The methods through which community publications are produced has changed—what we have now is very different than what was taking place even just 25 years ago—but within the shifting industry, many of the ideals of the practice have remained the same.
“[A community publication is] a newspaper whose contents generally reflect the community that it serves both in editorial and in advertising aspects,” says Jack Brezina, former owner of the Minden Times, a community newspaper that still serves the town of Minden, Ontario.
Peterborough Examiner publisher Darren Murphy—a Sun Media regional publisher and their director of advertising for both Eastern and Northern Ontario—agrees. “It’s a publication that, across different media, serves the community in which we reside. It’s intensely local and supportive of the community.”
That support comes, at times, in the form of tough love.
From 1979 to 2001, while he owned the Minden Times, Brezina made a point to write editorials that focused on local issues.
“I tried, as much as I could, to make sure that we were editorializing on the community and that the words on page four or page six in that column on the left always challenged the readers and challenged my community to have another look at themselves.”
Unsurprisingly, community-centric coverage is the driving force behind a community publication’s success. Being able to pick up a publication to read about your friends and neighbours and see pictures of your children playing hockey has an unmistakable appeal.
In Brezina’s opinion, such content is a staple element. “The hard news part of it, council, police news, that sort of reporting was of interest but it was sort of secondary to, I think, the flavour that the newspaper could give the community in reflecting it back on themselves,” he says. “That built loyalty and that built subscribers.”
Loyal subscribers are a necessity for any periodic news publication, because an audience is a revenue opportunity, a fact that Murphy is well aware of.
“There’s two core things that we do and that we need to focus on as a community news organization, because we’re not just a newspaper,” he says.
“We gather content and distribute it across multiple channels and then we sell access to that audience through our advertising department.”
Distributing this content across multiple channels is a fairly new addition to the community journalism equation, one that arose with the advent of the Internet in the 1990s. Because of the internet the field has changed drastically.
“[Community publications] have certainly evolved since I got out of the business,” Brezina says, explaining that during his later years with the paper it was one of the few that had a website. These days digital content is almost certainly a necessity, with physical print copies becoming less and less common.
Other changes to community publications are less visible, and are a source of differing opinions. In some situations, community publications that are struggling to stay afloat are purchased by news corporations, resulting in chains of newspapers serving a number of communities.
To Brezina, this is pushing the limits of what it means to be a community publication. “I think once the chains moved in and the local ownership and the local direction dropped away, the quality of the reporting dropped and it sort of tumbled after that,” he says.
In Murphy’s opinion, corporately owned news sources are still very much community publications and present all sorts of cost-saving benefits, including specialized facilities.
“When we closed the press in Peterborough in 2007 it took up to four hours to run the newspaper,” he says. “Now at Islington and the 401 at our Sun Media state-of-the-art printing facility we can print it in half an hour with colour on every page.”
In the tumultuous industry that is modern-era journalism, some find it surprising that such publications have survived at all, but neither Brezina nor Murphy. “I think that community publications will survive because […] they serve a distinct and local market where people still like to see their neighbours and friends in the paper and pictures of their kids winning the hockey tournament,” says Brezina.
Murphy feels the same way. “I really do believe that there will always be a desire for trusted local content. And that’s what we do. We’re in the content business as an organization,” he says.
Even with the changes in the journalism industry, he anticipates the continuation of community publications. “The platform is irrelevant,” he says. “As long as we can produce and distribute that content, we’ll have an audience. And as long as we have an audience we have the ability to sell advertising and access to that audience. The medium evolves and will continue to evolve.”
A publication that reports community news is akin to a mirror and because of this much of a community publication’s success is dependent on the community itself. As such, a vibrant and involved community will often be home to a successful community publication.
After purchasing a number of American community newspapers in 2012, Warren Buffet wrote in a letter to his new publishers and editors that “no one has ever stopped reading when halfway through a story that was about them or their neighbours.”
While perhaps not absolute fact, the sentiment certainly rings true.