BY EMMA BOWER
People in Happy Valley-Goose Bay take news seriously. Their 7,500 residents know what they want to read when they open their newspaper in the morning. And it’s up to Derek Montague to deliver.
Derek is the only reporter at the Labradorian, a community paper that covers Happy Valley-Goose Bay, and a handful of smaller, more remote communities sprinkled across Labrador.
Derek and I both studied journalism during our undergrad degrees at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. After graduation, he returned home and started working at the paper, while I wandered back west and wondered what to do with my life.
“People are attached to the paper, and when they have an issue or a triumph, they want it covered in the paper—a lot of times more than anything,” Derek told me over the phone this week. This means he’s often snapping photos at a weekend hockey game while simultaneously working on a story about the highly controversial Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
“Some people might read my stuff and think I’m a fluffy writer, and somebody who catches me a week later might think that I’m a very hard political writer and investigative journalist.”
The gig isn’t easy, but unlike me (and many other journalism grads), Derek has a job. His two years at the paper have kept him immune to the identity crisis felt by journalists working for papers in bigger cities.
“The future of newspapers can look grim when considering the falling ad revenues and declining circulations that have killed large publications from coast to coast. But community journalism is a different story,” stated an Al Jazeera America article from earlier this year.
Hyperlocal news is healthy. A 2011 report from Newspapers Canadashowed that there are 122 dailies and 1,100 community papers in Canada—a growth of 21 percent since the 1970s.
Seventy-three percent of Canadians still read print, and ad revenue for community newspapers has increased from $1.17 billion in 2010 to $1.21 billion in 2011. There’s little competition for small-town papers, because few others are covering the intimate details of community life.
And while community news is still figuring out how to balance an aging readership with digital content, “it’s a very nimble industry,” said George Affleck, general manager of the Community Newspapers Association of B.C., on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup.
“With so many changes over the past fifteen years, the fact that we haven’t lost our readership in community papers is a testament to the nimbleness and the willingness to keep up with technology,” he explained.
Community papers have also figured out something larger papers haven’t: they understand the responsibility of being part of the fabric of community life. Community journalists are good listeners. They have to be. Small towns have good memories.
“I know people who won’t talk to certain media organizations because of one bad experience in the past. In these small communities, where word gets around fast, it’s important that a level of trust is developed,” said Derek.
If journalists understand the community they work in (and that real life involves both peewee hockey games and political debate), then they’ll have readers who will stick around.
A couple of years ago, an Algonquin College journalism professor wrote an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen urging recent grads to go where the work is. Not everyone is willing to give up Toronto or Vancouver for Happy Valley-Goose Bay, but if you want to write stories that matter, Derek says that in the remote corners of the country, your voice can be heard. He wrote an editorial after the tragic death of Loretta Saunders earlier this year that was picked up by publications across the country.
“Everybody in Labrador was talking about Loretta and it was a heartbreaking moment here,” he said. Amidst the noise of daily news, Derek’s voice mattered because he was connected to a place. He understood his community. He felt what people felt.
That’s how you tell good stories, wherever you write from. ♦
Image via LIFE Photo Collection, Google Cultural Institute