By Ruby Irene Pratka
Every day, Trevor Greenway sees the impact of his work. Greenway is the editor of The Low Down to Hull and Back News, an independent weekly English-language newspaper in Wakefield which covers parts of the Outaouais region.
“If you’re new to the area, the first three things you learn about are the Black Sheep Inn, Wakefield Spring water and the Low Down,” says Greenway. “People won’t read about the town council in Low or Denholm in the Ottawa Citizen or on the CBC website, but they’ll read it here.”
The 29 English-language and bilingual member publications of the Quebec Community Newspapers Association (QCNA) distribute weekly, biweekly, monthly, and daily to some 384,000 readers, focusing on high-impact local news. According to the QCNA, three out of five English-speaking residents of areas served by the association read their local paper.
HOLDING COMMUNITIES TOGETHER
Quebec’s English-language community newspapers are part of the glue that holds their respective communities together, keeping long-departed former residents abreast of happenings in their hometown and often covering great distances.
“Publisher Penny MacWhirter explains that the Spec plays a vital role in the lives of English- speaking seniors, many of whom are unilingual and
lack internet access.”
Lily Ryan is the publisher of The West Quebec Post (established in 1896), The Pontiac Journal, The Aylmer Bulletin and The Gatineau Bulletin. Ryan notes that until her father, Fred Ryan, founded the bilingual Pontiac Journal, no English- or French-language newspaper covered the entirety of the vast, mostly rural Pontiac region, an area that takes two hours to drive. The Journal’s slogan is “Uniting the Pontiac.”
The Gaspé Spec, an English-language weekly in the Gaspé, plays a similar role, uniting far-flung English-speaking communities in Eastern Quebec. Before the Spec published its first edition in 1975, Gaspesians “knew more about New Brunswick affairs than they did about Quebec,” the paper’s web- site explains. The Spec is the only regional newspaper covering the nearly 350-kilometre area from Rivière-au-Renard to Matapédia.
Publisher Penny MacWhirter explains that the Spec plays a vital role in the lives of English-speaking seniors, many of whom are unilingual and lack internet access. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the paper produced daily online public health digests, which were then shared around the community. The extra work stretched the paper’s staff of four to the limit but reinforced its public service role.
FILLING A VOID
During the COVID-19 pandemic, as large regional newspapers have shrunk further due to advertising constraints, community newspapers have filled a void and helped readers understand a rapidly changing world.
In May 2020, veteran Montreal Gazette reporter Brenda O’Farrell founded The 1019 Report, covering all 1,019 square kilometres of Vaudreuil-Soulanges. Existing local publications had closed, and the Gazette had stopped running a weekly segment that focused on the area.
“This area, which has one of the fastest-growing English-speaking populations in the province, had no local English media,” O’Farrell says. Her goal was to launch a “hyperlocal publication worthy of people’s time,” and the weekly quickly stepped into the gap left by its vanished predecessors.
Thanks to a risk-taking town councillor, O’Farrell exposed a real estate cover-up, and her reporting led to major changes in local urban planning policy. “We were able to give voice to one person who said, ‘This is wrong,’ tease out what was and wasn’t true and give people the proper information,” she says. “This is the role newspapers play in a democracy.”
STORIES MAKING NATIONAL HEADLINES
Community newspapers are staffed by dedicated journalists who leverage the trust they have gained from years of community involvement to cover stories that make national headlines.
Last fall, a Chelsea teacher called Greenway at the Low Down newsroom to say her colleague, Fatemeh Anvari, had been reassigned after wearing a hijab in class during the height of the provincewide debate about Bill 21. Greenway met Anvari, who was initially reluctant to be interviewed, and spoke to her about the story’s potential impact.
“She was worried the story would put a target on her back, but she got so much support,” Greenway recalls. A Léger poll suggested that support for the secularism law dropped from 64 per cent to 55 per cent after the Low Down published Anvari’s story; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his support for Anvari, and the story was picked up by The Washington Post and The Globe and Mail.
“All political stories start at the local level, and (Anvari’s) story is a great example of that,” comments Low Down publisher Nikki Mantell. Like Ryan, Mantell has devoted her entire professional life to community journalism.
Greenway launched his journalism career at the Low Down before working for a daily paper in Ottawa. In 2021, he returned to the paper as its editor.
“Community newspapers are staffed by dedicated journalists who leverage the trust they have gained from years of community involvement to cover stories that make national headlines.”
“I did break some big stories in Ottawa, but I don’t feel that they had the same impact on the readership.” Community journalists, however, can explore major stories that have an impact on people directly at home, Greenway says.