Community crescendo

Despite the recession, small-town papers stay strong through their commitment to community.

By Trevor Howlett

 Editor Rankin MacDonald and Publisher/Owner Eleanor MacDonald stand proud in front of the Oran office. (Photo: )
Editor Rankin MacDonald and Publisher/Owner Eleanor MacDonald stand proud in front of the Oran office. (Photo: Trevor Howlett)

By Trevor Howlett

There’s been a song playing in Inverness County Nova Scotia since 1976.

But it’s not a jig or a reel or a Strathspey.

Instead, it arrives in stores and on people’s doorsteps every Wednesday and instead of being played on a fiddle, is played by the 12 employees of the Inverness Oran.

“Oran is a Gaelic word, it means song,” explains Rankin MacDonald, the paper’s editor. “We felt that a newspaper should be the song of a community, so we call ourselves the Inverness Oran.”

Links
Canadian Community Newspapers Association
Atlantic Community Newspapers Association
Information on individual Atlantic Canadian Newspapers
Canadian media Circulation Audit

And unlike the sad tune coming from so much of the traditional media establishment in Canada, the Oran and its 60 community paper cousins in Atlantic Canada have been able to come through recent tough times relatively unscathed. They do this by providing readers with local news and advertising they can’t get anywhere else, in local markets where there is often no real competition.

While CBC Maritimes cut 31 jobs last year, and Halifax’s Chronicle Herald cut 19 positions a year ago, the Oran – like many community papers – hasn’t had to cut any.

With a circulation of 4,356, the Oran is small when compared to the more than 114,000 subscribers to the Herald. That’s pretty typical for small weeklies, but when put together, the community papers argue they are a force to be reckoned with–reaching more than 200,000 across Nova Scotia. Provincewide, 70 per cent of adults aged 25-49 read a community newspaper.

Connected to communities

Kim Kierans is director of the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax. She believes community papers are thriving because they are tied closely with local economies.

“Everyone said newspapers are dying. Community papers are not dying. Community papers are the place where local businesses can advertise…” said Kierans. “If you’re small and in Inverness county, who else is going to take your ad dollars?”

  Editor Rankin MacDonald inspects the 30 September 2009 issue of the Inverness Oran. (Photo: Trevor Howlett)
Editor Rankin MacDonald inspects the 30 September 2009 issue of the Inverness Oran. (Photo: Trevor Howlett)

Mike Kierstead, the executive director of the Atlantic Canadian Newspapers Association, notes that community newspaper ad revenue has remained steady while that of the big city papers has shrunk.

“Community newspapers rely a lot more on local business and local advertisers as opposed to some of the national advertising that maybe some of the dailies relied on really heavily.”

MacDonald agrees that many of the businesses who advertise with the Oran simply don’t advertise anywhere else.  He feels the most important aspect is keeping the Oran thriving its connection to the community.

“If you look at our front page this week, one of our top stories is about a cow up in Margaree that gave birth to triplets. Now, you won’t see that anywhere else. That story won’t even be covered by the Herald, but if you talk to people in Margaree, that’s what the whole community is talking about.”

John Hinds is the CEO for both the Canadian Community Newspapers Association and the Canadian Newspaper Association. He agrees that community newspapers focusing on community news is helping to keep them strong, in comparison to other forms of media.

“It’s really the strength of community newspapers and that is the idea of hyper-local. My view is that, where media is getting challenged – whether it’s daily newspapers or mainstream television or anything else – is the idea of mass media. It’s really hard to compete in a mass media world when you’ve got so many outlets, and I think community newspapers have the wonderful niche of being the only hyper-local medium.”

News on a shoestring

Not everyone sees that as an entirely good thing.

“They’re intensely parochial. They can be local almost to the point of ignoring things that are going on,” said Dan Leger, director of news content at the Chronicle Herald.  They are so close to the ground they don’t like to alienate potential advertisers or the local authorities. There are notable exceptions to that. There are some great community papers in Canada, who fearlessly do what they think is right for all the best journalistic reasons, but then there are lots of other ones too, who are terrified of the local millionaire or the mayor.”

Editors and reporters alike can be put in situations where they have to publish stories or take a stance on an issue that can cause controversy in a small community, especially if the story involves a friend or family member.

“You’re so immediate with your readership. There are issues out there and there’s stuff you have to report and they’re people that you know, and that’s a difficulty,” said MacDonald. “You’re taking stands on issues that maybe your cousin, or your relatives don’t agree with it or your friends don’t agree with it. Or you’re printing stuff that is not complimentary to people you know. That’s a difficult thing. The old saying is ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’. You have to sometimes be a little bit aloof. You have to realize that you have to do this. It’s your job.”

Trying not to offend your readers and advertisers is a big challenge facing community papers in Atlantic Canada, since they run on small budgets. But there are other challenges that arise from trying to do news on a shoestring.

Community newspapers are known for making the most of their budgets by having their reporters and editors do more than one job at a time.

Tina Comeau of the Yarmouth Vanguard is a great example of the many roles served by community journalists. She’s won numerous awards for her writing and photography from both the CCNA and ACNA including the Outstanding Journalist Award and the Outstanding Photographer Award during the 2009 ACNAs. She’s also twice been a finalist in the Canadian Association of Journalists awards program for investigative journalism, as an individual and part of a team. She is an associate editor, photographer, reporter, feature writer, columnist and sports writer for Vanguard, but she enjoys the challenge.

  There are more than 60 Community Newspapers in Atlantic Canada, all with important roles to play in their community. (Photo: Trevor Howlett)
There are more than 60 community newspapers in Atlantic Canada, all with important roles to play in their community. (Photo: Trevor Howlett)

“It’s always an opportunity to keep your skills up,” said Comeau. “You’re not stuck in a rut doing the same thing day in day out.”

Bill Dunphy has a similar workload at the Inverness Oran, as sports editor, senior reporter, photographer and columnist. When he had the chance to work closer to his home in North Sydney, he didn’t hesitate. Now he’s thrilled to be involved in the community of Inverness County.

“You get to know everybody and everybody gets to know you,” said Dunphy. “I like the idea that there’s a whole lot of scrapbooks with a lot of my stories and photos in them.”

Dunphy has been known to occasionally be controversial in his columns, something Oran readers have enjoyed, but others may not.

Catherine MacLellan is from Inverness County, but doesn’t read the Oran. She thinks the paper has too much commentary. “There is a lot of columns in there that are opinion columns. It’s a lot for a newspaper,” said MacLellan. “I recognize that there are a lot of columnists in that paper, but the whole thing just comes off as too opinionated.”

While MacDonald knows the Oran is opinionated, he likes that “people often say, ‘you’d only see that in the Oran.’” Frank MacInnis, a reader of the Oran said he doesn’t want a community paper that “just rehashes news that you might get in the Herald or (Cape Breton) Post.” MacDonald believes the Oran’s dedication to storytelling sets it apart from its competition.

“I think we’re more homey. We tell stories, we concentrate on that. We tell the stories of the communities and the people who live in them. The journalistic rules that major publications go by, we’ll bend them to tell a good story about people.”

Golden age

Despite the ‘hominess’ of community newspapers, they are quickly making use of new technology to report local news.

Almost every community newspaper in the region now offers some method of reading the news online, and some sites – like southshorenow.ca and peicanada.com – have even branched out into other mediums to report the news.

Paul MacNeill is the publisher for Island Press, the company behind peicanada.com. His website uses blogs, comments, weather reports and photo galleries to give added features to his subscribers.

“I think we’re on the verge of really a golden age of journalism,” said MacNeill. “I think the demand for good local content will be as high or higher than it has ever been. And the challenge for community newspaper people is to take advantage of that…To find the business models and products that work to enhance what we already do really well.”

It’s about filling a niche that nobody else, online or in print, is able to do.

Which suggests the 20,000 or so residents of Inverness County will be humming that familiar song for a while yet.

View Atlantic Canadian Community Newspapers in a larger map