Public input needed to ensure survival of local journalism

According to the most recent data Albertans have the lowest level of interest in the news and current daily affairs in the country. Everyday the province’s remaining journalists are trying to change that.

Canadian Association of Journalists hosting public forum featuring Edmonton journalists

Recent layoffs at the CBC and the major newspapers in Edmonton and Calgary leave journalists struggling to hold power to account and inform readers, says journalism professor Sean Holman. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Many Albertans pay little attention to the news.

And, recently, apart from the extensive coverage of the catastrophic fires in Fort McMurray, some national news organizations seem to be paying less attention to Alberta, despite its critical role as an economic engine of Canada.

That means Albertans may be less informed and their institutions may be less scrutinized than almost anywhere else in the country.

But everyday, journalists inside and outside the mainstream media are working and, too often, struggling to hold power to account and inform the people of this province.

For those journalists to continue that important work, they need input from people like you, people who care about the news – just one of the subjects that will be discussed at J-Fest, a free public event this Friday at 7 p.m. in the Valley Room at the downtown Coast Edmonton Plaza Hotel.
J-Fest is a free public event Friday at 7 p.m. at the downtown Coast Edmonton Plaza Hotel for people who care about local news. (Provided)

According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, in 2013 just 53 per cent of Albertans said they followed the news and current affairs daily, the lowest level of interest in the country.

By comparison, 63 per cent of Quebecers are engaged consumers of news, the highest level of interest in the country.

Albertans' disinterest in news and current affairs is reflected in the circulation of their 10 daily newspapers.

The latest industry numbers from 2014 show that, on average, there was one print or digital edition of those papers circulated for every nine Albertans, the third-lowest level of distribution among the provinces.

At the same time, the resources of Alberta's Fourth Estate are on the decline.

Earlier this year, Postmedia Network Inc., Canada's largest newspaper chain, laid off 90 members of its newsrooms.

But a disproportionate 66 per cent of those pink slips were handed out at four of Alberta's biggest dailies: the Calgary Herald, the Calgary Sun, the Edmonton Journal and the Edmonton Sun.

Those layoffs came about eight months after English CBC News eliminated 144 positions as part of a plan to be "more local at a lower cost," with 37 of those jobs eliminated in Edmonton and Calgary.

The consequences of these cuts and Albertans' disinterest in the news can be as opaque as they are disturbing.

But certainly it means dozens of stories every year are untold, unseen, unheard or unread. And it means a province where problems are unknown to the many members of the public, often to the benefit of the few who wield power.

Inside stories on local journalism

Yet, everyday the province's remaining journalists are trying to change that.

At CBC News Edmonton, reporters Charles Rusnell and Jennie Russell employed freedom of information requests and other investigative journalism techniques to expose the improper use of public resources for personal and political reasons by former premier Alison Redford and her government. 

Independent Edmonton documentary filmmaker Brandy Yanchyk has used her camera lens to expose racism against immigrants inside and outside Alberta.

And, at local Edmonton magazine The Yards, journalist Omar Mouallem is covering downtown development in a unique partnership with community groups.

These four journalists will be giving you the inside scoop on their work as part of J-Fest, sponsored by by the Canadian Association of Journalists, a national organization that works to promote excellence in reporting and to protect the public's right to know.

It is an opportunity to learn more about some of Alberta's most pressing issues from some of its top reporters.

Ask them the questions you've always wanted asked. And let's talk about how we can work together to help the province's Fourth Estate better serve the public interest.
(Sean Holman)

Sean Holman spent 10 years as an investigative reporter covering British Columbia politics. Now an assistant professor of journalism at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Holman also is vice-president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.