As N.W.T. news outlet suspends print editions, will northerners stay informed online?

The paper editions of six newspapers in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have fallen victim to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Northern News Services Limited, often referred to as NNSL, announced this week that the company is suspending print copies and focusing its online output until the COVID-19 crisis is under control. 

Publisher Bruce Valpy told CBC he made the decision to stop printing papers to keep his staff safe and physically distant. Valpy also said reduced flights to communities in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories will make it hard to maintain scheduled circulation. 

"It's a dark tunnel with no light right now." - Bruce Valpy, publisher, Northern News Services Limited

He said that many of the papers' advertisers are shutting their doors, which could leave the paper at a standstill in terms of money from ad sales.

"It's a dark tunnel with no light right now," said Valpy, who's laid off seven people this week, adding that depending on business this month, there may be more layoffs in April.

Founded in 1972 as News of the North, NNSL's flagship publication News/North is a Northwest Territories institution, along with Nunavut News and the company's network of community papers, including Yellowknifer.

Local news vital, says musician and writer

When author and musician Dave Bidini came to the North as a visiting columnist for Yellowknifer, he found the paper "symbolic" of the power that hyper-local stories can have in connecting communities. 

"Small news, local news, is vital news," he said.  

Bidini was so inspired by the papers, including the Inuvik Drum, Hay River Hub and Kivalliq News, that he started his own print publication, called the West End Phoenix, in his corner of Toronto. 

Shelagh Howard

Bidini, who is also a member of the band the Rheostatics, added that he thinks News North's decision makes sense right now. But he says a challenge for any local paper moving to an online space is that the internet is a much more competitive environment when it comes to human attention.

"There's an intimacy between a community and a newspaper."

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced more supports would be coming for journalism outlets. 

"Right now, it is more important than ever that Canadians have access to the latest news and information," he said, during his daily press briefing. "To ensure that journalists can continue to do this vital work, our government is announcing new measures to support them."

But a follow-up press release from the Minister of Heritage noted only minor changes to existing programs. Firstly, it said an advisory board is now in place to determine which companies qualify for journalism-related tax cuts already promised in the 2019 federal budget. Secondly, it promised a new "simplified process" for access to the Canada Periodical Fund, which gives grants to print magazines and non-daily newspapers.

A different media landscape

For more than a decade, newspaper circulation numbers have been plummeting as readers increasingly move online to get their news. 

But north of 60, the combination of ink and newsprint has remained a powerful — and popular — way to communicate, with several made-in-the-north print publications serving readers across the territories.

One significant factor boosting readers' interest in print may be that internet in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut is expensive and often limited.

Valpy hopes the stories his papers tell will bring Northerners to NNSL's website, where people can read online articles, or browse PDF versions of the papers. 

"The ones who I'm a little concerned about are the seniors who rely on a physical paper," he said. "I mean, I love newspapers ... but I'm a senior, too. So I would prefer that, but it's just temporary. 

"This COVID crisis is ongoing, and as long as everyone behaves themselves and does the right thing, we should get through this," he added. "And then we'll be back to printing."

Valpy also pointed to recent changes from telecom companies and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that give northerners more data at lower rates. He says he hopes this change will allow people to get more local news online.

How are other papers doing?

While Northern News Services is suspending print, Yukon News publisher Stephanie Newsome says at her bi-weekly paper, it's business as usual.

Yukon News is a publication of Black Press Media, which owns dozens of publications in Canada and the United States.

Dave Croft/CBC

"So far, we are all systems go," she told CBC. "it's very important to us to continue providing our local news coverage to all of the Yukon."

Jim Butler, editor of the independent Whitehorse Star, says his paper working with a skeleton staff, as more people work from home or take sick leave out of an abundance of caution.  

The paper, which has a circulatio of 3,500, has reduced its output by "a couple hundred" copies, he said, but other than that they have no plans to slow down.

The paper dropped from five editions a week to three about a year ago.

"We've been publishing for 120 years, non-stop," said Butler. "We're taking every effort we possibly can to make sure the virus doesn't change that."

In response to a media request, Nunatsiaq News, based in Iqaluit, told CBC that the newspaper would offer a statement about its operations later this week.