The crisis in local journalism is well documented, most extensively in a report last January by the Public Policy Forum, and by others who have painted in detail the corrosive effects of cutbacks to local newsrooms and the shuttering of an entire daily newspaper in a mid-sized Ontario city.
It’s evident in these reports that there’s a real thirst for local perspectives – if not necessarily for supporting the business models that have traditionally delivered them. It’s also clear that there is no single solution to the loss of local journalism in Ontario.
But I do want to offer a new TVO editorial initiative as a kind of case study. It’s called Ontario Hubs and it brings a current affairs perspective to parts of the province that are increasingly under-served. Its intent is to provide news analysis and context that is relevant to both local audiences and to the wider public.
Ontario Hubs were made possible by a major gift from civic-minded philanthropists: the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust and Goldie Feldman. This donation is allowing us to hire seven journalists and open regional offices outside Toronto.
For TVO, it’s an opportunity that speaks to our mandate to reflect and connect Ontarians and that is potentially a game-changer. It substantially increases the coverage of Ontario issues, ideas and events on tvo.org and on our flagship current affairs program, The Agenda with Steve Paikin.
Our initial plan calls for four regional hub offices. The first two officially launch on September 6 – one covering the region of Northwestern Ontario, based in Thunder Bay; and a second hub for Southwestern Ontario, based in London. The two additional hubs will be announced later this fall.
Each will be staffed by a full time TVO journalist, whose job it will be to identify issues and ideas of importance to the communities in their regions and report on how those matter locally, regionally and to the entire province.
The Hubs journalists will also help create networks of freelancers and contributors in their respective regions. In addition, we will have a full-time on-air journalist who will produce weekly feature reports for The Agenda with Steve Paikin. These won’t be in the form of a traditional 90-second news report but longer, more in-depth and, often, meant to set the table for a panel discussion on The Agenda.
With this new team of journalists and contributors we will produce multi-platform features – online and on broadcast – that will dive deep into big issues.
Earlier this year, TVO hired Jon Thompson for our Northwestern Ontario hub. Jon is an award-winning journalist and author with deep roots in the northwest. Since joining us, he’s filed a number of stories including a substantive feature examining how accusations of racism against Indigenous residents have divided Thunder Bay. It’s apparent that this story was not based on a few days visit by an outside media organization. Nor was it the incremental, day-to-day coverage local news outlets – increasingly strapped for resources – might provide.
The story is a fine example of the editorial stance TVO is taking with this project. It occupied the journalistic sweet-spot we aspire to: step-back and analytical but informed by being firmly planted on the ground, and appealing to both local and wider audiences.
The story did very well. It was among the most-read on our site in July, with more than a third of the traffic from Thunder Bay. And it helped define the public conversation on an issue with a national profile: on the strength of it, Jon was interviewed on CBC Radio’s As It Happens.
Ontario Hubs will not replace what’s being lost. TVO’s mandate is not daily news reporting. We won’t be covering regular meetings at Timmins City Hall or the school board in Owen Sound or the library services in Northumberland. My fervent hope is that a sustainable model for that kind of essential reporting, in whatever form it takes, will be found.
But what Ontario Hubs can offer is regional current affairs – in-depth, in context, and from multiple perspectives – that will help build a province whose citizens are better informed, responsive and engaged. It’s an addition to the journalistic eco-system at a time of decline. We hope it will serve as one model of a path to the future.
John Ferri is the VP of Documentaries and Current Affairs at TVO. This piece was republished under arrangement with J-Source.