When Joan Aikins moved to Barrie, Ont., in 1954, she turned to the city’s paper for everything from local news to deals on diapers for her newborn child.
Four years later, when the Barrie Examiner became a daily paper, Aikins was among the first to subscribe. Even as age and disability set in, Aikins remained a loyal subscriber to what she called a “lifeline” for the community.
That loyalty came to an abrupt end on Monday, when she learned that the Examiner was one of 36 newspapers unexpectedly shuttered as part of a swap between two major media conglomerates.
Now she’s grappling with a genuine loss.
“I’ve just loved this paper because it’s the only way we get our local news,” Aikins said Tuesday from her home in Barrie as she completed the crossword on the Examiner’s last edition.
“I’m 87 now. Imagine, I’m going to be lost.”
Aikins was among many residents of towns across Ontario reeling from word of the blockbuster deal between Torstar Corp. (TSX:TS.B) and Postmedia Network Inc. (TSX:PNC.A, TSX:PNC.B), which would see the two media giants swap a total of 41 papers and then immediately close all but five of them, costing 291 people their jobs.
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Readers of the affected papers said word of the mass closures came as a shock.
Tony Vandermaas, who’s lived in the southwestern Ontario town of Thorold for 33 years and has written columns for previous iterations of the now-shuttered Thorold Niagara News, said the business sense of the decision doesn’t make the closure easier to stomach.
“I’m afraid that we’re going to get less coverage up here in Thorold than we ever had before, and we didn’t have much to start with.”
Vandermaas said Thorold is in a phase of rapid development, with the main street undergoing an overhaul and new businesses opening up in town. All the changes, he said, should be documented and followed by a local paper.
Others said they looked to the paper to keep them informed on lighter matters, too.
Thorold resident Victoria Grano said the weekly paper kept her abreast of local entertainment such as parades and blues festivals, adding she looked forward to reading each new edition.
Thorold, unlike some communities impacted by the closures, will not be entirely without local media coverage, as outlets in neighbouring towns are already filling some of the void.
But Grano said those papers don’t offer an adequate substitute, and she doesn’t plan to direct subscription dollars their way.
Such an option is not even available to residents of other communities now left entirely without local media as a result of the closures.
Dave Dawson, a longtime resident of Orillia, Ont., and former sports editor of the Packet and Times, lamented the fact that a community institution disappeared virtually overnight after the deal was announced.
In a Facebook tribute to the paper, which he said had been in operation for 140 years, he expressed fears for the void that would be left without a paper to chronicle the daily rhythms of a community.
“There will…be no more stories about your children’s sports feats, no more stories about the machinations of city council, no more stories about important events and meetings, no more wedding announcements, no more obituaries, no further editorials or columns meant to educate and entertain, no more letters to the editor that provided a barometer on community issues,” he wrote. “This list could go on and on.”
Routine coverage of small moments can loom large for individuals and families, as Marsha Coppola learned when she moved to Thorold 12 years ago.
Around that time, the Thorold paper opted to run a front-page photo of her one-year-old son dressed as a pizza delivery boy for Halloween. It was hardly the stuff of global headlines, but Coppola said she still treasures the picture and has a copy of that edition in her home.
More pressing, however, might be the fallout for adult pizza-delivery people and other workers in town. Coppola said the newspapers provided a valuable advertising platform for small businesses like her husband’s pizzeria.
“For a local business like us, advertising with them has always been an affordable option,” she said of the local paper.
“You could do a quarter page for $225. In (a bigger paper), you couldn’t even get a business card for $500.”
Distributing ads had, in fact, become the local papers’ main function, according to Carleton University journalism professor Chris Waddell.
TorStar and Postmedia, he said, may be able to make a few extra dollars by redirecting those print ads to larger publications while they try to turn heftier profits on their online operations.
“You have the potential of getting more advertising revenue over the next little while that may give you more time to kind of figure out what the digital future is,” he said. “But, of course, there’s no guarantee that two or three years from now we’re going to be any closer to a solution.”
Waddell said independent sites will almost inevitably move in to try and provide coverage lost in the closures.
For one southern Ontario mayor, the prospect raises concerns about objectivity and fair reporting in small communities
Dave Augustyn said he watched the slow decline of the Pelham News since his election 11 years ago. The paper, which once featured its own premises and staff, shrunk to a weekly publication in 2006 that primarily contained content generated at neighbouring news outlets, he said.
But the stories it printed were written to high journalistic standards, Augustyn said, which helped set it apart from citizen-produced websites and broadsheets that also purport to cover the community.
Augustyn said he fears residents may now have to turn to less reliable sources of information to stay abreast of community news.
“The lack of fair, balanced reporting, that’s a concern,” he said.