Mt. A. prof warns that closure of Sackville’s weekly paper could have dire effects

Erin Steuter speaking during a panel discussion sponsored by the N.B. Green Party in 2016

Mount Allison University Professor Erin Steuter says the Tantramar area needs a strong local newspaper so that people can understand the many issues they’re facing rather than depending on unreliable social media posts that can sow division, intolerance and even hatred.

“People need information, they need local, specific information and when they don’t have it, they go looking and what they find then is not created by professional journalists, it’s not verified, there are unnamed sources and it could even be created by malicious bots.”

She referred to an example in Bathurst where it appears that somebody with no connection to the community deliberately spread false information to disrupt local news groups on Facebook.

Steuter, who is the head of Mount Allison’s Sociology Department, is the author of the recent book Won’t Get Fooled Again: A Graphic Guide to Fake News.  She has also written extensively about news media issues in New Brunswick including the Irving family’s use of its newspaper monopoly to promote its business empire while suppressing information it doesn’t like.

Steuter’s warning about the possibly dire effects of losing the local newspaper came during a telephone interview three days after Sackville Mayor John Higham told town council that the future of the Sackville Tribune-Post doesn’t look promising.

“I want to let you know that I had some discussions with SaltWire Communications about the future of the Tribune, not at very high levels, but the discussion wasn’t promising,” Higham said, adding that in a recent e-mail to subscribers, the company said it would need a minimum of 5,000 paid subscriptions and a strong advertising base before it could bring the weekly paper back.

In March, Saltwire, which owns 19 other weekly papers in Atlantic Canada, announced it was closing the Tribune-Post for at least 12 weeks because local businesses forced to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic were no longer buying ads. Then last month, after announcing the permanent layoff of 109 employees, the company said it was assessing the future of all of its weekly papers including the ones in Sackville and Amherst.

During Monday’s council meeting, Mayor Higham suggested that if anyone wants to help SaltWire sign up thousands of subscribers and recruit local advertisers, he would put them in touch with company officials.

“It’s a big challenge and there’s going to have to be a lot of work if somebody wants to pursue this,” Higham said.

Online publication?

During her telephone interview with Warktimes, Erin Steuter noted that in the last few years, the Tribune-Post suffered from cutbacks in local reporting.

“There’s been a pretty dramatic decline in the quality of the local news coverage and I think a lot of people have been frustrated with that,” she said.

“We definitely were getting a lot of what I would consider filler opinion pieces from the larger region that was not what I was looking for and what many people were looking for in a local newspaper,” she said, adding the paper also published long travel features on faraway places.

“It was just generic stuff that you could easily find on the Internet and not about what’s important and happening in your communities.”

Steuter says online publications such as the Halifax Examiner have successfully attracted online subscribers with investigative reporting and vigorous coverage of local and provincial issues such as the recent mass shootings in Nova Scotia.

She said various models exist for generating revenues online including paywalls or getting access to additional material for higher subscriber rates, but SaltWire hadn’t tried any of those.

Steuter agreed that it might be possible to establish an online newspaper serving communities in Westmorland County in southeastern New Brunswick and Cumberland County in northern Nova Scotia in partnership with the community radio stations in Sackville and Amherst.

“I think that’s a really good idea to combine the communities because lots of people are living and working back and forth between them and we face similar environmental and economic issues that are being ignored by the more centralized parts of our own provinces,” she said.

“We’ve got important issues in terms of the border crossings between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick or around environmental issues like the dikes and the tidelands,” she added.

“We have all sorts of unique local issues here and we need to have local reporters covering them.”

To listen to a CHMA-FM interview with Erin Steuter about her new book on fake news, click here.

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