Rural stories. City media. Some say there is a great divide.
By Gregory Wade
Lawrence Barron lives in Ingonish, Cape Breton — population 1,250 — a community he literally wrote the book on. Barron is a former teacher and served as a councilor in Ingonish County. Every day he skims through the news on the internet and turns on CTV, but there’s little in the news that says what it’s like where Barron lives.
Barron says Halifax journalists “have no more idea what it’s like to live in rural Nova Scotia than they know what it’s like to live in China.” The rural stories he sees are just what “makes for good headlines” and not what it’s really like to live in the area he calls home. For him, stories are where people and news organizations are only after things like kidnappings, new stadiums in Halifax and disasters, not how things affect the rural people of the Atlantic region.
Rural issues are not just those that take place in rural settings, but issues that rural people are affected by every day. Issues like: population decline, the development of rural areas, access to health care and basic necessities, job shortages in rural areas, and more.
What are Rural Issues?
Statistics Canada describes an urban area as a center of more than 1,000 people with 400 people living within one square kilometre of each other. Atlantic Canada has a very high percentage of people living outside these areas. In Nova Scotia, 45 per cent of the population lives outside of urban areas. In Prince Edward Island, the number is 55 per cent. This is much higher than the national average, which in 2006 — the most recent statistic — states only 20 per cent of all Canadians are living in rural areas. While the percentage of rural citizens is shrinking in places like Quebec or Ontario, Atlantic Canada’s population is staying the same.
The 2006 census reports that Nova Scotia’s rural population is up one percentage point from 2001. Since 1981 — when Statistics Canada introduced the 400 people per square kilometre rule — no Atlantic province has ever had less than 41 percent of the people living in rural areas. That’s too large a market for media to ignore, but if Barron is of any indicator, rural people do feel ignored by the media.
Paul MacNeil is the publisher of Eastern Graphic, a paper that serves eastern P.E.I. and strives not to duplicate any stories that other media cover. In MacNeil’s words, this means finding “local issues, local people, [and] local events” that other media ignore. “It’s a coverage priority,” he says. “City papers have their circulation concentrated in an urban area, so it really comes down to a question of resources.”
Big media doesn’t have as much on rural issues because they don’t “get” them says MacNeil. “They don’t really get the impact of what happens when farmers lose the ability to farm, or fishermen don’t catch lobster… they don’t even get what happens to a community when a local hospital shuts down… It’s about understanding the issues, pitching the issues to their superiors, and their superiors wanting those stories to be told and knowing their importance.”
Bruce Nunn, a communications advisor for the Nova Scotia Natural Resources department, says that he doesn’t see “major gaps” when it comes to important issues. He says the amount of coverage any Natural Resources’ press release gets depends on what it is and who it affects. For example, reports on coyote safety put out by the department over the last year have been received well by all news organizations. “Our goal in interacting with the people of this province is making sure [the people] understand what their government is doing and why they’re doing it.”
[pullquote]“No paper, whether it’s the Herald or the Globe and Mail, has the resources to have three or four people in every community across the province. That’s just not realistic.” – Michael Gorman of the Chronicle Herald[/pullquote]
This is what Barron expects, but is not getting. He says the real issues are not in the big obvious stories like coyotes, but stories about what the government is doing and the ways it affects him. Stories that address those issues are not being reported. For Barron, issues covered in the news centre on how politicians and bureaucrats in Halifax make policies that are province-wide without considering how the policies affect rural people. “You might get a clip every now and then, but as far as real life, what effects people in the rural parts of Nova Scotia, it’s not even covered in the media whatsoever.”
For example, roughly $200 a month of heating oil is given to people on welfare. Barron says this might be fine in Halifax where someone can shop around, but in northern Cape Breton there is only one provider and the price of oil is higher. These are the issues he looks for and oftentimes cannot find.
John DeMings, editor of the Digby Courier, says the Courier can focus on small town issues because it’s the only thing the paper is about. He says larger media doesn’t cover rural issues for the same two reasons he faces every week: resources and space. “If they had unlimited space and unlimited bodies, I’m sure there would be someone here doing the same stuff we’re doing.”
DeMings says the Courier is just for people interested in the Digby area. For more details and a broader scope they should turn to papers like the Chronicle Herald.
Michael Gorman is one of two reporters assigned to the Truro bureau of the Chronicle Herald. The other reporter, Aaron Beswick, is stationed in Antigonish. “The disadvantage I’m at is that Aaron and I are two people trying to cover essentially a third of the province,” says Gorman. Though him and his colleagues need to cover more ground, he says no major stories are ever left hanging. Local papers get to stories before he does because they know the area better and only have to worry about a small space. “The folks working in New Glasgow don’t need to worry about what’s going on in Truro and the folks working in Truro don’t need to worry about what’s going on in Amherst.”
However, Gorman says he would never let a big story go by without reporting on it. “I think on the big issues, the important issues that are facing the communities, we do a better job.”
The Chronicle Herald has a total of five provincial news bureaus: in Truro, Yarmouth, Bridgewater, the Valley, and Cape Breton. Altogether these bureaus have a total of six reporters. In Halifax, the newsroom has 50 people. Although these journalists can and do report on rural issues, the difference in size is staggering.
Gorman says the Herald’s bureaus are strategically placed to provide the best coverage. “No paper, whether it’s the Herald or the Globe and Mail, has the resources to have three or four people in every community across the province. That’s just not realistic.” Journalists outside of Halifax know their areas and work well because the Herald prides itself on being a province-wide paper.
[pullquote]If there’s a scandal with a politician, that gets front page news. If there’s a crisis on the farm, it goes on page nine.
– Peter Stoffer, MP for Sackville-Eastern Shore[/pullquote]
Looking at numbers it’s clear the Herald is not all bad, but it could be doing better. In September 2011, the Herald published 603 stories in the section dedicated to Nova Scotia. Of these, 163 stories — 27 per cent — dealt with rural topics, including crime in rural areas. The most common issue, excluding crime, was the closure of NewPage mill in Port Hawkesbury.
In comparison, the Truro Daily News had 308 stories in its Nova Scotia section in September 2011. Of these, 106 stories — 34 per cent — were rural, while 187 — 47 per cent — were original, non-wire stories about rural issues.
These sections of the papers are not the only ones that deal with rural issues, but are representative of what the Herald and Daily News believe people are looking for when they want information about Nova Scotia.
In October 2011, the Herald ran a three-day, multi-part story about how rural communities are looking towards the future. It featured articles on population decline, youth in rural communities and many other rural issues. For readers like Lawrence Barron, former councilor of Ingonish County, it’s not enough. Barron says the Herald was putting on a “show”, then went right back to reporting on the same stuff.
Gorman in Truro says, “Every person who reads the paper is entitled to their opinion.” Kevin Harvey, a video journalist at CBC, was happy with the Herald series. “They’re not telling me a whole lot new, but at least they’re putting a fresher face on it and letting people know that all this stuff is still happening.”
Harvey is stationed in New Glasgow. For him, there are two problems in covering rural stories: distance and time. “A news show is a monster that needs to be fed every day… if a story’s in Amherst, half of your day is already lost just in travel.”
Harvey’s bureau was founded in 2007; he reports on issues from Amherst to Port Hawkesbury – a distance of nearly 250 kilometres. Harvey says most people in cities lack a basic understanding of what it’s like to live in a rural environment. “[Urban people] drive through the country and say it’s pretty and beautiful, but they don’t really have a true understanding of what’s going on out there.” As long as he’s in New Glasgow, Harvey says there will always be stories about northern Nova Scotia on TV news.
Peter Stoffer, MP for Sackville-Eastern Shore, considers his relationship with the media to be pretty good, but if he had to describe the coverage of rural issues in one word it would be lacking. “There is no question that small town newspapers and various things cover it very well, but in terms of the national media, they don’t. It doesn’t get very much coverage at all and that is most unfortunate.”
Stoffer says issues that hit rural people just aren’t weighed the same way as other issues. “If there’s a scandal with a politician, that gets front page news. If there’s a crisis on the farm, it goes on page nine.”
In general, the media in Atlantic Canada handles rural issues better than the rest of the country but the coverage is still not as high as Stoffer would like to see it. “I wish there was more emphasis on the fact that the city may be the engines of our economies, but it’s the rural areas that provide the fuel.”
Rural communities in Canada generate 13 per cent of Canada’s gross national product and produce 50 per cent of Canada’s exports.
To Barron, there are just not enough journalists to go around. Barron remembers a time when there were many more journalists running around northern Cape Breton. Now the nearest ones are in Sydney and they only come when something dramatic happens. “Unless it’s a really, really eye-catching thing that people can twitter on for a couple of days they’re not going to bother with it.” He spits out the word twitter with disdain.
For Barron, journalism about rural Atlantic Canada is “not even worth reading.”
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