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No local news is bad news

Irony of the Information Age: we're a click away from Washington or Ottawa, but when media like the Chronicle Herald cuts back, who will tell us what's happening here?

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When I was young and easy under the apple boughs, I sang out merrily, "Chase away the blues with the local news." In those carefree days before internet and email, I frolicked in the cellphone and Blackberry-free air. Dad chased his blues by poring over the gloriously Liberal Chronicle. Our neighbour cheerfully devoured the competing daily, the Tory-worshipping Herald. Then on January 1, 1949, we awoke to find that the Tory Herald had swallowed its Grit rival. The new Chronicle-Herald was as bland and boring and banal as any monopoly paper could be. Heartbroken, Dad did not live to see the rise of the Daily News, a feisty daily that gave the Chronicle-Herald a run for its money for almost three decades before finally folding last year. Dad would have scorned the local news-lite Metro, which supposedly replaced the Daily News. He would have bewailed the meagre journalistic efforts of local TV and radio newsrooms whose combined reporting staffs would scarcely fill a minivan. The Coast's weekly news ration would scarcely have quenched his local news thirst. And last week's announcement that the Chronicle-Herald plans to lay off a quarter of its journalists would have left him sorely depressed. After all, how can we chase away our blues if there's less and less local news?

And that's the great irony of the so-called Information Age. We're all a mouse click away from the hourly pronouncements of Emperor Obama in Washington or that fat, grey-suited prick in Ottawa. But if our local media keep cutting back, who will tell us what's happening right here? Who will report, for example, on the plight of old people in need of protection, sent to the local ER where, I hear, they can end up lying in a noisy hallway all weekend because there's no bed for them anywhere else? Or who will rake the province over the coals for making huge profits from booze sales while refusing to set up enough treatment beds for those whose lives are wrecked by alcohol addiction? Yes, no local news is good news for the powerful few who run things, but not for the rest of us taxpaying peons.

Meantime, the Chronicle-Herald says it's being forced to chop $1.5 million from its newsroom budget and lay off 24 journalists because it's not selling enough print ads to meet revenue targets. That's partly because of the current economic meltdown and partly because so many people are going online for their news. Online ads bring in only a fraction of the revenues that print ones do and therefore the future of daily, advertising-dependent print journalism seems shaky. The Chronicle-Herald is hoping to attract more readers and advertisers by playing up local news, but with a sharply reduced reporting staff, its local coverage is bound to suffer. It's also planning to enlist the advice of readers between the ages of 16 and 22 on how to make the paper more appealing to younger people.

While I wish the paper good luck in its efforts, I'd say we badly need other sources of local news to supplement the efforts of the Chronicle-Herald and other local outfits such as Frank magazine and allnovascotia.com, the online business news service. One obvious solution would be to strengthen public broadcasting. The CBC should be given enough money to do what it's supposed to---provide excellent local, regional and national programming including a much better news service. Doubling the CBC's parliamentary appropriation of $1.1 billion would cost individual taxpayers less than 35 cents a day. Meanwhile, activists at the Dominion, a Canadian alternative newspaper are in the midst of launching a Halifax media co-op to provide more online investigative reporting (mediacoop.ca). The co-op's news service would be financed by readers.

Yes, the age of abundant instant information can also be an age of missing information. And when what's missing is local news, your heart soon sinks into your shoes.

Send your childhood news memories to brucew@thecoast.ca.

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