Starving for hyperlocal coverage

For a couple of years now, I’ve been waiting for the community newspaper wars in Ottawa to bring us better local news and feature coverage of Osgoode Ward within the City of Ottawa, where some 14,000 residents live. That’s the size of a fair-sized town in Ontario.

During that time of hope, Metroland Ottawa had started up a string of Ottawa This Week papers, re-plated and zone-distributed to the four quadrants of the city, as well as vast points in the Seaway Valley. It did this by re-alligning the traditional weeklies formerly owned by Fred Runge who I worked for in the 1980s. Those were heady years in the small town newspaper business in the Ottawa Valley and Runge took its responsibility as the owners of such papers as the Carleton Place Canadian and the Almonte Gazette very seriously. But those adventures are for another day.

In the meantime, the EMC (Expanded Market Coverage) was head-to-head in the same markets, while the independent, The Messenger out of Manotick, circulated here too. Of course, there are the paid dailies, the Citizen and the Sun, all of whom were chasing the lucrative flyer business that has been so coveted and the true reason behind the acquisitions by Metroland.

Despite this during these wars, I have been disappointed in most of the coverage, or lack thereof, by all of them. Both Metroland and EMC relied far too much on the city councillors’ reports, recipes and duplicates of daily city hall reports, which are lengthy self-interested information compilations which did not, and have not, provided objective news of our community.

Now, Metroland has bought the EMC papers, and has closed its This Week brand, giving itself a virtual monopoly in the community newspaper media segment in this part of the city. If coverage was spotty before, it’s about to get practically invisable. EMC has laid off seven reporters and when you do that, it’s pretty obvious you’re not planning on hiring any more to fill the gap. The Manotick Messenger has closed its freely-distributed Packet, which had done a good job of being a regional feature newspaper. Now the Messenger itself is distributed free, and barely hanging on based on the few ads we see in its issues.

With the dailies simply trying to keep up with what’s going on inside the Green Belt, on reduced staffs themselves, there is no coverage from them except for the odd coyote or car accident story. So these days, I am feeling stranded out here in Osgoode ward, which was a hive activity before amalgamation.

Osgoode Ward used to be Osgoode Township, with its own municipal government and politics which stimulated interest among the community, in their own backyard. Now, all of the local issues which used to be reported by our local papers, from zoning changes to road paving to planning, are all being dealt with by anonymous committees far away at city hall, with only our councillor Doug Thompson to fill us in on what’s going on. That’s hardly an acceptable way for the community to get an objective view of the decisions that directly affect them.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the papers serving us were focusing on profiling people. Just last week, the Manotick Curling Centre’s junior team won the Ontario Junior Women Curling Championships, and they’re off to the Nationals in Napanee Feb. 4. None of the local papers covered that.

That’s a singular example, I realize, and I’m not going to blame the few reporters and editors who survived the Metroland downsizing. I know from experience they’re doing what they can, with what they have.

But by eviscerating its reporting staff and relying on free hand-ins by overworked community volunteers for the balance of its editorial content, the new EMC is not only shortchanging its readers, it is begging for new competition. With the rise of alternative ways of distributing news (online), that’s easier done than it was just a few years ago.

To stave that off, to maintain its distribution strength, EMC management would be well advised to reverse the editorial downsizing and spend a buck on making a mediocre product, a much better one.

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