A look at new measures being used to keep local reporting alive across B.C.
by Christi Walter
The challenge of keeping local journalism alive is a longstanding one, but the Canadian government has been making recent attempts to safeguard it.
The Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) is a program designed to supply small community papers with the funds to hire reporters and keep them employed. The initiative puts public funds into the hands of several independent media organizations that hold a role in informing small communities.
Each contract with the LJI lasts around a year, and should both employer and reporter agree to renew for another year, newsrooms would have to re-apply for funding.
The program also gives new reporters a chance at their first newsroom position. Norman Galimski, a multimedia reporter and Langara Journalism program graduate, was hired right out of school by the Northern View in Prince Rupert.
“I hope the Canadian government keeps doing it,” says Galimski, who found working in the two-person newsroom a great way to apply his skillset.
Rochelle Baker is an LJI reporter, writing from Quadra and Cortes Islands. She says covering civic affairs for a small community newspaper often doesn’t pay the bills.
“If I were being paid by, let’s say, the Campbell River Mirror, I think the running wage is 15 bucks [an hour],” Baker says. “And you need to bring your own car, computer, phone.”
Baker says she wouldn’t be a reporter today if it wasn’t for her LJI contract.
The organizations awarding contracts pay close attention to the content that comes out of them. According to LJI director Tina Ongkeko, the issues covered by community papers tend to vary.
“If it’s in a more remote area where there’s no other local media, you’re probably going to want a reporter to cover a whole slew of civic issues,” Ongkeko says. “Whereas in other parts of the country, you might notice there’s a need for coverage of the school boards and educational matters.”
Ongkeko works at News Media Canada, a trade association for newspaper publishers that runs the LJI and awards contracts to reporters. She’s been around long enough to witness the erosion of local news up close and remembers once looking at a map of publishers across Canada.
“[I was like], ‘Oh, there’s a newspaper here and there.’ And then I looked them up for their contact information, and—‘Oh, this one shut down, oh that one shut down, too,’” says Ongkeko.
Quinn Bender has worked for 10 years as a freelance writer at B.C. community newspapers including the Creston Valley Advance, the Terrace Standard, and Victoria News. Bender was an LJI reporter from September 2020 to March 2021 and covered fisheries and marine life for Black Press.
Bender says he sees news media as under attack in an age where people are increasingly accustomed to staying in their own echo chambers. According to Bender, local news may be the only real hope the industry has. “But we also have a lot of competition,” he says, “with hedge funds and large media corporations.”
As well as providing jobs, local news gives a sense of place to journalism. Eric Plummer has worked at four different small-town newspapers in B.C. and Alberta, one of them being the now-closed Alberni Valley Times. Plummer says that community papers play a significant role in society: “You’re sharing stories, you’re illuminating things, that are important for people to know.”
Plummer now runs Ha-Shilth-Sa—a community-funded newspaper put out by the tribal council of Nuu-chah-nulth, an Indigenous community on Vancouver Island.
For Plummer, having staff that live and work close to the community is an asset to the newspaper because it gives them a deeper connection to the stories and concerns of the people they write about, which establishes trust with readers.
“We try to put more time into just really understanding where people are coming from so that their voice is heard,” says Plummer.