SUMA resolution a danger to democracy

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following an excerpt of an article that appeared on the front page of the Quad Town Town Journal, which ironically serves the community of Pilot Butte, who put forth the SUMA resolution. It is being shared to describe the importance of keeping public notices in newspapers.

==================

In a resolution that has been put forward for vote at the upcoming Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention (Feb. 3-6), the Town of Pilot Butte is asking SUMA to lobby the provincial government “to review the public notice requirements and expand the methods of communicating with our taxpayers to include consideration for the use of email, municipal websites, social media and other electronic notifications available to a municipality.”

Their stated reasoning: That “newspapers are no longer available in all municipalities” and that “electronic notifications are an acceptable method used for a variety of messages.”

So what is the town really asking for?

On its face, the proposed resolution seems to be asking for accommodations that are already in place.

It doesn’t outright specify removing the provincial requirement for municipalities to publish public notices in a local newspaper.

Yet it’s the only reasonable conclusion, since there’s nothing in the current legislation preventing any municipality from already using digital means to publicize their public notices in addition to the local newspaper. (The RM of Edenwold, Town of Balgonie and Town of White City, to name just a few examples, have already been doing this for years.)

In a Friday conversation with The Forum, Pilot Butte mayor Peggy Chorney explained that she sees the motion as both a nod to rural communities that are not currently served by a local newspaper and a contingency plan for communities that may not be served by one in the future.

“We’re not anti-newspaper,” she said, expressing concern over how many residents of smaller communities would see local notices if legislation required them to be placed in the nearest city newspaper.

Regardless of the reasoning, know this: A “yes” vote at SUMA to Pilot Butte’s motion, in conjunction with a successful lobbying effort afterward, will have a profoundly negative impact on the free flow of information in your community, local employment opportunities, the health of your local business community, attendance at local events, preservation of local history, and recognition of your friends’ and neighbours’ accomplishments, to say nothing of your own voice in town.

REALITY CHECK

As shell games go, this one’s a doozy.

The reality is that, even with a number of closures in recent years, there are still very few communities in Saskatchewan un-served by a local newspaper.

(In Pilot Butte, for example, you can find our paper every single week at the Domo, Pilot Butte Confectionary, library, town office, Dosu Wok, Subway, Broncos Pub and Grill, A&D Fresh Market, White Butte Pharmacy, Giggles, Hot Shades Salon and the Blue Rooster Cafe. If you prefer to receive The Forum in the mail each week, you can also subscribe for barely $1 a week.)

The reality is that a 2018 AdCanadaMedia study showed that Saskatchewan residents were nearly twice as likely to respond to government advertsing in print editions of their local community newspapers than on websites and social media combined; and that over 75 per cent of Saskatchewan residents still have “significant trust” in the print edition of their local community newspaper, compared with under 23 per cent for social media and barely 26 per cent for other websites.

The reality is that, between 2008 and 2013, circulation among free community newspapers (like this one) actually rose by three per cent in Saskatchewan.

The reality is that Facebook, to name just one online platform, has repeatedly changed its algorithms in a bid to force users to pay to have their content seen in the first place, and then lied afterward about the number of people who saw it.

The reality is that email or text distribution of said notices can only be done by individual opt-in, and further that — unlike electronic communications — you can still access your local newspaper even when the power or Internet goes out.

And the reality is that 53 per cent of Canadians used ad blocking software online in 2018. 

A WEAKENED COMMUNITY

So if access, readership and trust in the information presented in newspapers remains exponentially higher, what gives?

Recently I heard a story about a council elsewhere in the province that objected to its local newspaper publicizing an upcoming discussion about a financial matter, with the council instead preferring to post its public “notice” on the front door of its office the day of the discussion.

Unfortunately, some governments — at all levels — do not like to be watched by even the most objective observers. But that’s not democracy. That’s authoritarian.

I don’t believe that’s the case in Pilot Butte. I’m happy to take the mayor at her word that council is not “anti-newspaper” and that they would welcome more coverage of town matters. Can the same be said for every municipality across the province? Probably not.

This leads to the distinct possibility that local governments with the option to withhold a revenue source may use it as a threat to induce favourable news coverage. Some may also try to justify it as a cost-saving measure, despite the total annual cost of these notices comprising one-tenth to one-twentieth of a percent (or less) of the total budget in many municipalities.

And while the basic concepts of transparency and accountability should be paramount, there are financial implications that cannot be ignored either.

Make no mistake — the collective revenues generated through the publication of these notices, for many papers, adds up to something significant. Losing it would, beyond a shadow of a doubt, force some newspapers to cut staff, and/or reduce their coverage areas — hampering their ability to cover your local communities.

 Other, smaller operations yet could close entirely.

In many ways, the Pilot Butte resolution could also be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These are not small considerations, but lest you believe this is only about a handful of newspaper owners themselves, think again.

This revenue helps newspapers create local employment, expand coverage of community news and events, and provide donations and sponsorships to local organizations. On that level it can be seen as an investment in your own community.

Economically, your community’s population can be directly tied to the number of local job opportunities. The number of people employed in your community can be directly tied to the health of your local business community. The healthier your local business community is, the more social and recreational opportunities you’ll see for residents to come together. And the more information your residents have about their community, the better they will feel about calling it home.

Also know this: Without a local newspaper, stories like many of those we’ve mentioned above will never be told — at least certainly not in your community newsletter, on the town’s Facebook page or by the big-city media next door. There’s a big difference between letting people know an event happened and giving it context. Your own voice in the world will be greatly diminished, and you will largely hear only what the local government wants you to hear.

When we launched in 2015, our stated mission was to inform, connect and advocate for the communities we served. Almost four years later, none of that has changed. And in an age of digital fatigue and rampant fake news online, the importance and relevance of a local newspaper to the communities it serves has actually never been higher.

If a strong newspaper is a reflection of the community it serves, so is a weakened one.

And if there’s a discussion to be had with SUMA about the relevance of local newspapers in 2019, it should have started in a conference room, not with a potentially-damaging resolution that was so quietly put forward.

If you value your local newspaper at all, do your town a favour and let council know you’d like them to withdraw their resolution.

You won’t be sorry you did.

 Brad Brown, Owner/Publisher

Quad Town Forum