Don’t stop the presses !!!!

News that another local business is permanently closing up shop is never good but I was especially saddened to learn that The Kingston Whig Standard will have no office here after the end of December.

The announcement this week was quick to point out that the newspaper will continue to publish in print and digital but editorial staff will work from home, as they have been doing since March when their Cataraqui St. office was closed to the public.

Printing of the newspaper left Kingston long ago and now most of the rest of its operation will be gone as well.

It means the loss of another business that rents premises, pays local taxes and hires services and suppliers.

This is truly a local business that needs our support in order to survive. It would be a major blow to our community if we were to lose our only daily newspaper after 185 years of continuous publishing----even if economic conditions have rendered it a mere shadow of its once highly regarded self. The Whig isn’t called “Canada’s oldest newspaper” for nothing.

As someone who personally owes The Whig a large debt for giving me an opportunity to learn and practice my trade as a journalist, I confess to a real conflict of interest here. I first joined The Whig family on a part time basis when I was a teenager still in high school and I number myself among the several generations of editorial employees who went on to meaningful and rewarding careers.

Some of the best journalists in Canada have done time at The Whig under the tutelage of great (and often eccentric) editors and mourn what is happening to this once outstanding paper and scores like it across the country as technology, corporate concentration, economic conditions and now the pandemic squeeze the life out of them.

In its heyday, The Whig punched way above its weight and has a shelf full of national awards to prove it. Quite simply, it was regarded as one of the best newspapers in the country. It attracted callow youth like myself dreaming of a future in journalism, recognized writers yearning for a place that would provide them the freedom they needed to excel, and veterans seeking a saner and peaceful community in which to live. There was always room for odd balls and over the years the newsroom helped create and accommodate newspaper legends.

Circulation in the 1980s was about 35,000 and upward to 60 employees in the editorial department. Compare that to today when circulation has dropped to single digits and the contact page lists nine editorial employees.

The Whig was founded in 1834 and remained in the family of Edward John Barber for 91 years. In 1925 another family dynasty took over with the sale to Rupert Davies who handed it down to son Arthur who passed the torch on to his son Michael. All loved their community as much as the newspaper business---and it showed.

It took a lot of guts when, under the direction of publisher Michael Davies, The Whig exposed the sex scandal at St. George’s Cathedral (known as the Gallienne Affair) in 1990. Many “old stones” were shocked by the truth and thought it should have remained covered up but to the rest of us it was an example of independent journalism at its best.

The golden years of the Davies clan ended in 1990 when facing tough economic times the Whig was sold to Southam, the largest newspaper chain in Canada in terms of circulation. Postmedia bought it two years later, revenues continued to drop, cutbacks increased and the descent into its current condition worsened.

The current editor says the new move to shutter the Whig’s offices will “turn a page” in the Whig’s close to two centuries of history in this community. The paper’s important role will continue, he says. Reality tells me it’s another nail in the coffin of local news operations and their vital importance to our community.

As someone who has spent most of her long working life in jobs related to the news gathering business, my concerns go beyond the grim financial picture.

“Local news deserts” weaken and threaten our way of life because a strong and respected media is vital to protect democracy. Studies show that the closing of local news outlets means the coverage of democratic institutions and civic affairs and the quality of informed democratic discourse is especially at risk.

Consider for example:

  • The need for a robust media to ensure vigilance and scrutiny of our politicians and courts and unelected officials.

  • The role of informing the public about candidates and party policies during election campaigns.

  • Supporting our neighbourhoods and the activities of local charities, sports and other good causes.

  • Reporting on crises such an pandemics, natural disasters and environmental dangers.

  • Providing a forum for free and open discussion of major issues.

In the last decade, an estimated 50 per cent of newspaper industry professionals have lost their jobs in Canada because of a failing business model that has seen the close of some 250 local news outlets in about 200 communities---including our own.

A very good local weekly newspaper—The Heritage—was suddenly killed off, removing a valuable source of news that was especially strong in reporting and analysis of local government and other civic issues.

The Heritage was one of 41 local community papers in Ontario swapped as part of a deal between the newspaper giants Torstar, owners of The Toronto Star, and Postmedia, the largest chain in the country and publisher of the National Post.

The swap enabled the two chains to avoid competing for what was left of local advertising and meant 36 of the 41 outlets (including The Heritage) were thrown under the bus.

Meanwhile, we can take some solace from the fact that new forms of communication are picking up some of the slack caused by the demise of traditional media like our local newspapers.

The Kingstonist, an online news service created by staff members who lost their jobs when the Heritage was shuttered in 2010, is an excellent source of local news as well as opinion and commentary, special events, arts and creativity in this area. The electronic platform is able to cover news as it happens for a growing audience.

Many of us of a certain age stubbornly prefer old-fashioned newsprint (just as we still love the feel of a real book as opposed to e-book.) Coffee in hand, how else to start and end the day?

But how long we will be able to count on a daily newspaper in this community is anyone’s guess. The current trend offers little room for optimism.

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