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Local news startups tap community spirit to survive where others have perished

Last Updated Jan 18, 2018 at 3:40 pm EDT

Local news fans dismayed by the closing of the daily newspaper in Orillia, Ont., are pledging by the dozens to donate $5 a month to a just-launched news website called OrilliaMatters.com, part of a grassroots movement in Canada to replace silenced community news voices.

“Help support local news! Having a news source to call your own is part of your local identity,” entreats the website, which goes on to list the names of businesses and individuals who have answered the call.

The site is the seventh started by fast-growing online news company Village Media Inc. of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., but the first to directly seek donations.

Pledges have climbed to about $1,600 a month since the site was launched on Jan. 8 — six weeks to the day after the 147-year-old daily Orillia Packet and Times become one of 36 newspapers shut down in the wake of a deal that saw Postmedia Network Inc. and Torstar Corp. swap dozens of papers in November.

The newspaper owners said at the time that producing community newspapers in the face of significantly declining advertising revenues meant that many of the operations no longer had viable business models.

Charity is not the only solution for Canada’s shrinking news industry but it’s a growing part of it, say some observers.

“Frankly, I think that’s kind of where journalism has to go now,” said Mitch Diamantopoulos, an associate journalism professor at the University of Regina.

“If the traditional patron, the advertiser, is bowing out of the scene and the public authorities won’t step in with grant support or public funds, it’s hard to imagine how else anything can get funded.”

CWA Canada president Martin O’Hanlon said his national media union is pushing the federal government to loosen charitable status rules to allow non-profit news agencies to be created and sustained using donations that earn tax credits.

The change is one of 12 key recommendations in a study released a year ago by think-tank, the Public Policy Forum. So far, the federal government has resisted endorsing the suggestions.

According to the crowdsourced Local News Research Project, 238 local news sources in 173 communities were closed in Canada between 2008 and Dec. 20 of last year. That includes 212 newspapers, most of which were weeklies. Only 69 new local news outlets had sprung up to replace them, including 28 new digital-only sites.

News of the Postmedia-Torstar closings convinced veteran community newspaper owner Mike Wollock to come out of retirement. The 63-year-old had owned eight of the doomed publications in the Ottawa region before selling them about 13 years ago.

Wollock said he’s already hired seven staff and will open an office for his new company, Ottawa Community Voice Publishing Inc., at the beginning of February. By the end of next month, he plans to re-launch four new tabloid-sized newspapers to be published every second week.

“I’m putting my own money up front to start them,” Wollock said angrily. “Why? These communities really got shafted by Postmedia.”

He doesn’t want charity but said he’s counting on local advertising support to counter steep economic hurdles his venture must surmount.

For example, distribution of the free publications is being handled by Canada Post, which means Wollock likely won’t be able to insert flyers, traditionally a key source of revenue for weeklies, because he’s paying by weight.

The cheaper alternative would be to contract distribution to the local daily newspaper, the Ottawa Citizen, but Wollock makes it clear dealing with a Postmedia-owned property is not an option he will consider.

Village Media CEO Jeff Elgie is focused on growth these days and says his “marginally profitable” company will start four more online newspapers in communities with existing daily newspapers in the next three months.

He said the newspaper closings of recent years have given his business a boost — he opened a local news site just eight days after the daily Guelph Mercury was closed by Torstar in January 2016. He said the recent closing of the daily Barrie Examiner has revitalized Village’s underperforming BarrieToday.com website.

John Hammill, a former publisher of the Packet and Times, was one of about 300 staff who lost their jobs following the TorStar-Postmedia swap.

He says he invited Village Media to fill a “big black hole” in local news in Orillia and subsequently created a new job for himself as publisher of both OrilliaMatters.com and BarrieToday.com.

He said he now supervises five full-time staff and a number of freelance contributors at both websites, compared with 12 full-time staff at the Packet and Times alone.

Hammill is sold on the new format — “We don’t have to wait for presses any more, quality journalism doesn’t have to wait for our operations to catch up” — be he concedes it isn’t replacing newspapers in terms of the number of jobs.

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