Small-town Reporters Take a New Approach

Jacqueline Ronson-Rural-FW18

With sizes of rural newsrooms dwindling down, a new business model could give smaller news publications hope for the future

By Cameron Thomson

Small-town newsrooms are shrinking, and with them, the ability to produce groundbreaking investigative stories.

The Discourse, in five short years, has become one of the few exceptions to that rule. The Vancouver-based organization—co-founded in 2014 by journalists Erin Millar, Christine McLaren and Colleen Kimmett—calls upon writers across Canada to help tell in-depth stories about the communities in which they live.

The journalism is largely funded through philanthropic and non-profit partners and based on a new model of reportage that, according to The Discourse, is “based on deep listening to people who are often excluded from public and political dialogue.”

Jacqueline Ronson, who has spent most of her career as a small-town reporter, is one of those Discourse reporters. She thinks that this new model may represent the future of investigative journalism.

“[The Discourse] seems like one of the few bright spots in the Canadian journalism industry right now,” says Ronson, who covers Vancouver Island from her home in Youbou on Cowichan Lake. “There’s hope and excitement and commitment to really looking at our ethics and our values, and sticking to those values.”

Before working at The Discourse, Ronson spent three years reporting for Yukon News in Whitehorse, an experience that built an appreciation for the importance of rural reporting. But the limited resources that came with the job—with a three- or four-person newsroom—was not conducive to investigative journalism, she notes.

The challenges faced by Ronson are not unique. At many smaller media outlets across B.C., reporters are struggling to adapt to an industry-wide decline while simultaneously maintaining the editorial standards expected by readers.

Emelie Peacock ran a one-woman show at the Hope Standard for 12 months, serving the community of 6,000 people on the eastern end of the Fraser Valley. The demands of the job limited her ability to investigate local stories. Peacock not only wrote and reported every story in the Standard—she also laid out the pages and worked with the publisher to make sure it made it to the printer every week.

Despite all that, Peacock still found time to dive into a complex story about rental evictions. “I did do an investigation, but it took a lot of time,” says Peacock, who in 2018 left Hope to go work in the Yukon for Vista Radio. “It happened on the very edge of my desk—like, falling off my desk.”  

One saving grace of working for a small weekly is the allowance for flexible deadlines on investigative pieces. According to Peacock, Black Press, the company that owns the Hope Standard, was able to accommodate her needs, but even with the benefit of time, investigative stories were at the bottom of the pile of things to do. As a result, stories naturally fell through the cracks. She points to an investigation into the RCMP’s dealings with local missing and murdered Indigenous people as one example where the battle against time and resources was lost.

Peacock argues that small towns like Hope are actually in need of more investigative reporting than big cities, given the area is relatively isolated, rich in natural resources and dominated by corporate interests: “There are fewer people—fewer civilians to hold [these corporations] accountable.”

Award-winning investigative reporter Eric Rankin’s early career was established working for CBUO and CBYQ in northern B.C. He knows the difficulties these northern newsrooms face.

“There was always that feeling that there were stories that were just beyond your grasp,” he says.

Today, Rankin works on the CBC’s investigative unit, based in Vancouver—a powerhouse team of eight reporters and producers. He tries to pay it forward when he can by working alongside reporters in smaller newsrooms to break ground on local stories. When he notices reporters are skirting around the edges of a larger issue, Rankin then works alongside them to dive deeper.

The collaborative spirit is shared by Gordon Hoekstra—a reporter for the Vancouver Sun and, before that, the Prince George Citizen, where he spent 15 years.

Hoekstra believes that a better utilization of shared resources between reporters would be to the industry’s benefit. Hoekstra imagines a network where journalists can get help breaking investigative stories.

“I don’t mean help in the sense that you’re going to do the work for them,” Hoekstra says. Rather, he argues for a place where journalists can share tips on finding information.

Slowly, leaders within the journalism industry are realizing the demand for greater teamwork across publications. In October 2018, the Centre for Free Expression—a resource group  for “public education, research and advocacy,” based out of Ryerson University—produced a journalist-hosted podcast discussing a new model for investigative reporting. The key, said the speakers, is to replace competition with collaboration.

Collaboration is key to the model being used by The Discourse, with its focus on curating investigative stories from B.C.’s rural communities. In addition to its philanthropic funding, The Discourse is partially crowd-funded by readers, bringing the promise of co-operation to the audience level. Members are encouraged to pledge monthly or annually, and so far, it has worked well enough that the organization can survive without ad revenue or paywalls. Eventually, says Ronson, the hope is to operate entirely on reader funding.

The Tyee is another B.C. publication that utilizes a voluntary subscription model. They call their subscribers “Tyee Builders,” and liken it to a secret club—with readers paying anywhere from $5 to $100 a month to underwrite the kind of journalism they want to see in their communities. Tyee Builders helped to hire a reporter in Ottawa and boost the online site’s coverage of provincial and federal elections.

Like The Discourse, The Tyee has built a strong reputation for its investigative pieces and its focus on social justice issues in the Pacific Northwest. Still, both outlets remain outliers in their approach to investigative journalism. Each relies heavily on community engagement and participation from readers, while most corporately owned media have centralized functions and grown more remote from the cities and towns in which they operate.

Ronson believes that there are newsrooms, both big and small, both for-profit and not-for-profit, that could benefit from the model The Discourse is pioneering.

Being close to the community and engaging with them “does deepen your reporting,” Ronson says. “You’re including your community in the conversation, and allowing them to tell you things they know, and that you don’t know.”

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