My first connection to New Westminster was the local newspaper.
I worked for it.
When the 1990 recession punted me from my job in Ontario, I headed west where, I was assured, there was plenty of opportunity in the burgeoning community newspapers around the Lower Mainland.
I’d been to Vancouver, for Expo 86, and I knew of the senior lacrosse teams from New Westminster and Coquitlam, who perennially battled for the Mann Cup against the Brooklin Redmen, one of the teams I covered while working at a paper in nearby Oshawa.
But I really had no concept of what a New Westminster, or a Burnaby or a Richmond or a Port Moody was.
So when one of my first assignments with the Metrovalley group of papers sent me to New West to shoot a story about backyard trampolining, I spent a little time exploring. I was immediately enchanted by the old homes and leafy streets of Queen’s Park, the bustling uptown where a giant hole would become a new urban mall, the waterfront. I had a good feeling about this burgh.
Between subsequent assignments in New West, I drove around looking for vacancy signs in front of apartment buildings. I scanned the classifieds for rentals.
To learn a little more about what made New West tick, what the community offered, I read the stories written by my colleagues. And, of course, I covered some of them myself. I quickly learned about the good parts of town, the areas to avoid.
A couple weeks later, I paid a deposit on a one-bedroom apartment in a little walk-up on the edge of Queen’s Park. I stayed there 18 years before moving to the Quay.
In October, the New West NewsLeader closed, another casualty in the malaise that is gutting newsrooms and shuttering papers across North America. In fact about 30 newspapers have closed in British Columbia since 2010, according to a running count being kept by a web producer at Global News. More are likely imminent.
The media landscape is shifting.
The consolidation and closure of newspapers used to be the subject for government commissions. Now they’re greeted by shrugged shoulders. And then everyone turns back to their Facebook feed on their smartphone.
Much of the newspaper industry’s current pain is self-inflicted. Ownership got complacent on fat profit margins, on being the only game in town. They didn’t want to, or were incapable of, coming to terms with the digital revolution, with Google and Craigslist and eBay.
Nobody’s holding tag days for closed newspapers. (Although in Guelph loyal subscribers of the city’s daily, The Mercury, did gather to hug the paper’s building when its closure was announced) Some say our demise is just part of the evolution of how we consume information; nobody wants to read yesterday’s news printed on dead trees anymore when the instant gratification of a Twitter feed is a few finger taps away.
But we should worry.
Newspapers, for all their diminished resources and cumbersome delivery model are still the primary source for much of the information we consume about our community. Day in, day out, week in, week out, they do the grunt work of covering local government and calling the cop shop. They’re our eyes and ears when we can’t be everywhere. A good newspaper not only tells the community it covers what is going on but also provides context; why should we care? who will be affected? Its pages are a barometer of what’s important to a community.
A newspaper reflects the elements of community we value, the events that bring us together, how we respond when the going gets tough. It celebrates a community’s heroes and everyday champions. It introduces us to the characters who give character to a community. It gives voice to those who might not otherwise be heard.
A newspaper can bring us into parts of the community we might not see. Its stories connect us to our neighbours down the street or on the other side of town.
An illuminating quote, a lovely photo can make us smile. A provocative editorial can spark conversation.
Even the ads are a snapshot of a community’s economic vitality. Or lack of it.
A community’s newspaper is its organic, real-time archive. Who prints out and saves articles from a website? But clippings of stories and photos from the newspaper are likely taped and pinned to refrigerators and bulletin boards. They’re pasted into scrapbooks. Sometimes they’re sent to grandma.
To read a newspaper regularly is to experience a community’s evolution as it’s happening, its changing landscape, economy, identity.
A newspaper is our connection to the community in which we live, work, play. It gives the community a dimension beyond just the people we interact with, the places we frequent. It’s one we can count on, moreso than a fickle Twitter hashtag or gossipy Facebook group.
So next time we yawn at the news another community has lost its newspaper, we must consider what else is being lost beyond jobs and one less bundle to carry out for recycling.
Mario Bartel covered New Westminster for 24.5 of the New West NewsLeader’s 26 years until it closed in October. He’ll be speaking about the importance of local newspapers at PechaKucha New West #10, on Feb. 27 at the River Market.