Technology breeds more competitors, but newspapers are still valuable to the communities they serve

Oct. 1-7 is National Newspaper Week and, while the newspaper industry has a vested interest in promoting itself, there are a lot of reasons why newspapers should be considered important by anyone who thinks that the exchange of accurate, fact-based information is a benefit, not only for democracy but for society in general.

News consumers often assume that news is “free” because they can access multiple sources for news on the internet and social media and, with some exceptions, they don’t have to pay to read the articles. But the truth is, it isn’t free. Gathering, assessing and explaining that information is a full-time job and, generally speaking, the people who are doing it are not in it primarily for the money.

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On the local level, a city or town’s newspaper not only provides a place for people to learn about important local issues but also a place for them to spread the word about their own events and organizations through advertising. And although the internet and social media also provide people a way to advertise, often for free, there are vital differences between Facebook or Google and the publication you’re reading right now, and those differences include people and content.

This newspaper employs seven full- and part-time employees in Thompson, all of whom pay rent or mortgage payments and property taxes, buy their groceries from local supermarkets, their gas from local gas stations and participate in the community’s economy. They also run their own home-based businesses, pay fees to sports organizations for their children and generally have a stake in Thompson’s future.

On the editorial side, we cover events that would not otherwise be covered, though some may be picked up by other news outlets after first being published here. We get municipal, provincial and federal government officials to explain programs and services that affect the people living here, and we publicize the achievements of Thompsonites, whether they’re excelling on the sports stage outside of the city, helping develop better treatments for serious diseases, or simply picking up garbage around town to try to make their community a cleaner-looking place.

Internet behemoths like Google and Facebook however, are headquartered in California and the money they receive from taking paid advertisements targeting people in a particular geographic location – like Thompson, for instance – does not recirculate in the local economy or even within Canada. Furthermore, for the most part, those companies do not provide any original content. It doesn’t matter to them if you’re learning about your community or watching a cat video, all of which were provided by users, whether they are residents posting about what they see outside their house or companies like BuzzFeed providing everything from listicles to traditional journalism about national topics of interest.

Unlike some providers of information, newspapers follow rules when it comes to what they publish. We give people and organizations a chance to respond to allegations against them, we don’t uncritically publish content from other sources without taking steps to verify if it’s true and if you have a complaint about something we print or an idea for something you’d like us to, you can find us in a building in your town, where we will listen to your concerns and, in a lot of cases, follow up on your story ideas. We serve the community and are also a part of it. And without us, there’d be one fewer independent organization keeping an eye on city council, the school board, your provincial and federal representatives and anything else of local interest.

People sometimes say when newspapers shut down that they’ve been slow to adapt or that it doesn’t matter, because they will be able to get the same news elsewhere. But the Thompson Citizen and Nickel Belt News have twice as many employees dedicated to collecting, interpreting and disseminating local news than any other media organization in the city, which enables us to produce material that you won’t find anywhere else, at least until after we’ve posted it online. And unlike major cities in Canada and other countries around the world, Thompson can’t count on its issues being discussed in national news stories or even our own province’s biggest city unless they are sensational, which property tax increases and water bill rates and high school sports generally aren’t. Newspapers play an important role for the communities on which they focus and are accountable to them, unlike internet publishers who need Google Maps just to find out where places like Thompson are. In an era in which it requires no more than a few clicks to publish information that exploits divisions and plays on people’s fears and anxieties, the responsible and granular coverage that newspapers provide their readers may be “free” but is still incredibly valuable.

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