In Canada’s far-flung communities the established media can seem distant, out of touch and even irrelevant. We take a look at some of the independent media outlets covering the country’s more isolated corners.
Most nations have a media bubble; there’s always one city or region where most of the national broadcasters, newspapers and magazines reside, and which is seemingly reported on more often. When the country is as geographically and politically vast as Canada, however, such a bubble can pose a problem, particularly for those who live far outside it.
It doesn’t help that in Canada the industry is especially concentrated. With the exception of the state-funded cbc, most of the nation’s media is controlled by just a handful of corporations. Many of these are headquartered in Toronto and Montréal, and many have scaled back the size of their regional operations in recent years. That means that from Nanaimo to North Battleford, Winnipeg to Windsor, most local news is being delivered from stripped-down newsrooms owned by a small clutch of eastern-based corporations.
Yet there are still pockets of independent media that offer sharp, local reporting for, and from, some of the country’s remote regions. Whether it’s a community radio station in the Maritimes, an alternative paper in the Prairies or a glossy magazine covering the entire north, such enterprises still have a place in Canada. We visit three such outposts to see how they run.
Year founded: 1984
Staff size: 10
From behind his desk at the Yellowknife headquarters of Up Here magazine, senior editor Tim Edwards stretches up to point to one of the large maps tacked around the walls of the office. He indicates the furthest north he’s been on assignment: Tuktoyaktuk, a tiny hamlet of around 850 people, right at the edge of the continent on the Arctic Ocean. It’s hard to imagine a more remote location yet reportage from such communities is the raison d’être of this monthly magazine. With long-form coverage on everything from politics to business and culture, Up Here relays, as Edwards puts it, “the quirks of the north without making it a cliché”.
The magazine was founded in 1984 by Marion LaVigne, after she moved up to Yellowknife from Toronto (her decision to relocate to the small city of 19,000 people was made, as she describes it, on a whim). She and her business partner Ronne Heming were so charmed by life north of Canada’s 60th parallel that they decided to launch a magazine for a southern audience, dedicated to covering the northern territories – which today consist of the Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Nunavut. “We look for the little places that are undiscovered,” says LaVigne of Up Here’s focus.
Like Edwards, Herb Mathisen is a senior editor and hails from Yellowknife. “The north has been getting much more attention in the last five or 10 years,” he says. “This region has been written about in a romaticised way, often by people who haven’t been here or lived here.” Associate editor Elaine Anselmi (who comes from Toronto) puts it another way. “Without someone on the ground you miss out on the little nuances and sometimes the nuance is where you find the story.”
In spite of the magazine’s isolation from the media circles in Toronto, Up Here has carved itself an outsized reputation in Canada, scooping up numerous accolades over the years, including a 2010 National Magazine Award for magazine of the year.
Of course, reporting from such remote regions poses its own particular challenges: in many places the roads are impractical – or non-existent – and flights can be obscenely expensive. The Up Here team relies on a deal with Canadian North airline, which carries issues of the magazine in its seat pockets. It pays for the privilege, explains LaVigne, in “flights and freight”, which helps staff cover travel expenses. The magazine also employs a stable of freelance reporters in some of the farthest-flung communities.
“Everything is more complicated when you’re up here: hiring, printing, distribution,” says LaVigne of the magazine, which is printed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and distributed by a firm in Ontario. “It would be a lot cheaper to run this magazine down south – but we’d lose our northern authority.”
Year founded: 1985
Staff size: 4 full-time
It’s a sunny Tuesday morning and at the studios of CKDU radio in Halifax, DJ Nick Barrington is on the air. He eases the needle onto the vinyl (“Rough Mix” by Pete Townswend and Ronnie Lane), glides the fader down and takes off his headphones. “I’m still playing pretty much whatever I want,” he says cheerily, the sunlight from outside glinting off wisps of his wavy white hair. “It’s the freedom I like here.”
Barrington’s weekly radio show Elegant Voltage has been on the air since 1987 – two years after CKDU, the campus radio station at Dalhousie University, gained its FM licence. First founded in the early 1950s, when it was broadcast exclusively for a campus audience, CKDU’s foray into FM transformed the station into what is now one of the largest and most-listened-to community radio stations in Atlantic Canada.
“In the early 1980s, Halifax’s independent music scene was beginning to ramp up,” says Russell Gragg, the station director. “Suddenly the city had a radio station for the first time that played music being made here.”
Today CKDU broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week and has four full-time staff. Its colourful programming includes everything from music to specialist programmes and alternative takes on the news. The schedule is put together by a pool of part-time producers, presenters and technicians, many of whom go on to full-time jobs at commercial stations across the country and at the CBC.
The station’s eclectic programming reflects the audience that tunes in. “It’s a testament to the community,” Gragg adds. “I’ve worked at a number of stations across the country over the years and I’m still so impressed with how engaged people are here, civically and with the arts.”
The station’s walls are lined with awards received by the radio station for its programming. When the CBC offloaded swathes of its music archive in 2011, much of it found a home at CKDU. “You’re not going to find any Nickelback in our library,” Gragg says. “But there’s plenty of independent rock and pop alongside jazz, a big classical collection, hip hop, funk and roots.”
CKDU’s budget is small and recent shifts in listening habits, from FM to online, have proved challenging. But the loyalty CKDU evokes remains high says Darryl Smith, the station’s director of music. “I think that Halifax has punched above its weight in terms of what we’ve contributed to the national culture. And if we can be a part of that, that’s even better.”
Year founded: 1993
Staff size: 3 (plus 2 at sister publication in Saskatoon)
Circulation: 16,000 in Regina; 16,000 in Saskatoon
Plenty of journalists are quick to tell you they offer a valuable service. Stephen Whitworth, editor of the alternative bi-weekly paper Prairie Dog, is speedier than most. “Local media here is not robust enough to take the provincial government to task,” he says, standing in his Regina-based newsroom. An unmistakable note of pride enters his voice: “We do that.”
A Prairie city with a population of 190,000, Regina is 160km north of the US border. Since 1993, Prairie Dog has given the Saskatchewan capital an independently owned paper that offers a counter to what the founders saw as a right-wing media scene.
“A lot of media here seems to consider good journalism as synonymous with maintaining the status quo,” says Whitworth. Not Prairie Dog. With a watchdog-like focus on city and provincial politics – coverage of Saskatchewan’s conservative premier Brad Wall features regularly and a long-time freelancer covers city hall – as well as arts and culture, climate change and urbanism, it has a devoted following.
In 2002, Prairie Dog launched Planet S in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan’s slightly larger city, two hours northwest of Regina. “It was an independent news source for the city,” says Heath Mulligan, Planet S’s marketing manager, who has been with the paper since it launched. “Saskatoon had nothing [like that] at the time.”
Initially non-profit, the company is now run by a co-op set up by staff members past and present, including Whitworth and Mulligan. But like many publications, the papers are grappling with the decline in print advertising. Both now operate with a shoestring staff, relying on freelancers for stories. “Our challenges are all about changes in media advertising,” says Mulligan. “In terms of readership, we’re just as strong.”
While no one denies the challenges facing the paper, Whitworth is optimistic. “We try to think of a newspaper as a living thing,” he says. And the Prairie Dog still has plenty of life in it yet.