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WENDY ELLIOTT: Community journalism matters

Wendy Elliott. File
Wendy Elliott. File - SaltWire Network

David McGuffin was in the Valley last week to speak about journalism as a pillar of democracy. Interesting topic.

McGuffin, who works on National Public Radio in Washington D.C., wants more people, not less in his tribe.

The Africa correspondent for CBC for six years, he interviewed Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and indicted war criminals. The CBC closed the Africa bureau two years after McGuffin departed because the Harper government chopped $115 million from its budget.

Over his 25-year career, he reported from Moscow during the Yeltsin years, from China and from Rome, so I was struck when McGuffin said that without local news people tend to focus on hyper national news coverage and that is leading to greater polarization.

More than 20 community newspapers were suddenly shuttered by Postmedia Network Canada Corp. over a year ago. They were purchased from Torstar Corp., and shut down.

According to McGuffin, the United States has lost 200 local papers since 2005. Many of those papers were located in middle America and that’s where a huge percentage of people voted for Trump. McGuffin says there are very clear impacts when local news gets lost and that affects our democracy in a negative way.

For one thing, if you find yourself listening to cable news to become informed, “they treat everything like an epic human drama,” he suggested. Then you expect high drama.

Last month, the BBC ran a story about a British MP bemoaning the fact that senior citizens were so starved of information after their last local paper closed that they are calling his office for news updates. Essex MP Robert Halfon told the network that many older people did not have access to online news and were left isolated when the papers closed down.

"Especially if they're elderly, they've no idea what's going on, what's happening to the hospital, what the council are deciding, what the schools are doing, what their grandchildren are doing," he said.

As my colleague Carole Morris Underhill said not long ago, “The longer you live and work in a community, the more intertwined you become. You get to know the characters, the champions, the doers, the dreamers — and as journalists, it's our privilege to tell their stories.”

From what I’ve read lately, multinational corporations are gobbling up as much as 90 per cent of advertising revenues. Without sufficient advertising print newspapers cannot flourish. Federal government advertising has followed a ‘digital-first’ strategy for placing federal ads for several years now.

That rule has led to a reduction in the proportion of federal spending for daily newspaper ads by 96 per cent and for community newspaper ads by 21 per cent. Interestingly, these figures come directly from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Yet earlier this year, our beleaguered Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused Facebook and other global Internet companies of harming the democratic process around the world. He dumped on them for generating fat profits while failing to support traditional news operations in Canada.

Last November at a press freedom event in Paris, Trudeau said that one of the defenses protecting democratic governments from being undermined is also an institution under stress — a free-thinking, robust media.

"If a democracy is to function you need an educated populace, and you need to have an informed populace, ready to make judicious decisions about who to grant power to and when to take it away," Trudeau said.

I believe that people want to feel connected to the place they call home. Local news needs a different form of investment because you can’t make money today selling newspaper ads.

Last year, the federal government pledged almost $600 million in funding to the Canadian news industry. McGuffin is hopeful that allowing non-profit news organizations to receive charitable donations and issue official donation receipts will prove positive. Two other tax credit options could help, too.

McGuffin said he is feeling some optimism about news gathering today. He sees new models emerging. I agree with him that local matters. Balance and accuracy matter. We don’t want to head toward the nasty, polarized perspective American readers live with.

Former Advertiser and Register reporter Wendy Elliott lives in Wolfville.

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