Photo by Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Local

This story is a collaboration with The Philanthropist Journal, an online publication for those interested and engaged in the charitable and non-profit sector in Canada.

“The people of Scarborough are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it any more,” Councillor Norm Kelly declared at a Toronto city hall meeting in January 2007.

The councillor from the city’s eastern suburb had a bone to pick with Toronto media. When reporting crime in other parts of the city, the media named intersections. But when it came to crime in the ethnically diverse east end, the incidents were reported to have occurred in “Scarborough.”

Scarborough is a community of beautiful neighbourhoods, home to world-class entertainers and the city zoo, the official meeting memo went on to say; painting the entire suburb of 600,000 people with a broad brush whenever there was bad news had become intolerable to residents.

Toronto’s mayor at the time, David Miller, then took the unusual step of reaching out to media outlets to request a halt to the practice.

The episode, as clumsy as it was, brought the role of media in shaping community narrative to the fore. As someone who had lived in Kelly’s Scarborough ward for most of my life and paid attention to news, it felt like progress. For a while thereafter it was impossible to read or watch a local crime story from the Toronto Star, CFTO, or CityNews and not pay close attention to how the reported location was handled. Newsrooms, as far as I could tell, got the message. What did not change, however, was the fact that the stories were still predominantly about crime.

We know that local journalism plays a crucial role in fostering neighbourhood change. At its best, it helps us make sense of our corner of the world and acts as a watchdog that keeps local power and institutions in check. At its worst, the opposite can happen, especially in disadvantaged communities, with media reports feeding into stigma and eroding trust.

The local news industry in 2024 is a skeleton of its former self. There have been untold rounds of closures and layoffs over the past decade, and the future looks bleak. In the frantic rush to save it, we’ve managed to skirt the needed discussions about its long-standing flaws. Of course, it is hard to gripe about the quality of local news when there are mounting concerns over whether it will even exist at all. But if local journalism is to be saved, we must contend with how to make it better, not just try to salvage whatever’s left.

A year after Kelly took his grievance to city hall, journalism researcher April Lindgren analyzed the content and mapped the location of local news stories from the Toronto Star—Canada’s largest-circulation daily newspaper—over a 28-day period. Lindgren’s research found striking deficits in coverage not just in Scarborough, but all across Toronto’s suburbs. In the map she produced, Toronto’s downtown was dense with news activity, while things were sparse in the surrounding regions. Even more troubling was the finding that, while arts and entertainment topics dominated coverage in the city core, police-related stories were by far the most common subject matter in the surrounding areas—even though they actually had lower crime rates than downtown neighbourhoods.

Before we rush to re-indict the Toronto Star over this old piece of research, let me just say that if the study were repeated for any other news outlet, the result would likely be the same, and probably much worse today. Police stories are easily obtained by journalists (through police bulletins, radio communications, press conferences), while stories about other topics can require more investments of time, resources, and on-the-ground presence. In a shrinking industry, those resources are scarcer now than ever before.

In 2009, when Lindgren’s study was published, the Toronto Star’s newsroom staff complement was 610. By 2022, that number had fallen to 172. Across Canada, more than 500 local news operations have closed in nearly 350 communities over the last 15 years. A number of new outlets have also emerged over that period, of course, but they represent just a fraction of what’s been lost.

The reasons for the decline are well documented. In a nutshell: advertising, the lifeblood of news for much of the 20th century, dried up because internet giants like Google and Facebook have built superior machines for connecting brands with eyeballs. Craigslist, and later, Kijiji, took over local classifieds. The internet itself became flooded with news, real and fake, but mostly free. Legacy media outlets, stuck with business models heavy in fixed costs but increasingly thin on ad revenues, came undone. In Toronto, suburban community papers like the Scarborough Mirror and Etobicoke Guardian have ceased operations along with several city-wide alt weeklies, while online publications like the Torontoist took off and then crashed.

The Local launched in May 2019 as a non-profit interested in writing about corners of Toronto that are too often ignored or misunderstood. Instead of reporting the news of the day, we wanted to do the slow work of digging deeper into issues and then zooming out to explore their broader contexts. Our aim was not to compete with legacy media to break news, but to exist alongside it with the kind of in-depth and nuanced storytelling found in The Walrus or The New Yorker, but set within Toronto neighbourhoods. We wanted local journalism to not just survive but be great. We wanted to jettison the ad-dependent business model at the centre of the downward spiral but avoid putting up a paywall because residents should be able to freely access it. Journalism would be our work, but public service would be our purpose.

It was a compelling cause—and a terrible business idea that only charities could find a reason to support.

Unlike in the United States, donor-funded journalism is rare in Canada. A recent survey of locally focused digital news publications in Canada found that only 13 of 269 outlets, or less than 5 percent, are non-profits (The Local is one of them). In contrast, the same survey in the United States found that 321 of 1,327 outlets, or close to 25 percent, are non-profits.

This presented some challenges for fundraising. Without much of a track record, it was difficult to know who within the charitable sector might be interested, much less how to pitch them. And with so many important causes in the city, where would journalism even stand within a pile of grant proposals? Unlike a local food bank or women’s shelter, journalism’s case for support can be nebulous, often filled with high-minded notions of democracy and civic engagement and short on practical outcomes you can throw into a spreadsheet. But who, if not the charitable sector, is more accustomed to stepping in to fill a gap left by the failure of markets?

In September 2018, with the help of Kwame McKenzie, leaders from several of the city’s most respected charities gathered at a diner in midtown Toronto to discuss our pitch for a journalism start-up. The organizations included McKenzie’s Wellesley Institute, as well as United Way Greater Toronto, Toronto Foundation, and YMCA of Greater Toronto.

As it turned out, saving journalism wasn’t at all what the funders were interested in; they wanted to strengthen communities. In the months prior to the meeting, when The Local was an experimental storytelling project at a hospital-based innovation centre, we had produced a collection of stories situated in different Toronto neighbourhoods: Oakridge, Parkdale, Chinatown, Thorncliffe Park. It was our approach to that pilot project—which was data-driven yet consisted of ample fieldwork and community voices—that proved to be our unique value proposition.

We agreed to a combined commitment of $100,000 per year over three years to launch The Local as a non-profit. The original four funders were later joined by Metcalf Foundation, adding another $25,000 to the mix.

We couldn’t have asked for a better group of backers. Apart from helping us establish our initial governance structure and putting money into our bank account, they left us alone to pursue our mission. What they call trust-based philanthropy we call editorial independence, and it has worked beautifully.

Since then, other funders have joined our efforts. In 2022, The Local became a registered journalism organization (RJO)—one of just 11 in Canada, with qualified donee status and the ability to issue donation tax receipts. When that happened, we were able to expand the base of supporters to include individuals, who donate smaller amounts often on a recurring monthly basis.

Journalism would be our work, but public service would be our purpose. It was a compelling cause—and a terrible business idea that only charities could find a reason to support.

The world of journalism can be separated into two groups: a large, but shrinking, segment that does the newsy work of reporting daily happenings and a much smaller one doing “magaziney” stories somewhat disconnected from the news cycle. In those early days, our work took us far off the grid to explore problems that were systemic and ongoing that didn’t necessarily have much of a news hook. We churned out quarterly issues tackling topics like urban inequality, parks and recreation, and prisons and did a deep dive into a long-misunderstood neighbourhood in the midst of redevelopment. There was a nice tempo to our work, with plenty of room to think and make sense of the city.

Then the pandemic hit.

At first, we didn’t quite know what to do. Suddenly, everything had become daily news, and it was all COVID-19 all the time. Although urban health was an important beat for The Local, things were breaking at a pace that was far beyond what our tiny newsroom could handle. Besides, the big outlets were covering the pandemic heavily and our remit was to do stories traditional media overlooked, not compete with them. We might just have to sit this one out, I remember telling myself and the team.

But it didn’t take long before noticeable gaps in local coverage appeared, with dramatic consequences. In Toronto’s northwest, for instance, reporting was thin compared to the extent of infections and hospitalizations revealed by the early data. In June 2020, we published “​​A Local Pandemic,” where our reporters went deep into communities like Jane and Finch and showed how race, class, and the formidable virus came together with devastating effects.

Then there was Peel. Despite being one of the biggest municipalities in the country and home to large numbers of essential workers who kept the economy moving during the lockdown, the issues in Peel weren’t being reported by any of the major media outlets. Fatima Syed, a freelance journalist (now a reporter with The Narwhal) and a Peel resident, was frustrated by the lack of news coverage in her own backyard and contacted us about expanding our work into the neighbouring region. Needless to say, her trio of features in spring of 2021 about Peel’s neglect, starting with “You Can’t Stop the Spread of the Virus if You Don’t Stop It in Peel,” was groundbreaking and opened the floodgates to a deluge of stories about Peel by mainstream media. Two weeks after Syed’s Peel story, the Ontario government began allocating the majority of its vaccines to provincial “hot spots”—with Peel being among the biggest beneficiaries. Syed’s work won the prestigious Press Freedom Award in 2022. In accepting the prize, she thanked the selection committee “for once again shining a spotlight on Peel Region with this award and allowing this story to hopefully provoke a discussion about the dangers of news deserts.”

It’s strange to think about a municipality next to the biggest, most media-dense city in the country as a news desert. How can this be, when it’s such a huge market?

The truth is, it’s also a huge market for big tech’s superior advertising machine. History will likely look back on journalism over the past century as an aberration. With the exception of perhaps the CBC (which is facing an existential moment of a different kind) and a handful of regional public broadcasters, the private sector proved itself to be proficient at financing and delivering a public good. But now that ad dollars are moving elsewhere, we are left with gaping holes in our information ecosystem.

These holes were readily apparent during the pandemic. More subtle and ongoing is how the decline of local news affects citizens’ relationship to their local governments. Forget coverage of the regular proceedings at city hall; all across Canada, a growing number of communities are without even the most basic information about local elections that take place only once every few years. Who are the candidates, what’s their track record? Even in Toronto—where races for mayor, councillors, and school trustees are all held in the same municipal election—coverage usually starts and stops at the race for mayor, with next to no reporting on trustees. It’s been shown that cities with sharp declines in local news experience reduced political competition and lower voter turnout during elections.

Last fall, nearly five years after The Local was founded, we decided to throw a bunch of resources into covering a local by-election. We assigned photographers, reporters, and a team of fact-checkers to cover a race of vital importance to the community. That vote was in Scarborough Southwest. And, like many of the stories we cover, it was one where the public interest and the economics of traditional media would not have aligned—a compelling cause but a terrible business idea. It was, in other words, a Local story.