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The future of community journalism

Retired editor of The Taber Times, Coleen Campbell spent four decades working at some of Alberta's 124 community papers.

 On an April day in 1999, a teenager armed with a sawed-off rifle walked into W.R. Myers High School in Taber, Alta. and opened fire, killing one boy and injuring another. The tragedy traumatized the agricultural community of 8,000 and, because it happened days after the Columbine High School shooting, an onslaught of international media attention focused on Taber.

Coleen Campbell (JA '75) was the publisher of The Taber Times, but says covering the big story wasn't her highest priority that day. "One of my employees gets a call at work. Her son was shot. My place was with her," Campbell says. "I took her to the hospital and we waited for her husband and the ambulance with her son to arrive. Luckily, their son survived his injuries."

Later that night Campbell returned to the newsroom to coordinate coverage of the shooting. "After all the chaos of the day, I met with my staff and we decided to put out a special edition." The next issue of The Times wasn't due for another week, but Campbell says that was too long to wait. Two days later, the issue, entitled "Hope and Healing," came out. It focused on helping residents cope and included information about grief counselling and other services.

An unexpected career

Campbell says her paper's response is an example of the important role small-town newspapers play in people's lives. Recently retired, Campbell dedicated her entire career — a little over four decades — to community press in southern Alberta.

It wasn't the career she expected. Campbell says the unwritten rule for new journalists is: you pay your dues in a small town, then move to a bigger city with a daily, then to a bigger one. "I landed a job as a reporter at The Taber Times right after graduating. I remember driving into Taber and thinking, 'I'll give it one year,'" she says with a smile.

It didn't quite work out that way.

"When you work at a community paper you do a bit of everything," says Campbell. "I covered the stories and wrote the news, I was a photographer and proofreader. I co-ordinated the 4-H news and the social page. My desk was near the front of the office so I was even the part-time receptionist."

After two years, Campbell moved to ad sales, then assistant manager. Eventually she became publisher of The Times and a number of other papers in Coaldale, Vauxhall, Bow Island and Saskatchewan. She also held a senior position with The Lethbridge Herald.

She's seen big changes in an industry where readers left papers to get their news for free on the internet. The drop in readership resulted in a drop in ad revenue including classified ads, which suffered because of free online services like Kijiji. The result has been huge job cuts at newspapers.

But Campbell says cuts haven't been quite so deep in community papers. "We were never 'fat cats' like the dailies. To this day the reporters still do a bit of everything, including taking all the pictures and laying out the paper." She says the strong suit of the community press is that they remain the best — and often the only — source of local news.

Hyper local coverage

Don Patterson, editor of The Okotoks Western Wheel.

Two hours north of Taber, Don Patterson (JA '04) remains on the front line of the news business. He started his career as a reporter in High River and is now the editor of The Okotoks Western Wheel. He agrees with Campbell that the strength of community newspapers lies in their hyper-local coverage.

"People who live here aren't going to find the local news coverage with the same frequency and depth in Calgary media that they find in a paper like The Western Wheel," says Patterson. "We cover all the surrounding town councils and sports like the Okotoks Dawgs baseball team. Another of our strengths is that we cover how the community comes together when disaster strikes. We tell stories about how people rally together and help families in trouble."

And The Western Wheel has expanded how they can tell those stories by launching a glossy magazine called The Okotokian.

"My bosses said we could pull back or we could grow. We decided to grow," says Patterson. He adds that, while his paper remains the main vehicle for news, The Western Wheel's website and social media are gaining ground.

"This is a young community and a lot of people turn to our website and Facebook page for local news," says Patterson. "We've started to post stories every day and not wait for our weekly paper to come out."

Engaging audiences online

Jim Cunningham, a SAIT journalism instructor, believes community newspapers have an advantage financially because they remain the best place for local businesses to advertise. Still, he says, The Western Wheel's social media strategy is a smart — and necessary — one.

"Community papers need to keep an eye on social media and engage with their audiences online as people start up informal groups to exchange information on Facebook and other platforms," he says. "Online and in print, community newspapers will remain strong as long as people see them as the most important and accurate source of information."

Coleen Campbell doubts newspapers in small towns will be usurped by social media, but she agrees that, like The Western Wheel, they must increase their digital presence.

"Five years ago, rural communities couldn't get internet service," she recalls. "There was no competition there. Nobody was advertising there. However, that has changed. Facebook has changed that. Our industry's five year head-start is up."

Campbell says her former paper will need to increase its focus on social media and its website — likely without adding staff — in order to keep up with consumer demand.

A smart career path

Another challenge for weekly newspapers is that the typical first step on today's journalism career path is shifting away from dailies and towards business and government communications jobs. At the same time, Cunningham says, the number of jobs at community papers has remained stable.

"Community newspapers have become more of a career choice and in many respects that's good. It means people like Don Patterson can stay in a community and make a real contribution, rather than leaving after a couple of years and taking with them all the understanding of local issues accumulated while living and working in the town," he says.

It's a career path Coleen Campbell knows is still a smart choice.

"Working as a reporter for a community newspaper isn't going to make you rich," Campbell says. "But it's a good place to work if you're passionate about storytelling."

She adds, "I stayed in this industry and within The Taber Times group of newspapers because many new career opportunities kept coming my way."

Written by Eric Rosenbaum
Photos by Rod Leland and Eric Rosenbaum