Friday December 01, 2017

Uncovering corruption: The stories we'll miss when local newspapers are gone

A man hurries past free newspapers stacked for commuters to take at Canary Wharf underground tube station in London, Britain, March 14, 2017.

A man hurries past free newspapers stacked for commuters to take at Canary Wharf underground tube station in London, Britain, March 14, 2017. (Russell Boyce/Reuters)

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Communities across Canada were left reeling on Monday as Postmedia and Torstar announced plans to shut down more than 30 small papers across Ontario, in addition to one in Winnipeg and another in Vancouver.

The reporters who showed up at work that morning — some after decades-long careers — found the lights turned off and the office doors locked.

"There's going to be a lot of history that's not written." - Chip Martin, former reporter and columnist, London Free Press

Many of the papers they worked for, including the St. Marys Journal-Argus and the Orillia Packet and Times, had been in operation since the 1800s.

"People are shocked in Orillia," regional newspaper editor Nathan Taylor told As it Happens host Carol Off on Monday.

"We're going to work every day … thinking about what's happening today, and what we're going to put in the paper tomorrow. So there was really no way to prepare for something like this."

Roughly 290 people will lose their jobs as a result of this week's shutdowns. But veteran reporters warn that the communities they served stand to lose a great deal more.

                   

Local stories, national acclaim

Chip Martin knows what's at stake as small newspapers close their doors in droves.

Chip Martin, columnist and reporter, London Free Press

London Free Press columnist Chip Martin says many stories simply won't be told in communities whose newspapers are shuttered. (Craig Glover)

Martin, a retired reporter-turned-columnist with the London Free Press in London, Ont., worked with his community's newspaper for 41 years.

In 2012, Martin broke a national story when he reported on the questionable financial dealings of then-London mayor Joe Fontana.

Martin's reporting revealed that Fontana had used federal funds to help pay for his son's wedding reception in 2005, while Fontana was a Liberal MP and cabinet minister.

The story sparked an RCMP investigation. In 2014, Fontana was convicted of fraud, forgery and breach of trust. He resigned from his post as London mayor shortly thereafter.

Martin agrees that the loss of yet more community newspapers across Canada will have a real impact on the stories that are — or are not — uncovered.

"With fewer papers, there's fewer opportunities for this sort of thing to happen."

As a historian, he worries what that will mean for future researchers.

"You see it talked about in journalism, 'it's the first draft of history'. Well, there's going to be a lot of history that's not written."

London Free Press print newspaper report of Joe Fontana guilty verdict

The London Free Press announces then-mayor Joe Fontana's conviction on charges of fraud, forgery and breach of trust in 2014. (Chip Martin)

                                   

Shining light on government failures

Gillian Slade is a reporter with the Medicine Hat News in Medicine Hat, AB.

In 2010, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award after she uncovered flaws in the provincial government's response to a major flooding disaster that devastated her community in June of that year.

Medicine Hat 2010 flood investigation, Gillian Slade

Gillian Slade's investigation of the Alberta government's disaster relief program on the front page of the Medicine Hat News on Nov. 6, 2010. (Gillian Slade)

Slade started digging for details about the Alberta government's Disaster Relief Program after getting calls from local residents who were struggling to obtain government help in the wake of the flood.

"If it hadn't been for the newspaper, and my availability to cover the story and to dig down and find the truth, I don't think it would have been uncovered." - Gillian Slade, Medicine Hat News

Slade's investigation revealed that the program had been contracted out to a private company run by former government officials. That company was receiving millions of dollars in administrative fees despite its poor handling of the disaster.

Like Martin, Slade worries important stories will be missed if local newspapers aren't there to cover them.

"If it hadn't been for the newspaper, and my availability to cover the story and to dig down and find the truth, I don't think it would have been uncovered."

Gillian Slade, Medicine Hat News, Alberta

Reporter Gillian Slade earned a National Newspaper Award nomination in 2010 for her investigation of a flooding crisis in Medicine Hat, AB. (Gillian Slade)

To hear Chip Martin and Gillian Slade tell the stories of their nationally-acclaimed investigations, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.