After thirteen years as Nova Scotia’s sole newspaper, the Halifax Gazette doubled its size in 1765, taking advantage of a full sheet of paper instead of half. It was in the expanded Gazette that an idealistic young journalist, Isaiah Thomas, began to criticize the British Stamp Act. ( Thomas would later report from the Battles of Lexington and Concord and perform the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.) This was risky business for a tabloid that depended on government support. Even with a bit of controversy and a lock on local advertising, even with its media monopoly, the paper couldn’t make a go of it on its own. A weekly circulation of seventy just wasn’t enough to cover the costs.
The economics didn’t make sense, but a competitor set up shop the next year. “The increase in newspapers in this province was steady,” The New Monthly Magazine later observed. “In 1761, there was one; in 1766, there were two; but in 1771 the number had fallen back to one.” The numbers have continued to rise and fall in Nova Scotia, as they have throughout the country, but lately there’s been far too much falling.
In October 2018, the Local News Research Project, led by Ryerson University’s April Lindgren, calculated that over 250 Canadian newspapers had ceased publication since 2008. “News organizations have been closing at three times the rate that new ones are being launched,” the project reported, and the closures disproportionately affect print publications in smaller communities. Around the same time, the Waterloo Chronicle published an op-ed by Lindgren, which included this prophetic observation: “The disappearance of so many local newspapers means researchers are losing an important early warning system for the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases.”
If there was cause for alarm two years ago, there’s even more today. Along with J-Source and the Canadian Association of Journalists, the Local News Research Project estimates that more than 100 media outlets, in eleven provinces and territories, have made serious cuts since the coronavirus reared its spiky head in mid-March. As of April 29, we’ve lost another forty-eight community newspapers. Postmedia alone has shuttered fifteen of them in Manitoba and southwestern Ontario.
The hollowing out of small-town papers should concern all of us because it affects all of us — not just those living and working in Selkirk, Altona, or Kingsville. In addition to playing a role in stopping disease, local newsrooms are the best training grounds for the nation’s journalists, the trenches where young reporters can actually learn how to report on policy decisions and pandemic responses. Communities with print newspapers tend to have higher voter turnouts than those without, even if they’re served by other media. And researchers have shown that municipalities that are held to account by local newspapers secure better terms on loans for capital projects, saving taxpayers money.
A newspaper is unlike any other consumer good. If I skimp on lattes, I save a few bucks and have a caffeine headache. If I skimp at the newsstand, I pay a steeper, though less quantifiable price. We’ve been urged to buy local these past months. It seems that we’re told every day by radio hosts and social media feeds to order takeout when we can, so that our neighbourhood establishments survive the crisis. It’s good advice. We should also be rushing to renew our subscriptions to the papers that still exist — not just the big ones and certainly not just the New York Times.
The newspaper is actually more of a public good than a consumer good, what Hegel described as the realist’s replacement for morning prayer. That’s why we can’t simply let the market handle things. Less than 2 percent of Haligonians took the Gazette, which offered a perspective that was different than those arriving on ships from London, Boston, and New York. Yet its existence mattered for the entire colony.
Those early issues of the Gazette were printed on foolscap, a little larger than an A4 sheet. If you hold foolscap up to the light, you’ll see the reason for its name — a watermark of a jester or his hat. It’s an apt image. Idealistic or not, we can’t afford to be content with getting our information from free and foreign sources, or even sources that are concentrated in Canada’s biggest cities. Somehow as a country, we must stop playing the fool and develop a publicly supported newspaper model that works for all of us.