Local News 2.0: The Thorold News, The Niagara Independent, The Voice of Pelham

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Despite, or perhaps because of the current climate in local news, independent news providers in Ontario’s Niagara region are working to fill gaps in their local coverage by launching new publications and adopting new business models.

After 14 years, Bob Liddycoat and his wife Cathy Pelletier relaunched the Thorold News as a digital-only publication.

“People have been asking me for years to come back, and I thought the time was right,” said Liddycoat, a former managing editor of the now deceased Dunnville Chronicle.

Liddycoat and Pelletier have a long history of covering local news in the region — and doing it well. From 1998 until he and his then co-owner sold the paper in 2004, the Thorold News won 19 OCNA and CCNA awards, said Liddycoat.

The new Thorold News now enjoys success in its own right, thanks in part to Liddycoat’s two decades of web experience and regular engagement on social media. “Our readership is higher than it ever was in print.”

As for going back to a printed edition, Liddycoat is resolute. “Some people still want to hold [the news] in their hand, but I don’t want to invest in dead technology.”

Kevin Vallier was commuting from Niagara to Toronto for his public relations job when he decided to launch the Niagara Independent.

“I feel like a salmon swimming upstream,” said Vallier of his decision to leave a relatively steady PR career and enter the world of local news. While we increasingly hear of people moving in the opposite direction, Vallier went against the current and launched the digital publication two months ago.

Vallier believes other papers in the Niagara region already cover breaking news well, but he launched the Independent to focus on the business and political perspectives that he believes were missing in the local coverage, such as the impact of rising minimum wage on local businesses.

His goal for the paper is to feature “good articles and good opinion pieces that not everybody will agree with but hopefully will create some respectful dialogue on important issues.”

But the former PR professional has learned that’s not always the case. “You learn to get a thick skin quick,” said Vallier on writing during an election season. Fortunately, Vallier says he has also had a lot of positive feedback on the publication.

“Niagara’s a great community and there’s a lot of really smart people who are tuned into the issues,” said Vallier.

The Voice of Pelham is also testament to that fact. The printed paper has been covering local issues since 1997, when it, too, sought to fill a gap in local coverage left by the closure of a longstanding weekly.

“Each [Pelham] resident chipped in $1,000, and with this original $50,000 The Voice was born,” said David Burket on how the paper got its start.

It now prints 16–20 page issues and was recently awarded Second Place for Best Investigative News Story (2017) in OCNA’s Better Newspaper Competition, which Burket attributes to the paper’s independence, or more precisely, their freedom to print longer investigative pieces and long-form interviews compared to corporate-owned publications.

Each of the publications take pride in their independence and ability to cover and deliver local news differently, but all of them actively use social media to share stories — some with more enthusiasm than others.

“The current news climate in Niagara, as with the nation and world, is an increased reliance on social-media-modelled coverage, on short pieces, listicles, video, and reader/user opinion,” said Burket. “I’ve never been a fan of vox-pop, an aversion that extends to Twitter — its worst manifestation so far — and online commenting.”

Despite Burket’s distaste for the popular platforms, the paper reluctantly uses them. “We post links to most of our main stories on Facebook and Twitter out of necessity — that’s where so many readers are — not by choice.”

The Voice, however, is willing to embrace change on the business side of things with a new “Membership Benefits Program.”

While the Thorold News relies on sponsors — most of their advertisers don’t necessarily need to promote their business but want to support community news — the Voice of Pelham started a voluntary membership campaign at the end of last year to support the publication.

Modelled on “the PBS approach in the States, minus the pledge drives” said Burket, the Voice offers subscribing members various “enrollment gifts,” including gift cards to local businesses, a high-res PDF version of the paper, and “the explicit satisfaction of helping a community newspaper continue to report on its community.”

And isn’t that priceless?

(The Voice of Pelham is currently seeking to fill a full-time staff writer position that “entails no social media involvement!” Visit http://www.thevoiceofpelham.ca/ to learn more about the publication and for contact information.)

Cara Sabatini is an outreach co-ordinator with the National NewsMedia Council of Canada.

This story was edited by: Brent Jolly, editor, Acts of Journalism. He can be reached at: bjolly@mediacouncil.ca

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