“Now. You are on your own. You must do your own work.”
Opinion by Ted Amsden
For several years, I have had the privilege and the fun of editing the posts for the News Now Network (NNN) news sites: Port Hope Now, Cobourg Now, Cramahe Now and Brighton Now. At the same time, journalism colleague, Sue Dickens, has edited our northern site, Trent Hills Now.
The News Now Network concept of five-site news coverage in Northumberland is the idea of Publisher Jay Robinson. He jumped into the news business when he took over running the Cramahe Now news site ten years ago. He saw how well it was working for Cramahe — getting the news and listing of events out to local folks — he decided to expand the idea.
When Northumberland Today, (formerly the Cobourg Daily Star and the Port Hope Evening Guide), the paper of record for Cobourg and Port Hope covered news in Northumberland folded, his idea of targeting specific areas seemed particularly apt. “Local” was a catchword that featured in advertising and communiques from just about everybody anxious to catch public attention or to be part of the community.
What then, could be more local than a site devoted to each of the significant towns in Northumberland County?
An ambitious concept, Publisher Robinson poured his enthusiasm, his interest in all things local, and more importantly, his money, into the enterprise of the News Now Network.
He hired seasoned journalists like myself, Sue Dickens, John Campbell and Valerie MacDonald to report on events and politics. During this time other contributors like Bill Hornbostel, Tim Burgess, Al Rivett, Gareth Vieira supplied on location reporting and columns. The Edville Gazette and Dave Glover provided weekly pieces that, in the case of the former, helped us to find the funny in life and, in the latter case, caused us to think. As well, citizen journalists submitted articles from time to time.
It is important to note that the News Now Network was from the very beginning a concept built upon paying for itself including its staff. Anyone who has regularly worked for NNN has been paid.
This is the crux of the issue and why the News Now Network is going silent. There is no money in this business and not sufficient financial support coming from the community.
While our advertisers have been supportive and have stuck with us, the general response from the commercial community and the public has been very tepid.
We are not taking it personally. We’re just sad that the News Now Network is shutting down and that the community probably won’t care.
I don’t make that last remark lightly.
The shuttering of thousands of newspapers across the continent during the past decade — 500 over fifteen years — the recent withdrawal of a competitor’s paper edition locally this year, the migration of advertising dollars away from news media companies, the recent draconian moves of Google and Facebook to stop the online promotion of news articles, makes the point that our situation is not unique.
When Publisher Robinson initiated the multiple-site format he put out a call for sponsors to help with costs. Over several years he continued that appeal. But while we have 18,000 views per week, few have stepped forward to help us.
And let’s be clear about this: myself, Dickens, Campbell and MacDonald and the others, have other sources of income as does Robinson. It’s never been about the money for us. In fact, it’s only because we have had other sources of money that any of us have been able to support this indie attempt to supply news and event reporting for the people of Northumberland.
I can say quite emphatically, most of us spent a lot more of our time doing the work than we got paid for. Just like back in the day, we made the effort, because we believed and continue to believe in the value of press journalism. Local news that informs you and your neighbours.
I present the business angle of the business because with the progressive decline in news organizations, you and every one in Northumberland, must now rely on governments, organizations and bureaucracies for your information. While it would be disingenuous to claim they only want you to see their side of any story or issue, the fact is, when journalists and their stories and opinion columns are no longer present to inform you, you are left with only the institutional angle on any issue. Almost by definition, any organization is duty bound to promote its integrity and interpretations of programs, issues and actions.
Allow me to digress for a moment. I came into the news business well over twenty years ago. Strictly as a photographer. Not a photojournalist. Not a journalist. I was pretty much a clear sheet. But working in the newsroom of the Cobourg Daily Star and the Port Hope Evening Guide, alongside professional reporters and editors, I learned not only the necessity for critical assessment of any organization or individual’s claim or story, but the need to see any story or photo from the viewpoint of the newspapers’ readers who may or may not know or appreciate the context, ramifications, costs of issues and more.
Not only do we lose coverage of community events when newspapers and news organizations disappear, we lose the eyes of journalists who are ethically encouraged to present stories in a balanced context. Meaning: the yeas and nays that inevitably accompany any political decision; the benefits and possible deficiencies that go with bureaucratic decisions; the overview that informs unique news events. In other words, context and view of how, when, where, and why decisions were made that affect you and your family and how they fit into the community’s regard for itself.
This is a windy way of saying newspaper folks have been the eyes and ears of the communities going back over two hundred years. Reporters have been paid to do the work of attending, recording and reporting and, yes, commenting on community events and happenings so that you, the citizen, can go about your life with the reasonable confidence that someone is keeping an eye on politicians and their decisions. And that the notable events are being made available to you with the assurance that those who have done this work have spent part of their working life contemplating the ramifications of decisions made by community leaders and those that might seek to inject change or disorder into it.
With the disappearance of news organizations, you, the reader are on your own. Social media is your dance partner. Increasingly, organizations like Northumberland County and the Town of Cobourg, rather than supporting local news outlets — because we all know they can be critical and no politician can stomach that! — are throwing money, resources and people into creating and promoting their own news sites.
Commercially, I think this is an admirable PR move. But, if they had just spent some of this money on local journalism, invested in a community fund, the people of Northumberland would be further ahead.
Their action in terms of transparency and community support, in my view, is misplaced. I see their efforts only as a means to ensure their viewpoint – not your viewpoint, not your neighbour’s, not the community’s viewpoint – is the only visible one. They use surveys to convince us our voice is being heard. But they only promote a veneer of engagement. They are like voting polls. They know everyone is too busy, too distracted, too jaded to think anybody but the people getting paid to compile the stats care about them.
The sad truth is, the disappearance of the News Now Network will affect few. And that’s a shame.
But, the fact is me and the gang – Robinson et al – damn well did it. We delivered the news and stories about people in this community for ten years. And we did it with no political support and very little bureaucratic support. On our own dime. Our work wasn’t multi-faceted, not deep, because we didn’t have the staff or budget for in-depth coverage. Nor was our work controversial. We didn’t have the budget for lawyers to back us should we make a misstep.
Am I bitter? Not at all. I came into the news business at the tail end of the analogue years when there was a big printing press in the basement of the Cobourg Star building on King Street. When I had to develop my film in the darkroom before they could be set up for printing. Editors sat and pondered the state of the community and wrote editorials about political decisions and events in town. Journalists worked as teams to cover issues. Critical assessments, reports and overviews were available to the local public close to when important issues arose and events occurred. Issues were laid out for the public’s view. I watched readers throw open the paper first thing in the morning, eager to see what happened at town council the night before. To see what debates occurred, who railed on about the Mayor, what decisions were made.
Now. You are on your own. You must do your own work. Watch blurry videos of unedited town hall meetings in the silence of your home, insulated from the community, where more often than not after working all day, you just want to watch Netflix.
Only those with the most to lose will invest the time to be current with an issue.
Why do we find ourselves in this position, responsible for our own news gathering? Why must we rely on those who cause the news, to tell us about it, interpret it for us. We don’t let drug companies or oil companies police themselves… Well, maybe we do. So perhaps this is no surprise.
Northumberland County, the Town of Cobourg, are now promoting local events. Rather than support local journalism, they are stepping into the news business. Listing social events. Making a big deal of their surveys that are offered to the public, showing how much, They Care What You Think. Ha. When sixty-odd people respond to a Cobourg survey, the one thing you know with reasonable assurance is that you don’t know what people are thinking. But, you know, now the Mayor can wave proof that town hall tried and is looking after the issues for all of you.
Why are we comfortable letting corporations like Northumberland County and the town of Cobourg, report on themselves?
Got too much on your plate? Too many problems dealing with food and car and mortgage costs? Yeah, well, me, too.
We find ourselves alive at a particular time. Living in a particular space. It behooves us to pay attention to our surroundings. To maintain them if they are good. To improve them if they are bad. We are social creatures. Our well being depends on the well being of others. If for no other reason than self interest, we should care about our community and what happens to it.
Examination and maintenance of our social commons is necessary. If you think Facebook or X or Instagram or Tik Tok is the equivalent, you are mistaken. They are nothing more than hasty notes stuck up on the public’s consciousness for the moment. Soon to be forgotten.
In the near future, I fear, we will be totally dependent on our government bodies for our news and more. Think about it: town hall as local social convenor; Town Hall as your trusted news source; Town hall who knows the issues best and can be relied on for a balanced opinion.
Oh. So you want other news from other sources. Well, get it yourself. And, oh, don’t pay for it. Free is always best. Yeah, go for the dude on Facebook who sounds the most pissed off. He’s gotta be right ‘cuz he is so angry. Because he emphatically says, “He knows!”
Am I bitter. No. I did what I could witnessing close up this devolution of news reporting in the community first hand. I can comment on it. And you can read it. Is there not personal power in this for you? My writing this for you? My opinion. Freely given. Of course, it is biased. But it is my lived experience. It is based on my interactions with government. My time spent interacting with other people in the community. Does this not make you better informed. More aware. Regardless your reaction, I think it does. It empowers you. You have read another’s viewpoint. While reading it, your own ideas probably flowed forth on the issues mentioned.
This is the role of press journalism. This is what is disappearing.
I am assuming most don’t care, because from what I can see many seem silent on these issues. Preferring not to vote with their dollars. You don’t care. For whatever reasons are important to you.
It will be interesting to see what evolves. My view, at this moment, (and I am not a pessimist) is that the evolving state of journalism faces a very challenging road. The community that can’t organically insure its well being — with open self inspection and a respect for communal introspection — will end up fracturing into fiefdoms of influence. There will be no objective eye in the community.
Finally, two points: One, I have supported a news organization with a monthly subscription since 2019. As much as the world seems to be careening at the moment, I need the news. I want to understand the important events and current thinking on issues, along with all the confusing and vexing information we associate with this turbulent time. I need to read and considers the thoughts of journalists and editorial writers who sit and mull over the problems and issues of the day, then share their findings and thoughts. Truly, the daily news is a window on the world and how it functions that I can’t live without. I rely on the news for my sense of being in this world. Point Two: Facebook and Google are private companies, located far away, their oversight not directed toward issues that are in the best interest of Northumberland and you. You can’t talk to them. You tell them your story. Your problems. You can’t ask them to look into a local issue. You can’t get them to ask a politician why she or he is doing something you don’t think is in the community’s interest. So why do you trust them so much that you leave it to them to let you know about what is going on?
Oh, one more thing. Publisher Robinson never made one dime publishing the News Now Network.
Before Ted Amsden took on the task of editing the News Now Network, he was employed by the local press for over twenty years as a photojournalist. During that time he operated a successful photographic business on the side and was Cobourg’s Poet Laureate for six years. At present, he is working on releasing novel, a comedy adventure with a touch of romance, about hard partying seniors and two towns that love to hate each other.