When all you know is the hustle and bustle of big city journalism, small town journalism can seem underwhelming. At initial glance, things appear insignificant. After all, what kind of meaningful stories could possibly be hiding in a small town three hours away from Toronto? But as it turns out, the answer is many.
I had the privilege of being able to work as a reporter and photographer for a small-town newspaper and magazine publication in Haliburton, Ontario. One of the only newspaper establishments in the county, locals and cottagers depend on them for information that affects their area that covers a whopping four hectares of land.
The county is home to dozens of rivers and lakes with dense landscapes full of trees. The average age of a resident is 52 years old, who are often retirees who have settled in the area looking towards decades of relaxing by the cottage. In a place that only has 18,000 permanent residents, you quickly learn that word gets around.
An average day at the Haliburton Echo office during the summer, its busiest time of the year, sees five reporters mill in and out according to their schedule. Some days are slow. When the biggest news is an update on how bear sighting reports are down from this time last year, reporters really have to think creatively on how to bring fresh, relevant information to readers. Some days are packed with event after event – whether it’s a charity fundraiser or a council meeting, people in small towns find ways to keep themselves busy.
What struck me about writing for a smaller publication is that their intended audience actually read each week’s paper. Like clockwork, when their copy of the Echo or The Minden Times greets their doorstep, you know it’ll be picked up and read through. You’re never left wondering if your article is floating into the void, never being read by a fresh pair of eyes.
If a mistake has been made, people won’t hesitate to let the paper know they saw it. An email arrived in my inbox one day, pointing out how egregious an error I made - I had forgotten to include the date of an upcoming event! Although a rookie mistake for a journalist, this is the place to do it - the townspeople leave room for reporters to be human and make small slip ups every once and awhile.
If someone has an idea for a story, people don’t shy away from pitching it to a reporter. A feature I wrote about a community initiative relating to eastern bluebirds was pitched to me by a local resident. After working with him to connect with other sources and grow the story, it became a happy, feel-good article that many residents enjoyed.
In Haliburton, so many creative avenues exist for reporters to explore and bring new perspective to readers. A handy advantage I had from living and reporting in the city was my new experience and outlook brought an edge into the newsroom. I wondered: Could Haliburton County be self-sustaining? What was the dating scene like? Questions I pondered were encouraged by staff and turned into full fledged stories with their support.
What was absent was the fast-paced attitude that big cities like Toronto tend to project. Gone was the write-it-and-forget-it attitude that can be prevalent amongst reporters, where written stories quickly become forgotten despite their positive or negative impact on the subject. In fact, often when a story was written, you could bet on the chances of someone coming up to you and explaining how they felt about it. In was the sense of community and kinship – locals know reporters by name, and are welcomed almost anywhere they go.
Residents welcome their local newspaper outlets because they can participate in them. Letters to the editor are published weekly, and people often look forward to the editorial written by a member of staff each week, which can be a start of discussion for readers in town. Contributors are welcome and are in no short supply – people ranging anywhere from politics to arts and culture tend to write for the paper and help keeps things fresh.
Even accounting for all of its bright sides, small town journalism still has its pitfalls. If reporters and editors aren’t being careful, they can end up with a week’s worth of promos and feature stories with no hard news attached. With a small team, innovation isn’t a priority when all readers are accustomed to receiving their news in plain text and reckon it stays that way. You won’t be hard-pressed to incorporate multimedia components to articles if most of your audience won’t know how to navigate it!
But people notice local journalism because it’s felt throughout the county. A negative article on an establishment tarnishes their local reputation, while a promising look into a new service can kick start a budding business. Feature articles on local residents are often shared throughout the town, in celebration of that person’s success and achievements. If a local needs help with promoting an event, the newspaper is often the first to hear from them. And the paper’s Facebook page is often a small hub for residents to discuss local affairs and politics, in a way anyone is able to join.
If anything, small-town journalism is what helps keep print alive. It allows the reporter to directly engage with their community and have the ability to acutely live through the consequences of their words and platform. A reporter innately has a career that comes with looking from the outside in. But in small town journalism, the gap is closed just a tad bit more, adding a layer of connection that isn’t always felt in big city journalism.
Through my experience, I felt like my work mattered and directly had an impact on peoples’ lives. And there’s no greater satisfaction for a journalist than that.