They’re a treasure-trove of information about politics, culture and society.
They let you know what is being discussed in a community, and how people feel about local issues.
They summarize deaths, births, crimes and local lore.
But as community newspapers are shuttered by media giants, what happens to those newspapers’ archives, keepers of stories and advertisements, letters to the editor and photographs?
In late November, media companies Torstar and Postmedia announced a swap of 41 mostly-community newspapers. At the same time, they closed most of those papers, throwing almost 300 editorial, advertising and front-office staff out of work.
If you don’t have access to the community newspaper, understanding the community’s history becomes more difficult.”
– Robin Keirstead, Western University archivist
“Those newspapers pretty well represent the one-stop-shop for much of what was going on in the community over a period of time. If something of significance was happening in the community, it was likely in the newspaper,” said Robin Keirstead, the archivist at Western University.
“If there’s one source that can give you a sense of what’s happening, politically, socially, culturally, economically, the community newspaper is it.”
Immediately amid the sale, the websites of the affected Postmedia and Torstar papers began rerouting readers.
So, anyone wanting to read last week’s copy of the St. Marys Journal Argus, which used to be owned by Torstar, were instead told to change their bookmarks to the Stratford Beacon-Herald, Postmedia’s closest community newspaper.
Old Journal Argus stories were gone.
“To have newspapers close and then immediately have no record of the stories they wrote easily accessible online, that’s a pretty disturbing end to the lives of the stories that those newspapers told,” said Nick Taylor-Vaisey, the president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
“Whenever there’s a closure, we think about the importance of the stories that won’t be told. We’re thinking about the future, but of course the past is just as important in many ways. If the story isn’t archived or filed somewhere, it only lives in the memory of the writer or those who have read it.”
Some of the links of former newspapers shut down in the Torstar-Postmedia deal are broken. Former Postmedia newspaper readers get redirected to county-wide Torstar news websites.
“Particularly for smaller communities, (the newspaper gives) a sense of identity. Sure, you can live in St. Mary’s and subscribe to the Free Press and the KW Record, to find out what’s happening in the world and in London or Kitchener Waterloo, but if you want to find out what’s actually happening in St. Mary’s, you need access to the local paper,” said Keirstead.
“Another way you can look at it is, community newspapers, over time, are the community scrapbook.”
The physical and digital archives of the papers that were bought and shut down were acquired in the deal.
A Torstar spokesperson said the company hasn’t figured out what to do with physical archives yet, but that in the long-term, the company wants to make the archives available to the public.
A Postmedia spokesperson said the company is open to inquiries from universities, libraries and museums that might be interested in preserving those archives.
Right now, the preservation of old copies of newspapers largely depend on whether or not the paper has a champion within it, or in the community.
In St. Marys, the family that used to own the paper, until the 1990s, donated archives to the St. Marys Museum. It has physical copies dating back to the mid 1800s.
Our London, which was owned by Torstar and is now owned by Postmedia, will be shut down in a few weeks. Back issues are available at the London Public Library, but not on microfilm.
In Orillia and Barrie, the public libraries have old issues of the Orillia Packet and Times and the Barrie Examiner, both of which date back to the mid-1800s and were abruptly shut down last week. They’re on microfilm.
Digitizing old copies of newspapers can be tricky because of copyright concerns.
But they have to be preserved somehow, said Keirstead. They represent the history of a community, and are important research tools for historians.
“The community newspaper does the work for the researcher. It might not be the last stop for research, but it’s often the first stop,” he said.
“Community newspapers allow an understanding of issues over time. (Communities) losing a newspaper might not be losing their history, but it’s losing one important window into their history. I would say if you don’t have access to the community newspaper, understanding the community’s history becomes more difficult.”