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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Closure of weeklies leaves communities without a print newspaper

Workers in BC hoping to resurrect closed publications should look into co-operative employee ownership

Media Canadian Business

Photo by Ryan Berry/Flickr

KAMLOOPS, BC – The final edition of Kamloops This Week was emblazoned with a giant “-30-” on its front page when it appeared last Wednesday as a reminder of the way reporters ended their typewritten articles back in the days before computerized typesetting. The newspaper in this BC Interior town, which was owned by Kelowna-based regional chain Aberdeen Publishing, was a fat 88 pages, including a 20-page insert titled Kamloops Connector, which was aimed at readers 45 and older and was packed with ads for retirement homes, walk-in bathtubs and Remembrance Day celebrations. Also tucked inside were the usual full-colour flyers for supermarkets, hardware stores, and drug store chains. A newspaper with the number of ads choking this one would have no problem surviving and would more likely be thriving, but most were farewell wishes from local businesses that had likely not placed a print ad for years, having long since found cheaper and more effective alternatives online.

A full-page ad on Page 2, however, hinted at a possible resurrection. Headlined “Help Us Create a New Newspaper,” it was placed by now-former staff members of KTW who are hoping to “potentially revive” a print newspaper in Kamloops, which is a three-hour drive inland from Vancouver. “We have a plan, but we need seed funding to get us off the ground,” read the ad. “We are asking the residents, philanthropists, businesses and community-driven individuals of Kamloops if they would like to support us through financial donations and in-kind business advice.” It also included an email address for anyone willing and able to help. “We wanted to gauge community interest before walking away for good,” the ad continued. “We have the right people in the right places and have a retooled business model, which we believe is worth a shot. We are going to raise the funds… If it doesn’t get off the ground, monies will be returned.”

Kamloops This Week was hardly an historic journalism institution, having only been founded in 1988, when print advertising was abundant enough to also support a daily newspaper in this town of then 60,000 population, which has since grown to more than 100,000. The Kamloops Daily News was closed in 2014 by Vancouver-based Glacier Media, which even then cited the migration of advertising to the Internet.

A similar scenario played out two weeks ago in Northern BC, where Glacier closed its Alaska Highway News and Dawson Creek Mirror, again citing the growing flight of ads to online platforms Google and Facebook. The Alaska Highway News was an icon of BC newspaper history, having been founded in 1943 by firebrand editor Margaret “Ma” Murray, whose outspoken editorials often took on power and telephone companies.

Glacier has been rationalizing the BC community newspaper market since 2010 along with Victoria-based Black Press, with which it has exchanged dozens of titles in sales and even trades, often then closing competing, unionized or marginal papers. It closed three community newspapers in the Vancouver area this summer. It closed the 112-year-old Vancouver Courier in 2020, then absurdly replaced it in the company’s newspaper boxes with a print edition of its website Vancouver is Awesome.

Dozens more community newspapers have been closed across Canada just since Facebook began blocking news in August to comply with the Online News Act, which was passed by Parliament at the behest of newspaper publishers who demanded payment from it and Google for linking to their news stories. The Metroland chain owned by private equity firm Nordstar Capital recently stopped printing its 70 weeklies in Ontario, then declared bankruptcy to cheat their 605 laid-off workers out of $16 million in severance pay. Métro Média, which published 20 community newspapers in Montréal and eight in Québec, also declared bankruptcy in September under suspicious circumstances, but an unidentified buyer has reportedly made an offer for the company.

Publication of the last edition of Kamloops This Week coincided with my visit to local Thompson Rivers University to talk about the lamentable state of the newspaper industry in Canada. The town has grown by more than a quarter in population since I taught here in 2005-06, and ironically is well-served by other media. It is home to affiliates of CBC radio and the CityTV network, along with privately-owned radio station CHNL. There are also several online-only news outlets, including Castanet, which also serves other BC Interior towns, Kamloops Now and Infonews. Older and less computer-savvy residents, along with local advertisers dependent on print, would suffer most without a newspaper.

Efforts to revive a dying newspaper are also ongoing in northern BC, where former Dawson Creek Mirror editor Rob Brown is hoping to fill the gap left by its closure with what he describes as a “homegrown, locally owned” news outlet in short order. “The idea is to not miss a week,” he told the CBC, “so we hope the Thursday after [the Mirror closes] to have a homegrown, locally-owned, brand new product out on the streets.”

Newspaper workers in both Dawson Creek and Kamloops might want to look into the co-operative ownership model adopted in 2009 by Victoria television station CHEK after it was threatened with closure. Its employees bought the station from Canwest Global Communications, which was about to go bankrupt, for only $2, but several million more were needed to cover costs. Each worker contributed $15,000 for a share in an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), and after a bumpy takeoff the station has since been flying smoothly. A similar ownership structure was adopted in 2018 by workers at the Prince Albert Daily Herald in Saskatchewan after the 124-year-old newspaper was threatened with closure by provincial chain Star News Publishing.

BC’s Employee Share Ownership Program encourages co-ops by providing worker/owners with a 20 percent tax credit for their investments, which can be held in an RRSP. Manitoba has a similar Employee Share Purchase Tax Credit which provides up to $202,500 a year in tax credits, the first $27,000 of which is fully refundable to the employee. The federal government introduced a new form of co-op ownership in this year’s budget when it established the employee ownership trust (EOT), which allows workers to become shareholders without paying directly for their shares, which are held in trust.

Local ownership of newspapers was the first thing to go in their sell-off to first absentee corporate ownership and now foreign hedge funds. Canada’s news media are imploding thanks in large part to government blundering. When we start picking up the pieces, going back to the beginning with community ownership of our press might be the best idea.

Marc Edge is a journalism researcher and author who lives in Ladysmith, BC. His books and articles can be found online at www.marcedge.com.

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