In Fort Smith, NWT, you’ll find world-class rapids and access to Wood Buffalo National Park. What you won’t find is a local newspaper.
It’s been more than two years since the Northern Journal, based out of Fort Smith and focused on northern Alberta and the NWT’s South Slave region, closed down due to decreased ad revenue. True, there are still local stories on CBC and in the territorial News/North newspaper, but the days of dedicated local and regional coverage rooted in Fort Smith are gone.
“The reach of the Northern Journal went surprisingly beyond the community of Fort Smith,” says Meagan Wohlberg, who was the paper’s editor for four years. “It always had its heart in Smith and it was always most important to residents there. Even now, years after it closed, I still hear from people about how much they miss the paper and how good it was.”
The North, not unlike the rest of the country, has had many media titles close or scale back in recent years. “I’ve seen the Northern Journal disappear, the Edge YK online presence disappear, and the Deh Cho Drum disappear,” she says.
“And every time a publication folds it limits the amount and type of coverage we’re getting. When a newspaper closes it means there are fewer stories because there aren’t as many people investigating, reporting, and writing.”
Asking questions can get things done. Wohlberg remembers spending weeks writing stories to increase public knowledge of the byzantine 2014 devolution agreement, which saw the federal government transfer Crown lands and resources to the NWT. Their coverage on fracking around that time led to public pressure on the GNWT to look more deeply into the impact it could have on the environment and on public safety. And during a forum on addictions and community wellness, the Northern Journal asked why prescription opioid abuse wasn’t included in the government’s plan. Later, it was.
After 40 years with an award-winning weekly paper, where do locals turn? For now, it’s Facebook. Like many Northern communities, the local buy/sell/trade page is vital. Fort Smith’s has more than 5,600 members—double the town’s 2,500-person population. This page touts everything from free rock giveaways to Spanish lessons—it’s part sounding board, part events listing, part classified section.
Nikita Paziuk, who runs the town’s liquor store by day, created the online bulletin board in 2011 to keep her connected to what’s going on in Fort Smith. She’s administered the page ever since and takes the responsibility seriously, monitoring dialogue to ensure nothing gets out of control. On occasion, she has had to delete inappropriate posts, like when people publicly name youth suspected of—or caught—vandalizing property in the community.
But a community forum isn’t the same as a community newspaper. Editors and journalists are trained to collect and synthesize information and disseminate it in a simple and understandable way. They debate whether releasing a vandal’s name, for instance, is in the public’s interest. Without that single-minded dedication and attention paid to civic issues, important decisions and discussions can go uncovered.
A less informed citizenry is a less engaged citizenry, says Don Jaque, who published the Journal for four decades. “When you don’t have that examination, when you don’t have somebody doing that in a public forum, everything goes to the backrooms and nobody talks about it,” he says. Newspapers are a permanent and historical record, unlike a Facebook page, where a controversial comment or post can appear one moment and be deleted the next.
“We need to have journalism. We need to have someone looking at things and delving into them and bringing an understanding of those things to the people,” he says. “There are two things that journalists do. One is to get the good news out and highlight positive things. The second is to examine the bad things, why they take place, what is being done, and what can be done.”
But without a local paper, there’s an information vacuum. “In Fort Smith there are really serious issues that are being ignored,” says Jaque. “We have a sewage lagoon that is perched on the banks of a river that has an unstable slope. Not far away was the ’68 slide, where eight houses went down and a person was killed. We need a new sewage lagoon. Our water intake is at risk. The downtown core is at risk.” A newspaper wouldn’t fix these problems all on its own—but you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know one exists.