They won't know until it's gone - Keith Roulston editorial
My age is showing again when I recall that the Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” which reminds me of the situation community newspapers find themselves in these days.
For those of you too young to remember, Joni Mitchell is a singer/songwriter from Saskatchewan, one of a number of Canadian performers from the 1960s, including Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and Buffy Sainte-Marie, who first became famous in the clubs of Toronto’s Yorkville district, then became international superstars.
“Big Yellow Taxi” is a strange song in that the reason for the title remains unfathomable through several verses of things the singer has lost, each verse ending with the chorus: “Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone, They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Finally, in the last verse, Mitchell gets to the kicker that makes the title (and point of the song) make sense: “Listen, late last night, I heard the screen door slam, And a big yellow taxi took away my old man.” Then she finishes with: “Don’t it always seem to go,” etc.
So what, you might wonder, does all this have to do with the situation with community newspapers? Well, I can’t help thinking that for a lot of people, particularly younger people, they won’t know how important community newspapers are until they are gone. Many young people don’t subscribe to newspapers, including community newspapers.
In most communities unfortunate enough not to have local ownership as The Citizen does, this becomes a never-ending downward slide – the paper cuts costs by reducing staff, there’s less reason to subscribe so people cancel their subscriptions, so the newspaper ownership cuts costs by shrinking staff and coverage some more. The fewer readers, the fewer advertisers are likely to use the paper. Besides, to reach younger people who spend the most, they often use big-time, online advertising.
It’s not that young people don’t need local news. They often read websites provided by the local newspapers, but they don’t subscribe – and no matter how popular a small newspaper’s website, it doesn’t boast the kind of numbers the international websites do – although perhaps more potential local customers.
The sad reality is that a newspaper only has a newsworthy website while the paper itself is healthy and has a significant staff collecting news, as Deb, Shawn and Denny do here at The Citizen. At one point, the Goderich Signal-Star had four reporters. It’s down to one, now.
For someone of my vintage, it’s a case of technology giveth and technology taketh away. I started my career at a fascinating and exciting time of change. While studying journalism as what was then Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, I took a summer job with the late A.Y. MacLean at the Huron Expositor in Seaforth. They were still using hot metal type produced on a linotype machine and they printed on an old flat-bed press, two pages at a time. One of my jobs would sometimes be to take photos to the Clinton News-Record, then located in what is now the P.A. Roy Insurance building on main street, to be scanned and made into plastic plates to go on the printing press.
By the time I graduated in 1969, I took a job as editor of the News-Record which had been bought by Bob Shrier, one of the first acquisitions in the Goderich Signal-Star’s empire. Printing was done on a new offset press on West Street, Goderich. Shrier built a new building just off Hwy. 21 in the south of town where there was room for an expanded press that printed his growing empire of newspapers. Eventually, however, he sold the whole thing to an even bigger publisher, who in turn sold to someone even larger and eventually they stopped printing on the site altogether.
I became a publisher in 1972, buying the old Blyth Standard and eventually starting The Rural Voice. My interest in the Blyth Festival led to me selling my publications to A. Y. Maclean. He eventually sold to Shrier.
After a few years at the Festival, and a brief period with a touring theatre I started, I came back to newspaper publishing. The Standard and The Brussels Post had been closed down and amalgamated with the News-Record and Huron Expositor so my wife Jill and I started The Citizen, and eventually bought back The Rural Voice. Over the next few years we saw newspapers grow and grow.
Then along came the internet! It seemed much more interesting than reading a newspaper, especially when newspapers helpfully posted their news online anyway so you could save buying a subscription.
Newspapers collecting the news and giving it away can’t continue forever. That’s why I’m buying subscriptions to The Citizen for my daughters. Hopefully they’ll get hooked on reading while there’s still time.