Guelph Mercury: don’t blame the victims

I put Friday’s final edition of the Guelph Mercury into the bottom drawer of our filing cabinet. We have quite a collection of significant day editions of newspapers. There’s one from the day Princess Diana died and a couple of Maclean’s magazines about her. A Toronto Star and a Toronto Sun about the Downsview SARS-stock concert in July 2003. We used to have one from the day on which the kids were born, but 3 of them have disappeared. Only the Globe from August 22 1980 is still there. I’m not sure why, but we kept the June 14 1982 Mercury.emily balance beam

 In amongst all those papers was a clipping from the January 18 1990 Mercury. Our five-year old daughter Emily was at a recreational gymnastics class put on by the city parks and recreation department. The class was in Westwood School. The Mercury sent Dave Carter, one of their photographers, to cover the event. This was before the Internet and light years away from digital editions and on-line free lunches.

 It was also well before the corporate mergers and acquisitions that concentrated newspaper ownership in mega-corporations that believe all news should come from their own communications people. Well before these same corporations decided they could increase their profits by eliminating the pesky journalists who kept a wary eye on them.

 In June 1982, the Mercury had satellite news bureaus in Fergus and Acton. It was intensely local, and didn’t have to say so out loud. Everyone knew it. Then gradually, the satellite offices closed down. Staff were not replaced. The resources disappeared. It was a lot like boiling a frog. Start it swimming in clear, cold water and it expects to live a long and happy life. Gradually increase the temperature and soon enough it is boiled, its future is over, and it never saw what was happening to it.

The Mercury employed good journalists, people who knew their trade and worked it well. So did our other paper, the twice-weekly Guelph Tribune. Both papers won a healthy number of newspaper awards in their respective divisions.

Newspapers depend on advertisers, and advertisers look for subscribers. Stories about the gravel industry, about the Bracelet of Hope, about unravelling the Stephen Truscott story are important. They are the reason young people enroll in journalism school. They win awards, but they don’t win subscribers.

When Torstar, or Metroland Media, or wherever the owners and decision makers take cover, removed the resources that allowed the Mercury to cover recreational gymnastics classes, they dealt a body blow to the subscription base. A local daily paper tells the story of local families through the four stages of life: birth, school, work, death. When they took away the people who could do that, they forfeited the right to call themselves intensely local. When readers stopped seeing themselves in the paper, they stopped spending money on it.

Letters and statements from the publishers blamed the closure on the lack of subscribers. It’s a false accusation. The fault does not lie with the people who didn’t buy the paper. The fault lies with the publishers for taking away the reasons to subscribe.