Wed, 10/26/2016 - 09:09

Posted by H.G. Watson on January 28, 2016

By Stephanie MacLellan

One of the first things you noticed about the Guelph Mercury building was the mural in the stairwell.

A giant painted globe was topped with the words: “The only newspaper on earth.” The rest of the sentence continued below in smaller print: “dedicated to covering Guelph and Wellington County.” This visual mission statement was positioned so that reporters leaving to work on a story would be confronted with it the second they opened the newsroom door.

It may have been painfully cheesy, but that mural told you a lot about the Merc, as reporters and editors affectionately knew it. It was bold, ambitious and devoted to the community—“intensely local,” as its tagline put it.

They painted over that mural some time between my first stint at the paper, a 10-month contract in 2006, and my second, a short backfill gig in early 2008. Looking back now, it's hard not to think of it as a warning of what was to come.

The Mercury wasn't the first local paper I worked for, but it was a world away from my previous postings. For the first time, I had editors pushing me to call extra sources and write with more flair, not satisfied just to get enough copy to fill the pages. The newsroom was filled with young, hungry reporters, and we drove each other to do our best work.

Even though the Merc wasn't much bigger than my previous newspapers, it never used its small size as an excuse for complacency. Managing editor Phil Andrews and then-city editor Drew Edwards pushed a “go big or go home” philosophy.

They prioritized striking cover design, long-form features and full-out coverage on stories that mattered to readers, like assigning each reporter to write a budget-day story focusing on a different age demographic. When I moved on to bigger papers, I wanted to laugh whenever I heard someone say they didn't have the resources to do something.

While many of my friends were interning at large dailies and hoping for fatal shootings on their shift so they could get noticed, I was the sole reporter on the city hall beat during an election year, writing a regular column and working on an investigative series, all at the same time. I was just two years out of journalism school—it might have taken me years to get those opportunities at a bigger paper.

The Mercury remained an incubator for young talent until the end: reporter Alex Migdal won the 2014 Goff Penny award as one of Canada's top young journalists, becoming the third Merc reporter to earn the prize since 2005. At the awards gala in Toronto last summer, I asked Lynn Haddrall, then editor-in-chief of the Mercury and its sister paper, the Waterloo Region Record, if Andrews and city editor Brian Williams were there to celebrate. She told me that instead of attending the biggest party in Canadian journalism, they were spending their Friday night back in Guelph helping put a special section to bed, which tells you all you need to know about both them and the Merc's staffing levels.

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The investigative series I worked on was nominated for a National Newspaper Award. Another Merc series won the NNA for local news three years later. And unlike some projects from large papers that often feel like award bait, they could not have been about less sexy topics: the municipal recycling system and the gravel extraction industry. But these were topics that mattered to the community, a community that was civically engaged and concerned about the environment and the effects of booming development on their city. The Merc knew its readers and it devoted its limited resources to coverage that would serve them.

But it was already the beginning of the end. By the time the Merc won its NNA, half of the newsroom had been laid off in one fell swoop—including one of the reporters who worked on the winning project. All the copy editors and page designers were gone, with production outsourced to the Record in Kitchener-Waterloo. It was immediately clear that the Merc's page design and editing weren't getting the same level of attention. Doing more with less works only to an extent, but eventually money and energy don't stretch far enough and you have to do less with less.

And now, after nearly 150 years, the Mercury is no more, save for some kind of web presence that won't be run by any of the paper's few remaining journalists. Eight editorial staff were laid-off—the entire newsroom, according to former long-term Mercury reporter and columnist Scott Tracey.

It won't be the only newspaper on earth, or even in Canada, to suffer this fate. The Mercury served as something of a bellwether for local newspapers in Canada. It was one of the first to have its production fully outsourced; consolidated production centres for local papers were soon the standard, and within a few years, big dailies like the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star were outsourcing more and more of their production.

Now that Metroland has decided that it can get away without a daily newspaper in its smallest market, a precedent has been set for other media companies. If the Guelph Mercury can disappear almost overnight, there's no telling how many others will follow.

The consequences are clear, not just for the papers that vanish but for Canadian journalism as a whole. The demise of local newspapers blocks a major entry route into journalism, one that allows young journalists to develop their skills in a setting with ample editorial attention.

More importantly, fewer local reporters means fewer eyes watching the issues that matter to their communities—but not to the larger, already-strained metro papers that ostensibly absorb them into their coverage area. Big-market newspapers and broadcasters and digital news agencies can parachute their reporters into places like Guelph when national news breaks there, but they won't be there to investigate municipal spending or school closures or other issues that have far more of an impact on people's daily lives.

It won't occur to them that municipal composting and gravel extraction are important to people in Guelph. There was really only one newspaper on earth that knew that, and now it's gone

Stephanie MacLellan spent more than 10 years working as a reporter and editor at Canadian newspapers, including the Guelph Mercury, Hamilton Spectator and Toronto Star. She is currently a graduate student at the Munk School of Global Affairs.

J-Source and ProjetJ are publications of the Canadian Journalism Project, a venture among post-secondary journalism schools and programs across Canada, led by Ryerson University, Université Laval and Carleton University and supported by a group of donors.