The front page of the Jan. 3 issue of the Eganville Leader contained an editorial by its owner, Gerald Tracey, entitled “Newspapers facing an uncertain future in the face of changes.” The uncertainty referred to reflects pressure created by increasing competition for advertising dollars. This theme was also a focus during a panel discussion held at Champlain Trail Museum and Pioneer Village on January 22. The subject was Newspapers: Our community link and the panelists, in addition to Tracey, were Marie Zettler, once editor of the former Cobden Sun, and Sean Chase, formerly reporter at the former Pembroke Daily Observer.
After being introduced by emcee Fred Blackstein, Tracey commenced by telling the audience about the history of the Leader which began in 1902 and which has been owned by his family for the past 88 years. He described it as being unique in Canada because it has a weekly print run of 6,500 copies but is based in a town with a population of only 1,300. He read from the Leader’s first editorial published in 1902 describing what the newspaper wished to accomplish, which included the aim of being “bold enough to be honest and honest enough to be bold.”
He went on to discuss the economics of newspaper publishing in today’s social media environment.
Facebook and Google are taking away our advertising dollars.
He said corporations are buying up community newspapers and turning them into flyer wraps, citing the Renfrew Mercury as the most recent newspaper to lose its local content. Tracey said they therefore are no longer community newspapers because corporations “took the soul out of the community.”
Blackstein then introduced Sean Chase who reminisced about his journalistic career spanning 23 years working for the Petawawa Messenger, Pembroke Daily News and Pembroke Observer. He also discussed the impact of social media. He gave as an example of the sort of irresponsible reporting that can happen by referring to a reporter attending the scene of an accident and immediately posting a photograph on social media. He said this created the risk that family members of victims might suffer unnecessary anxiety before officials could confirm the facts.
Chase identified three critical roles played by community newspapers:
- They reflect community life, our civic life. Through words and photos they capture milestones, celebrations, events, graduations, and chronicling the passing of prominent citizens. They also give small events their fifteen minutes of fame.
- They play an important role in affecting public policy such as education systems, infrastructure and community safety. They also hold governments accountable to the people and in a lot of ways they’ll drive how tax dollars are spent.
- They provide a definitive record of community history as any local historian or genealogist can attest from spending many hours researching old newspapers on microfilm.
Lastly, Zettler shared many examples of her work experiences. One story she said that helped to inform public policy concerned the underwater cave system at Big Bend on the Ottawa River. Although divers knew about them, it was a well-kept local secret that the cave network stretched under the Westmeath Peninsula at both LaPasse and Westmeath. When the area was named as a possible location for a new landfill site, she brought the story to light and shortly afterwards the area was removed from the potential sites.
The next talk at Champlain Trail Museum and Pioneer Village in Pembroke will take place on Saturday, February 2 at 2 p.m. when Conrad Boyce of Whitewater Region will speak about “Big Mike Heney, the Irish Prince of Stonecliff … How a Valley lad became one of the Continent’s great Railway Builders.”
Featured photo from left: Sean Chase, Marie Zettler, Gerald Tracey holding examples of their published work.