Concerns about the disappearance of local news and the dominance of the Irving media empire bubbled up Monday when the Sussex Rotary Club held an online panel discussion entitled: “New Brunswick, News Deserts and Democracy.”
“Our aim in this conversation is to take a reading on the health of the local news business across the province and to connect that, in turn, to the health of local democracy,” said moderator Michael Depp.
“Does New Brunswick have enough local news?” he asked a panel of four journalists participating online via Zoom.
“Are people across its communities getting sufficient news to honestly stay informed of what’s happening?”
“The short answer is no, we don’t have a lot of news and we do need more, especially independent,” answered Vicki Hogarth, news director at CHCO TV, a non-profit, community television station in St. Andrews.
Hogarth explained that on the one hand, some would argue that New Brunswickers are lucky to have the Irving papers to provide local journalism while others would see the dominance of the Irving-owned company, Brunswick News, as a problem.
“You have one major owner who is in charge of most of the news in New Brunswick, so there aren’t a lot of diverse perspectives,” she added.
Brunswick News, which publishes three dailies and about a dozen weeklies, owns every English-language newspaper in the province except for the Saint Croix Courier. Its publications include two French-language weeklies.
Two other panellists echoed Hogarth’s concern about the lack of media diversity.
“I think Vicki hit the nail on the head,” said Erik Gingles, founder of the online video news magazine Buzzlocal.tv based in Moncton.
He acknowledged that there are other provincial news sources such as the CBC, but suggested there aren’t enough points of view.
“The slippery slope is that if you only get one side, then you just believe that’s the way it is,” Gingles said.
He added there are many rural areas in the province that rely on social media because they aren’t getting any local news coverage at all.
“We are certainly in a bit of a media desert,” he said.
Tracy Glynn, co-ordinating editor of the non-profit New Brunswick Media Co-op, argued that the province does not have “a healthy media landscape” partly because stories about injustice, inequality and oppression aren’t being covered.
“At the N.B. Media Co-op, we are embedded in a variety of social movements,” she said.
“We work with groups of people who experience poverty, the housing crisis, temporary foreign workers and such, and we know that their stories are not being told,” she added.
In an apparent reference to the Irving media empire, Glynn referred to coverage of climate change.
“I don’t think we can trust that the billionaires — billionaires that are especially implicated in the climate crisis — can deliver a story about the climate crisis,” she said.
Moderator Michael Depp picked up on Glynn’s comment as he directed a question to Jackson Doughart, editor-in-chief of Brunswick News.
“Jackson, Brunswick News is owned by Irvings, speaking of billionaires, the province’s largest employer, an absolute powerhouse in the province across multiple industries.
“What is your editorial policy about covering Irvings’ businesses and political interests?”
“When there’s a matter that we think journalistically is of public interest, we cover it the best we can,” Doughart replied.
“It’s really a judgment of what information you can get and when you think it’s of public interest.”
“Does Irving ever intercede in coverage?” Depp asked.
“I’ve been editor-in-chief for almost two years and I’ve never been told what to write,” Doughart answered.
When asked if Irving economic interests coloured the coverage of environmental issues as Glynn had suggested, Doughart said Brunswick News tells both sides of the story.
“If you look at something like glyphosate, which is a big issue, I mean, we covered the public hearings about it,” he said.
“We include voices from environmental activists and experts who are against spraying and Indigenous groups as well,” he added.
“We also cover the group that is pro-spraying as well. A lot of these big public debates deserve to be told from both sides and I think that we do a pretty good job of doing so.”
Financing local journalism
When the Rotary panel was asked how their outfits pay for local journalism, their answers were mixed.
Vicki Hogarth said CHCO’s main source of revenue is TV bingo, although the station is starting to receive small donations. She explained that her own salary is paid through a federal local journalism initiative grant.
Erik Gingles said his local digital TV operation doesn’t qualify for government grants. Instead, it depends on advertising, but he said it’s a struggle to woo advertisers away from bigger media outlets.
Tracy Glynn said the N.B. Media Co-op is financed by donations from its members as well as from unions that represent a variety of workers including bus drivers, postal workers and health-care workers.
Jackson Doughart said Brunswick News is mainly financed by advertisers and subscribers. He said the company does not allow readers any free access to online news and that its tight paywall has been in place for about 10 years.
“In order to fund our operations in the long term, we need to continue to grow the digital subscription business and that starts with making it that people have to pay in order to read it,” he explained.
He also said that coverage of local news would depend on people’s willingness to pay.
Doughart added that the outbreak of COVID-19 accelerated the Brunswick News online business and that now, about half of newspaper readers are online and the other half subscribe to the print editions.
Local news in decline
Figures published last month by the Local News Research Project at Ryerson University show that between 2008 and December 1, 2021, a total of 450 news operations have closed in 324 communities across Canada.
Those closings have been offset somewhat by the launch of 177 new local news outlets in 125 communities.
The figures also show that since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 64 local news outlets have permanently closed including one online/digital news source, one TV station, 10 radio stations and 52 community newspapers.
One of those community papers was the Sackville Tribune-Post.
With the help of a local journalism initiative grant administered through the Community Radio Fund of Canada as well as donations from its listeners, CHMA, 106.9 FM, has launched its Tantramar community news service overseen by Erica Butler.
Note: Mount Allison Sociology Professor Erin Steuter has been studying the Irving media empire for more than 30 years. To read her review of the book Irving vs. Irving by Jacques Poitras, click here.