Healthy community papers focus for independent researcher

Expositor editor Alicia McCutcheon, right, talks community news with researcher Angie Long.

The Manitoulin Expositor picked as part of national study

MANITOULIN––Angela Long of Toronto recently completed a Masters of Journalism degree with Ryerson University. As part of her program, she was required to complete an internship; instead, Ms. Long took a job as summer reporter for the Haliburton County Echo. “In three months I learned a lot about community journalism,” she said. “I fell in love with community news: the types of stories, the hands-on reporting.”

She returned to Toronto where her fellow journalism students laughed at her and her stories. “They had internships at CBC News, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star. They didn’t take me seriously.”

They were wrong, believes Ms. Long. “The Haliburton County Echo is the thriving, beating heart of that community,” she noted.

The experience fueled a desire to look deeper into rural and community journalism. A 5,000 word article turned into 10,000 words. Ms. Long did not fulfill that assignment; instead, she applied for a Canada Council grant to investigate further.

She was inspired by the book, ‘Emus Loose in Egnar: Big Stories from Small Towns’ by award-winning journalist Judy Muller. Ms. Muller wrote about her grassroots tour of rural American newspapers and the surprising success of small weekly newspapers across the United States.

“When I interviewed her,” said Ms. Long, “she suggested this project. There was not a lot of information about Canada; what there was, was hard to find.” Ms. Long’s plan was to drive across Canada, visiting small communities and their newspapers along the way. “It was a crazy proposal,” she said. “I was interested in the actual people involved, in boots-on-the-ground journalism. That’s why I began this project, to defend the small paper. You don’t have to work for the Globe and Mail or Toronto Star: the stories that rural Canada are telling are equally important to their communities.”

Ms. Long visited Manitoulin Island and The Manitoulin Expositor as part of her research. In all the places she has visited, The Expositor is only the second to interview Ms. Long, the first being The Watrous Manitou in Saskatchewan.

She left Oshawa on April 25 and drove out west in her mother’s Saturn Ion, which was packed full of camping and other gear. With connections in Haida Gwaii from previously living there, it made sense as a starting point.  She has travelled to the Yukon and has stopped in every province as she makes her way back to Ontario. “I have some papers picked out,” she explained, “but have discovered that locals know their papers and are very proud of them. I’ve stayed off the main roads and discovered some new papers.”

After a brief stop at home (Ms. Long hails from Oshawa), she will continue east, passing through Quebec and making stops in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Canada’s vastness is what stands out most for Ms. Long. “This country is huge,” she said. “You don’t know how big it is until you start driving and meandering.” It was a last minute decision to drive to the Yukon Territory. “I turned up this little road that lead to the Alaska Highway. Three days later I was in Dawson City. The first day, there was nothing but forest and 12 black bears. There was no cell service, no CBC, no news. I reached the first community, Dease Lake. It contains a gas station, motel, a grocery store. It was a whole other day to get to Whitehorse and another to Dawson City. There’s just a huge amount of space.”

She spoke of a lack of infrastructure in rural Canada that leaves people with a lack of access to Internet and wireless services that many take for granted. “With the lack of services, of cell service, in some communities it’s just not feasible – they don’t have the infrastructure for digital news. In Dawson City, it took over five minutes to download my email.”

The warmth of small communities surprised Ms. Long. “People opened up their offices and their homes to me,” she said. In the Kootenay region of British Columbia she was invited to a tapas tasting along with the local newspaper. She saw firsthand just how integrated local news is with its community when the local restaurant hosted the pre-release tasting event for the newspaper.

The geography of place is an important focus for Ms. Long. “It is a strength of local news,” she explained. “No one else knows what you know. I’ve visited a lot of papers now. I could probably pull out a map and tell you what a local paper’s front page story will be, based upon its location and geography. The papers that are surviving harness that sense of place.”

Manitoulin must have compared favourably to small communities across Canada. Ms. Long wasn’t quite ready to go home and extended her stay here, attending the Leonard Cohen Koans concert in Providence Bay. “It was amazing,” she said. She’s pretty sure she’ll be back.