New local media outlets crop up as traditional community papers close
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TORONTO — Dave Bidini asks "what if" a lot.
As in, what if the mainstream press didn't care about George Clooney building a house on Lake Cuomo? Maybe, just maybe, he says as he sprinkles in a few profanities, communities would be better off.
Next month, the prolific musician, author and general man-about-Toronto, will be trudging door to door delivering his most recent creation: a 20-page broadsheet newspaper called the West End Phoenix. It will be a community rag, served without advertisements every month or so, with a focus on a few west-end neighbourhoods.
"We used to have a whack of really, really great community papers, but they're all glorified flyer-mobiles now," Bidini says, his voice rising.
"Goddammit, we're in Toronto, we're in this amazing city and we're in this catchment in the west end where there are so many stories and we need a paper that will focus on the community. And you know what, the lane is wide open for us."
Bidini is betting on the community where he lives to respond. He has budgeted about $300,000 for the first year for eight to 10 issues and says he's raised about 40 per cent of the funds needed. The money comes from a mixture of what he calls patrons, those who have shelled out $500 to $25,000. Count artists Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel and Serena Ryder among the donors.
He says he has about 1,100 subscribers thus far and is hoping for 5,000 within a year. He's going local.
"We, as of a society, have to punch open those front doors and roll open those garages," Bidini says. "In our times, it's important for us to better know each other."
There is a paucity of community newspapers in Canada, according to research by a Ryerson University journalism professor. April Lindgren runs the Local News Research Project that puts numbers to the mass extinction of news organizations. Her research has led her to dub the situation across Canada as "local news poverty."
Since 2008, 194 news organizations have closed in Canada, either outright or due to mergers, her research shows. Only 62 new ones have popped up over the same time period. She is continually updating the numbers, she says.
"News is becoming a luxury item for a community," Lindgren says.
Someone like Bidini finds himself in the perfect position to launch a newspaper, she says.
"You need money, education, background and contacts," Lindgren says.
Bidini can tick off some of those boxes and is using his contacts to find money.
"I'm having dinners and coffees with potential patrons trying to shake the trees," he says.
Lindgren points to American research that shows people who live in more affluent communities tend to have more access to more local news than people who live in poorer communities.
Yet she's excited for any new news outlets, especially if it's local.
"Research shows the availability of local news is as important to a well-functioning community as a functioning sewer system, good roads, public health services and good schools," she says.
Nearly 700 kilometres north of Toronto, Jeff Elgie speaks of his burgeoning local news empire from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. He runs Village Media and his crown jewel is SooToday.com, a digital-only news organization based in the northern Ontario city.
They have news sites in four other Ontario cities: North Bay, Barrie, Timmins and Guelph, and they're expanding. They've built their own publishing software that powers their sites and they also license it to other news organizations in Sudbury and Thunder Bay where they take a cut of digital sales, he says.
Elgie is bullish on local news. He says on an average weekday, SooToday.com sees about 90,000 hits and 42,000 unique visitors, totalling about 15 million hits a month. This from a community with a population 73,368, according to the 2016 census.
He says about 97 per cent of traffic is from local stories.
"What we're just doing is what a community newspaper did 20 years ago," Elgie says. "It's not that brilliant, really, we're just focusing on local."
He says he won't go anywhere near Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, but is targeting small- to medium-sized cities with populations from 40,000 people to 200,000. He also targets areas that have their own distinct persona, learning from their struggles in Barrie, Ont.
"Barrie seems to act a little differently and in some ways behaves a bit more like (a) commuter community where there is not as much interest in engagement in purely local news, so we struggle there," he says.
Another important factor is the competition. He's looking for places with a weak media landscape. He points to Guelph as a good example. They had already planned to go in there because it fits the profile, but when the local paper, the Guelph Mercury, closed in early 2016, they raced to enter the market and opened up shop eight days later with two former Mercury reporters in tow.
The next experiment is to test an even smaller market: Elliot Lake, Ont., with a population of 10,498.
They'll leverage SooToday's site since it's so close and they're already covering issues like crime and health care. He says he already has commitments from companies to buy ads that have nearly covered the new operations launch costs.
Like newspapers of yore, his company is making money off obituaries, which they post for free but make advertisement dollars off of their popularity, and classifieds.
"In the Soo, we have more used vehicles than Auto Trader does," Elgie says.
Back in Toronto, Bidini already has a few shoestring budget stories to tell. An old high school friend "who's done very well" will cover printing costs. There is no rent for the newsroom space because they are considered artists in residence at the Gladstone Hotel.
He's pumped for the first issue, which will feature "massive photos and massive illustrations" to go along with both short and long stories.
"We do whatever we want to do," Bidini says.
Then it's back to the what ifs. What if the West End Phoenix is no different than the scores of news outlets that died?
"Who knows, maybe we'll be that, man," he says, "but we're gonna try."
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version misstated the number of issues the West End Phoenix will publish per year.