A couple of years ago, the owner of a small Alaska newspaper said he would give away The Skagway News to a person committed to living in town to run it. The offer made headlines around the world, and he received hundreds of applications.
Taking over a newspaper, apparently, is now as fanciful a thing as becoming a lighthousekeeper or buying a village in Italy for one dollar.
Running a newspaper is a dream job. Everyone knows how riveting a good newspaper story is. The mind wanders: Citizen Kane, His Girl Friday, All the Presidents Men, or the (maybe aptly titled) Good Night, and Good Luck. When we heard The Picton Gazette might be for sale after 42 years in the hands of the formidable Ms. Jean Morrison, we could think of nothing else.
It is no accident that the key concerns in Prince Edward County — agricultural land, labour “scarcity,” real estate, Syrian and Ukrainian immigration, Indigenous reconciliation, climate change, environmental degradation — are also matters of, not just national, but global import. The county is in the grip of the same brutal economics in play round the world.
Take, for example, the fate of many a historic community newspaper: gobbled up by Postmedia or Metroland, gutted by a head office interested only in profits, then killed as soon as those disappear in the absence of any real investment. It’s happening across Canada, across the United States, across the world.
What makes local journalism so hard to sustain? Huge monopolies, those that operate like Postmedia, but on a larger scale: Google, Meta, Amazon. Like the internet more generally, these quicksilver empires are emptying small towns of local businesses, the places that advertise in the local papers. And with the businesses go the jobs.
Without a local paper, a County Council cannot really operate effectively; nobody knows what is on the agenda. While Shire Hall makes its operations pretty transparent — agendas and minutes are online, and every member of this community is welcome to attend almost any meeting, either in person or by watching a recording of the procedures — following up an issue takes work. It takes research. It takes commitment to finding out the facts, weighing different perspectives, figuring out what matters and why. The players, the backstory, the consequences. Following a story, like following a community, week in, week out is a big undertaking. It’s also a fascinating one. For sure, a dream job.
A newspaper, or two — you can’t have too many really — is a key part of civic government, and an essential part of a democratic community. That this newspaper came up for sale here, in this County, is a crucial part of the story. This is a place where the local culture is a thriving, varied, multifaceted, historic thing. What makes the County such a terrific place to live is precisely its sense of place. In the face of global forces trying to gut that very sense of life, the County is holding strong.
Why did we buy the local paper? Because we couldn’t imagine living in a town without one.
-Karen Valihora and Chris Fanning, Publishers