Victoria’s newspaper box debate shows new challenges for local Canadian media

On July 18, Kate Korte was in the middle of editing her coverage of a protest demanding a government response to increasing overdose deaths in British Columbia when she got a flood of texts from friends and colleagues.

“People were messaging me, [asking], ‘Do you know about this motion? What’s going on with the city?’” Korte told The Pigeon in an interview.

Korte, editor-in-chief of The Martlet, the University of Victoria (UVIC) student paper, had no idea what they meant.

After finding coverage from local outlets online, she learned that Victoria City Council had received a complaint from the Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) and intended to vote to remove newspaper boxes from city streets.

“I read the coverage of it in other outlets,” Korte explained. “That’s how I found out [about the motion], which was pretty disheartening—just to not be informed.”

In a city council meeting on Aug. 6, Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe jointly filed a motion to remove newspaper boxes from city-owned property, mainly sidewalks.

“With use of the internet and libraries, these boxes are no longer needed and most are often empty or filled with garbage,” the motion explained. “The boxes clutter our downtown streets and detract from a high-quality public realm.”

The motion was postponed until Sept. 3, to be heard in the committee of the whole meeting.

While this issue between newspaper distributors and city officials might be specific to Victoria, it reflects wider perceptions about the dwindling role of physical newspapers in other communities. With the growing accessibility of online news, should print distribution still be a priority?

Photos submitted to Victoria City Council. Photos courtesy of: the Downtown Victoria Business Association

Jeff Bray, executive director of the DVBA, says that public newspaper boxes have been an issue for quite some time.

“Some of our members [reached] out to us saying, ‘Can we do something about this?’” Bray said. “Some of those boxes are no longer used by the original publisher [and] they are sort of left to kind of decay. People toss their garbage in there and so they’ve become unsightly.”

The DVBA acts as an advocacy group for downtown Victoria businesses and works to “improve the lines of communication between businesses, the community at large, and the City of Victoria’s council and staff.”

This includes informing the City of Victoria about business owners’ concerns about public spaces, bylaws, and other issues in the downtown core.

In his original letter to the Victoria City Council, Bray wrote that newspaper publishers “pay no fees to allow the sidewalk clutter (unlike sandwich board signs and other regulated street installations) and rarely maintain the pick-up boxes.”

Bray wrote to the council without consulting any local newspaper companies beforehand. Once the municipal motion was published, Bray said publishers and distributors reached out to him to start a dialogue.

“We heard from some of the publishers who obviously had some concerns—the idea was not to penalize anybody,” he said. “What we’ve come up with is something that we think might be a good way forward.”

This proposed compromise between the DVBA and newspaper box owners includes auditing the downtown core’s newspaper boxes, recycling any that aren’t in use to potentially reduce the overall number of boxes, and more frequently maintaining the cleanliness of those remaining.

Bray said this situation has opened his eyes to the needs of local newspaper publishers.

“When these [issues] get raised, you learn different perspectives,” he said. “I think we’ve got a very reasonable solution that, at the end of the day, should benefit everybody.”

“The community newspapers [are] there for profit, but they also provide a community service.”

Despite being a university paper, The Martlet serves a readership that extends beyond campus boundaries. Their distribution stretches across areas of the Capital Regional District, including Victoria and Saanich, another municipality.

The paper’s news section looks at off-campus issues too with recent coverage of municipal issues like homelessness, the Black Lives Matter movement, and access to personal protective equipment (PPE).

Although The Martlet has a website and various social media pages where stories are shared, Korte said the paper relies heavily on its print distribution for both advertising income and readership.

“I think there’s a general assumption that online news is more equitable. But with a small paper, you have a small reach on social media sites,” she said. “We’re not reaching our community as well as we used to when print was the main way people got their news.”

While social media is becoming increasingly used to access news, bigger publishers have an advantage over smaller, more local ones. In order to reach readers digitally, Korte and her team must compete with countless other social media pages to be seen.

“[Search engine optimization] and the social media algorithms are going to be big barriers going forward for us in making sure our content reaches the UVIC community,” Korte said.

Digital barriers aren’t the only things keeping The Martlet from going all-in online. Print news distribution has its benefits to readers.

“Aside from the people who just generally love to flip through the paper with a cup of coffee and enjoy it for the nostalgia purposes, there are people who rely on that form of news,” Korte explained.

This includes elderly residents who aren’t comfortable with technology, as well as lower-income Victorians that may not have reliable internet access. 

Sidewalk newspaper boxes are valued by The Martlet’s readers and by the paper’s staff itself. Aside from the revenue The Martlet earns by printing advertisements, the publication has staff dedicated to the printing and distribution process.

Design director Darian Lee puts together all of The Martlet’s print issues, four employees distribute printed papers, and another contractor maintains boxes under the direction of business manager Draven Clemah.

Without the paper’s print edition, these student and volunteer employees would lose valuable professional experience.

“One of the things with the motion that was brought up was that it was implied […] that we don’t take responsibility or we don’t manage the boxes. And that’s certainly not the case,” Korte said. “We have multiple people in charge of distribution and they really take pride in that job.”

“We also have a team that really just loves those paper copies. There’s something about seeing your name in print that matters a lot to writers.”

Korte noted that COVID-19 has further restricted access to news for low-income and homeless residents in Victoria as libraries have been closed, making it harder to use public computers or pick up free copies of the newspaper.

Many national news outlets, like the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, charge readers for access to digital and print content, whereas local news is often free. For some Victorians, free newspapers are the most accessible way of staying up-to-date on COVID-19 news.

“The boxes were really the main place where we could distribute our news to our communities [during COVID-19],” Korte said. “It’s funny and a bit ironic that this motion came forward at this point because they’ve never been more integral in terms of the specific communities that [they] serve.”

While COVID-19 has exposed the value of local news, it has also posed new threats to the way small publishers earn revenue, highlighting existing concerns about distribution and the value of print media across Canada.

In April, a Statistics Canada survey found that 51 per cent of respondents valued local—as well as national and international—news outlets for their COVID-19 reporting.

Main source of information about COVID-19, March and April 2020. With data from Statistics Canada.

In fact, local news outlets continue to be consistently valued over their national counterparts. In the US, six in ten people say local news organizations keep their communities the most informed.

When it comes to COVID-19, local news outlets are some of the first to report regional infection rates and inform readers about municipal pandemic guidelines, which has led to an uptick in small newspaper readership.

Despite this new reliance on regional reporting, the pandemic caused several local news organizations to shutter due to loss of key advertising revenue. By late April, 48 community newspapers were reportedly forced to close because of COVID-19.

The idea that local news organizations and the print media they so often rely on are dying is not a new one. However, advocates for local news argue that accelerating this decline by making physical newspapers less accessible will only serve to harm an already vulnerable industry.

In a report published by the both the Ryerson School of Journalism’s Local News Research Project and the National NewsMedia Council, researchers found that the idea that local news is dying has only worsened small papers’ struggles.

“One of the most common challenges cited was the need to defend the relevance and viability of small-market newspapers,” the report reads. “The perception that their print product is in its death throes was identified as a major hurdle in and of itself.”

This perception can be found in Victoria, as Mayor Helps and Councillor Thorton-Joe’s motion to remove newspaper boxes from sidewalks comes with the assumption that the internet and libraries have replaced the need for local print news.

When municipal advocates themselves have a poor understanding of local publishers and believe that forms of print newspaper distribution “are no longer needed,” Korte worries it speaks to a lack of knowledge about what the community values.

“I don’t think that [Mayor Helps and Councillor Thornton-Joe] brought this motion forward out of malintent or didn’t inform me before out of malintent,” she said. “It might have just been a case where they didn’t know that we were still producing papers and that we were still providing that valuable service to the community.”

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