More Loss of Local News: Questions with April Lindgren

April Lindgren, Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson University and principal investigator for the Local News Research Project.

The widespread loss of local news isn’t just a U.S. problem. It’s an international one, affecting our neighbors to the north at nearly the same rapid rate. In Canada, 260 news outlets – including more than 200 newspapers, two dozen broadcast outlets and a dozen online news sites – have closed or merged within the past 10 years. And much like the United States, the closure of local news outlets is rapidly outpacing the launch of digital news sites to fill the void. More than one-fifth (225) of Canadian newspapers have closed since 2008. This includes the closure of 189 community weeklies and 36 daily papers. April Lindgren, the Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto, quantifies this disappearance as the head of the Local News Research Project.

The Local News Research Project’s investigation into the loss of local news includes the creation of the Local News Map, which tracks changes to news outlets across Canada. The crowd-sourced map, created by Lindgren and collaborator Jon Corbett from the University of British Columbia, documents the launch of new local news outlets, the closing of local news operations and service increases/decreases dating back to 2008. As of Oct. 1, 2018, there were more than 350 markers on the map indicating a loss or diminishment in news—such as closures, mergers, dailies shifting to weekly publication and decreases in TV stations and radio service. In contrast, there are only 93 markers on the map indicating new media outlets that have been created.

Lindgren coined the phrase “local news poverty” to describe the condition when the critical information needs of residents in a community are not being met. These critical information needs are related to issues traditionally covered by local newspapers, from health and transportation to education. Lindgren has also documented how local news is available unevenly across the country. Along with Jaigris Hodson from Royal Roads University, she analyzed how local news media in Canadian municipalities covered local races during Canada’s 2015 federal election. The results showed that the amount of news coverage and access to diverse sources of news varied significantly according to where people lived.

Read about the local news map’s strengths and weaknesses as a research tool here. A summary of the election study results is available here.

How did you become interested in this topic and research?

I was fascinated by the fact that Brampton, a large suburban municipality near Toronto with nearly 700,000 people, until recently had no local radio station, no local television station, no daily newspaper and no serious online news outlets. A new investigative online site launched recently, but until it came along, the city’s residents had only one local news source, a community newspaper that publishes once per week and its companion website. The extent to which this suburban center and others are underserved in terms of local news, combined with a steady stream of headlines about newsroom shutdowns and cutbacks across the country, raised a whole bunch of questions. Are local online sites springing up to replace the loss of traditional news sources? To what extent are the critical local information needs of citizens being met? It turned out there were no good answers to these questions in Canada, so I decided to try to fill in some of these gaps.

What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your findings?

As I began investigating the availability of local news in different communities, it became obvious that some were better served than others. I thought the idea of local news poverty would be a useful concept because it allows for comparisons – some places will suffer more from local news poverty than others. The work of Lewis Friedland, Philip Napoli, Katherine Ognyanova, Carola Weil and Ernest J. Wilson III identifying the critical information needs of communities provided a framework for measuring local news poverty. Relative levels of news poverty are determined based on the extent to which these information needs are being met. For the election study, we borrowed heavily from the methodology Philip Napoli developed for his comparison of local news ecosystems.

What did you learn?

Local News Map has become a go-to source in Canada for up-to-date data on what is happening to local news in large, small, urban and rural communities.  No comprehensive data were available on the disruption underway in local journalism and the map has helped address that need. Visually, and in terms of the data we can download, the map tells a powerful story of news outlet losses that are outpacing the launch of new ventures by a ratio of three to one. We’ve also noticed that only a limited number of online news operations are emerging to replace traditional news sources such as newspapers.

The election study examined eight municipalities—a mix of rural, urban and suburban communities—to determine how much coverage local media produced about their area’s race for members of Parliament during the 2015 federal election. We found major differences in the number of news outlets, the number of stories they produced and how active they were in making their content more widely available via Facebook. Federal election coverage was selected for the study because it was a natural experiment that allowed for direct comparisons, that is, the election happened everywhere at the same time. That meant we didn’t have to control for major local events (a massive fire or city hall political scandal) that would have caused a surge of local coverage in any one community.

What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

The map and the election study point to local news that is at risk and unevenly available across Canada. The loss of local news operations highlighted by the map has attracted the attention of politicians debating a potential public policy response. The differences in the availability of local news revealed by the election study raises concerns about whether citizens have access to the information they need to cast an informed vote. To the extent that the election coverage can be considered a proxy or indicator of the overall vibrancy of a local news ecosystem, the study results also suggest that some communities are better off overall than others when it comes to the availability of local news.

Detailed content analyses like the one we did for the election study are expensive and time-consuming, so we’re exploring the idea of creating a diagnostic checklist that can be used to identify whether communities are at risk of news poverty. If the CBC, the public broadcaster, has a newsroom in the community, does that mitigate against news poverty? Does proximity to a major media hub like Toronto make it more challenging for local news operations to survive? If we can answer these sorts of questions and identify what makes some communities more vulnerable than others to local news poverty, then we can create a checklist that citizens and others can use to assess whether or not they are at risk. It may be that our eight-municipality election study isn’t large enough for us to draw any conclusions, but I think we will gain some insights.