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The voice of the community

Dick Nichols 0020
Dick Nichols, Business Beat

I call them “transcendent” businesses – the coffee shop, grocery store, corner gas.

They define whether you are a community or just a collection of houses. Perhaps the most important is the community newspaper.

Last week you may have read a full-page ad from the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association calling on the federal government to force Google and Facebook to pay for copyrighted content originally created for other media. Currently, Google and Facebook don’t pay a penny for this content but earn huge advertising revenues through its use.

It’s one of the loopholes big social media enjoys throughout the world.

The weeklies claim this revenue is being siphoned from them and according to Western Wheel Publisher Shaun Jessome, these declining revenues are devastating the industry. This has the earmarks of a tragedy.   

“There are probably 30 to 35 newspapers across Canada that have been shut down so far this year,” Jessome said.

“Any newspaper that’s done well is the heart and soul of the community,” said John Barlow, MP for Foothills and former editor of The Western Wheel. “It’s where the stories of the people in the community are told.”

“The pulse of the community is within [its] newspaper,” added Okotoks Mayor Bill Robertson. “Every month we have a full-page ad regarding town business. And because it’s weekly, we’re also able to legally use it for notifications for public hearings.”

Community newspapers are not just about garden shows and high school sports. Their impact is far greater than that. They get people talking about important local issues.

In many ways, they are the voice of the community. And the force of that voice can be substantial.

Alberta’s community newspapers once played a critical role in stopping legislation limiting the freedom of the press.

In 1937, the provincial legislature passed an act to force newspapers give it free space to rebut any criticism of the government. 

Alberta’s 90 weeklies led the fight to overturn that act and in so doing, won a Pulitzer Prize – the most prestigious award in journalism.

By collecting information in a permanent record that anybody can access, the newspaper records the history of the community. It’s where people go to tell, hear, and remember the stories of their friends and neighbours.

From a business perspective, the local community paper is the vehicle through which merchants and professionals advertise at a cost that is reasonable for the scale of their businesses.

And community newspapers cater to them.

There’s a spring “home care” section, a fall “car care” section and lots of other special sections that give them an unrivalled opportunity to showcase what they are all about.

Finally, where else but in a small-town paper can you read stories about people coaching kid’s sports, volunteering at the food bank, or serving on the board of the health trust?

In the city, these people are largely anonymous. But community newspapers celebrate them.