Putting our communities back in the newspapers

This is one of many famous Herald headlines, this one describing the Halifax Explosion of Dec. 6, 1917.

In 1874, 18-year-old William Dennis ponied up $50 to buy one share of the fledging Morning Herald, which published its first edition on January 14 of that year. Dennis, a British immigrant who also toiled as a junior reporter, was one of 88 investors in the new venture. Newspaper ownership, then as now, was a risky business. Two weeks before the Herald was launched, as a Conservative party “organ”, a predecessor (the British Colonist) had ceased publication.

The Herald covered Nova Scotia through two World Wars, two health pandemics, the sinking of the Titanic, the Halifax Explosion and the discovery of offshore oil. It covered the big stories while also providing local eyes on little stories and recorded every birth and death for over a  century. Flash forward 150 years. Today, a fourth generation of the Dennis family owns the successor newspaper, The Chronicle Herald, through Sarah Dennis and her husband Mark Lever. How long they will hold on to it is an open question. The SaltWire Network, which owns the flagship Chronicle Herald and more than 20 other newspapers in Atlantic Canada, has filed for creditor protection.

From our perch in the CrowsNest, we are tempted to wax nostalgic about the Herald legacy. To point out that William Dennis, who eventually took full ownership of the Morning Herald, kept the business alive despite furious competition and a catastrophic 1912 fire that forced the newspaper to cease publication for longer than a week. The Dennis family deserved an opportunity to transform the former “grey lady of Argyle Street” into a media company that might thrive in the digital era.

Nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills, however, and for us the question of who (if anyone) will keep the Saltwire newspapers alive is less important than how well they reflect the communities where they operate. A focus on local news, on telling peoples stories (good and bad), on covering the highs and lows of local business and sports while being a mirror of the communities they serve may be an ethical and journalistic imperative. It may also be a winning business strategy.

The Atlantic Canadian newspapers which succeed despite it all (including the Inverness Oran, The Eastern Graphic and affiliated publications in PEI) are locally owned and relentlessly local in their coverage. Even if SaltWire’s bigger urban newspapers emerge all but debt free, theycan neither compete for niche audiences in a fractured media market, nor compete with The New York Times digital edition, which you can buy for $3 a month if you’re paying attention.

The best chance of future success for new (or renewed) SaltWire owners is to keep a critical eye on local governments, track important issues and display an enduring affection for the places in which they live and operate. What a relief it would be, in a vexatious era, to read local newspapers (digital or real) which celebrate their home communities as vigorously as they criticize them.

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