two months of a boil-water advisory, and unless you followed the Facebook page for Queens County you wouldn’t have known what was—or wasn’t—happening. Because there are no local reporters, there was also no one asking questions about why an entire town had no drinkable water.

Meta’s actions are not new. For decades, the handful of publishers who control almost all of our news outlets have dramatically reduced reporting staff while shrinking newspaper page counts, and at the same time have closed or merged dozens of small local papers that they’d acquired. What Nova Scotia’s South Shore is experiencing, and what southern Ontario and B.C. are about to experience, is the harsh reality of living in a place where media ceases to be the watchdog that holds governments and corporations accountable, and where there’s no trusted source for people to sort fact from fiction.

Sometime before 2000, 30 years after my field trip, I visited the Conrad Black-era Hamilton Spectator with a friend who worked there. My vivid memory is of hundreds of square meters of blue carpet – half of the giant newsroom – sitting empty of furniture.  Governments turned their heads while Black decimated newsrooms, just as they turn their heads today.