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Radical model could be key to creating new community newspapers across Canada

Newspapers on newsstand. Photo: greenzowie/flickr

News outlets in Canadian communities are falling like bowling pins.

At least 171 media organizations in 138 communities closed between 2008 and this January, says the Local News Research Project, a project led by Ryerson School of Journalism. By comparison, only 51 new outlets opened.

Project co-ordinator April Lindgren writes:

"Local news poverty, we argue, is greatest in communities where residents have limited or no access to timely, verified news about local politics, education, health, economic and other key topics they need to navigate daily life."

Small communities such as Markdale, Ontario, and Canmore, Alberta, lost their local papers, while cities like Guelph, Ontario and Nanaimo, B.C. were among the largest centres to be hit.

Newspapers have been crucial for the development of Canada for more than three centuries. But "free" news from for-profit papers is coming to an end.

Daily papers are failing because millions of dollars of advertising they used to have has either moved to the internet or has just disappeared. Because an ad that brings in $1,000 in a paper sells for about $100 on the internet, newspapers are so far unable to make a go of it on the internet.

Communities poorly served

Hundreds of Canadian communities are now poorly served when it comes to local news by underfunded and understaffed Internet news sites, give-away newspapers and even bloggers.

But Canadian communities still should have access to reliable newspapers. They need to explore the development of community-controlled not-for-profit papers.  

Non-profit newspapers have financial advantages over for-profit papers. A commercial paper is expected to churn out at least 15 per cent profits or investors will take their money elsewhere. Business executives at corporations command salaries into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The manager of a non-profit might earn $90,000. Ad sales staff at daily papers earn a large salary; not so at a non-profit. A for-profit paper pays taxes. A non-profit pays fewer taxes and can engage in fundraising activities.

Secondly, locally owned non-profit papers command reader loyalty because they embrace and reflect all aspects of a community. Corporate media often filter the news so that it reflects the interests and views of the rich and powerful.

The internet is the future for many news organizations, but many people prefer to hold a newspaper in their hands. A printed publication tends to have more authority than an internet site. And finally, advertisers like to see their ads in print.

There are no non-profit newspapers in Canada, but hundreds of public interest organizations operate on a non-profit basis.

The Guardian world's best non-profit

The U.K. Guardian is the most prominent not-for-profit newspaper in the world. Last year, the award-winning but financially strapped Philadelphia Inquirer switched to the not-for-profit model. Both organizations have large endowments.

Not-for-profit newspapers are highly desirable if a group can develop a break-even budget. I believe this is possible in Canada.

If folks feel there's a need for a newspaper in their community the first step would be to bring together 15 or 20 people who represent a cross-section of citizens. The group could conduct a survey to determine whether people in the community support the idea.   

An important early task would be to develop a project model to see if the concept is financially viable. First steps would include thinking about how groups and businesses in the community might contribute, and reaching out to local journalists and media outlets to see if they would like to become involved in the project.

My recommendation is that groups create a non-profit corporation. This way any surplus at the end of the year would go back into the project.

One of the biggest questions concerns how to distribute the paper. Traditional door-to-door delivery could be costly but, if the project can afford it, this is the best way to go.

'Mini-paper' cheap to produce

However, groups could use a much cheaper distribution system. What I call the "mini-paper" would have small pages -- 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 inches -- just about the same size as Maclean's magazine -- distributed to subscribers by email.

Subscribers would print out the paper in the morning. The group would provide a simple binding system that readers would use to hold the pages. It might be best to limit the size of any one edition to 24 pages or less.

The huge advantage of the mini-paper is that it would not require newsprint and there would be no distribution expenses.

In case subscribers prefer to access the news online, all of the articles and other information published in the mini-paper would be posted behind a paywall on a website.

The big question for any group is figuring out where the money is going to come from.

I think it should be possible to run a non-profit paper with about one-third of the revenue coming from advertising, one-third from subscribers and sustained donors, and one-third from fundraising. 

Many sources of funding

I have considerable experience as a fundraiser and would be pleased to provide fundraising advice to any group free of charge. Here's a summary of funding possibilities:

  • Sustaining memberships where strong supporters pay an annual amount;
  • As is the case with any newspaper, subscriber fees would be charged;
  • Revenue from community advertisers would be an important source of funds;
  • For organizations that know how to utilize it effectively, the internet has a huge potential for fundraising;
  • An investigative journalism fund;
  • A fundraising committee could carry out a number of activities to raise money, including silent auctions, evening panel discussions, and hold breakfasts with guest speakers;
  • Support from "A Guardian Angel": Perhaps your community has one or more individuals who have amassed a lot of money, and;
  • Government support: A group should make presentations to municipal governments and the appropriate provincial government departments.

My strong advice to a group is to not launch a new paper until you have lined up funding for at least your first full year.

There are a number of Canadian non-profit experts and journalists who would be pleased to help develop a project. Several knowledgeable U.S. organizations, such as the Institute for Nonprofit News and the Poynter institute could provide advice.

The creation of even one sustainable, independent newspaper project anywhere in Canada would be a huge, unprecedented accomplishment. It could be the forerunner of other papers that would once again provide our communities with a reliable source of news and information.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist who specializes in writing about media issues. He is a frequent contributor to rabble.ca Nick was co-publisher of The 4th Estate, a highly-successful alternative newspaper in Nova Scotia. Nick was a CBC journalist and producer for more than 25 years. Email: fillmore0274@rogers.com

Photo: greenzowie/flickr

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