We should have known 2020 was going to be a bad year from the get-go. In the first week of January, residents of Hinton, Edson and Lacombe learned their local newspapers were closing. The Hinton Parklander had been in business for more than 60 years, the Lacombe Globe and Edson Leader each for more than 100. “It’s a huge shock and a huge blow to the community,” said Edson Mayor Kevin Zahara who pointed to the unique role community newspapers play. “We have social media nowadays, and digital media platforms are playing a larger role. But there’s still a lot of people that like that weekly newspaper, and they’ve been an institution for our community.”
As if communities don’t have enough to deal with, losing a local newspaper is a particularly hard blow. The local newspaper helps a community define itself, encourage itself, and promote itself. Who else will cover the high school convocation or the hours-long council debate or celebrate a local business opening? When your community newspaper shuts down, your community loses a cultural and commercial hub — and will have more difficulty planning for the future. Your newspaper should be the place where wise, informed, and respectful discussions about challenges and ideas occur. In communities finding success, the local newspaper is often the place that instigates and facilitates reasoned community-wide discussions about the future. If the paper disappears, coffee-shop gossip takes over and that’s rarely a font of information, knowledge or truth.
The disappearance of local newspapers is yet another sign our communities are in trouble. You might be confident your community is doing fine but appearances can be deceiving. Most of our rural communities are suffering from population decline and a loss of businesses. That trend leads to a shrinking tax base with less money to spend on infrastructure and services. That in turn drives more people and businesses out of town. Thus begins the vicious cycle that undermines your community’s future.
If you want a future, you must build it. Therein lies a problem. Many people spend too much of their energy lamenting their predicament, claiming the future is not going to be better, or arguing that even if it could be better, it will happen somewhere else. Those folks are declaring defeat before they even try. That attitude sabotages success and kills communities. The world is changing dramatically and communities must be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities those changes will present.
You need to be creative and bold. Frankly, your community needs to rediscover a little of that risk-taking attitude displayed by our forebears who built our communities in the first place. You have all the tools and resources you need, and far more than they had. You just need to get up, dust off your doubts, and realize your community is worth saving. A strong community means your families can take care of themselves and each other, and that is the foundation on which we built a strong nation.
Often, we think everything will be okay if we can just get the mine or the mill to reopen. It probably would be fine, at least until it closes again. Your community is not dead because the mill or mine, or another major employer, shuttered. itself. It is not dead because the chamber of commerce closed its doors, or because a volunteer organization folded, or because the playground equipment is old. At least, it isn’t dead until you give up and stop looking to the future and new opportunities.
Looking to the future means acting today. That means letting go of outdated priorities but it does not mean abandoning everything from our past. We need to hold on to our community’s history, culture and sense of identity. We can start by helping our local newspapers survive. A recent example is the never-say-die attitude of Southern Alberta Newspapers. In April, as more and more community newspapers across Canada closed, the southern Alberta newspapers group established a $1.9-million Community Marketing Grant program to help local businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic. The group set up the fund to provide matching dollar-for-dollar grants to business owners to advertise in local newspapers, thereby helping both newspapers and businesses.
Rural communities and local newspapers have a lot in common, often being dismissed as relics of the past with questionable futures. But they can survive and flourish through a combination of hard work, innovation and a refusal to accept the status quo.