Senate Standing Committee on Transportation and Communication, April 18, 2005


Notes for a presentation by Ivan Emke, Memorial University




Honourable Senators, ladies and gentlemen, first of all let me express my appreciation for the opportunity to speak with you this morning about an issue which I feel is important.  I will be providing you with a set of snapshots related to work that I have had the opportunity to be involved with over the past decade here in Newfoundland and beyond.


Originally trained in Communication, as well as Anthropology and Sociology and a smattering of Public Relations training, I now teach at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, which is Memorial Universityıs western Newfoundland campus, in Corner Brook.  I teach in a degree program called Social/Cultural Studies.  The degree is a combination of Anthropology, Sociology and Folklore.  In the program, we are interested in how media relate to peopleıs everyday lives ­ how the media offer a reflection of the world for us, but how they are also used as a stock of images to build our own identities.


In any age, there is the question of how people find out about their world.  Plato, for example, had this fetching image of us all being in a cave, watching some dancing shadows and reflections on the walls of the cave.  Those reflections were the only ways in which we came to know the world outside the cave.  Even though that was written long before television, it is an apt metaphor for media today ­ they are the reflections on the walls of our caves.  And so what those reflections are, and how they come to be, are important issues.


In relation to rural life in particular, we can ask ³how do people build a community in the midst of a media culture which is urban-based, youth-oriented and a hostage to the marketplace?²  Glance through almost any recent analysis of rural Canada and you will find a familiar litany of challenges: out-migration, globalization, resource depletion, governance issues, demographic trends, political marginalization, and so on. In the face of these problems, we might well wonder what it is that holds some small communities together. Why are many communities still seen as a place of great value and importance to their residents? What is it that roots these communities so solidly?  I would argue that dense communication networks are one of the things which hold those communities together.  However, some of those networks are under challenge.


Maybe it is a curiously Canadian thing to be concerned about communication, from our tradition of Innis and McLuhan and forward.  We may recognize its importance in maintaining links across a sprawling country.  To use some apt metaphors, communication can act as glue, oil and/or web.  It can bind people together, it can lubricate social relations and the spread of information, and it can link people across time and space.  Certainly communications can involve the transmission of messages in space, but it is also about the maintenance of a culture across time.  And that understanding may answer why, in Canada, we have had a series of governmental inquiries and fact-gathering exercises related to communication and broadcasting, from the Aird Commission of the late 1920s, to our presence here in St. Johnıs Newfoundland today.  We are acknowledging that a community, even a country, is a social product, woven together through communications networks, and we question to what extent our broadcasting entities contribute to this.


My experience


The research Iıll be mentioning today has been assisted by my participation with two networks.  The first is the Community Education Network, based in Stephenville.  Through my participation with this group (which has been funded by a variety of government agencies and special initiatives), I have been involved with participatory communication events, using radio, television and print media, often with students as co-participants.  These events have been located in southwestern Newfoundland, for the most part.


The second network is the New Rural Economy group, based at Concordia University in Montreal.  The research group, currently funded through an Initiative in the New Economy SSHRC grant, involves researchers from about a dozen universities, who work in 32 rural communities across Canada.  Our mission is to gain an understanding of the context and systems of rural Canada, provide useful insights and options for communities and offer policy advice to governments.  I am active in the Communication theme of this group, where we are interested in looking at the interaction between communication tools and social cohesion and capacity-building in rural communities.  The web site for the New Rural Economy is:


In this brief synopsis of some of the research from these teams, I would like to touch on the role of newspapers, cable television and radio, in particular.




There are institutions which may act as glue for communities, in the process promoting social cohesion and identity.  I want to touch on how, certain broadcasting and media initiatives can act as that glue.  One of these institutions might be the weekly community newspaper. Not all rural communities have their own newspaper, but for those who do, it is an institution which warrants far more study than it has received. It is important to reflect on the role of community newspapers, especially in the development of a region and in the cultivation and maintenance of social cohesion and identity.


To begin, in the New Rural Economy group, we have been looking at the relationship between certain communications tools and how well a rural community is ³doing.²  We divided our field sites into ³leading² and ³lagging,² based on a variety of economic and social measures.  We found, for example, a relationship between the two types of sites and whether they had local newspapers (weekly community newspapers) or established newsletters.  This is shown in the following table:



Leading sites

Lagging sites

Local newspaper







Well, the next step is to ask what is in these newspapers.  Is it all lost cats and records of Aunt Matildaıs visit from the Boston states?  No.  We also did a study of a sample of the community newspapers from our sites, coded all of the stories, and found the following themes of coverage.


Themes of coverage

% of stories

Community events








Human interest



As you can see, the focus is on substantive topics of interest to local people, including a significant percentage of information on economic issues.  Human interest stories were surprisingly low.  A comparison study of daily newspapers would be very interesting.


To look at community newspapers more closely, we started analyzing the role of community newspapers.  Community newspapers serve a number of important functions, including providing advertising space for local businesses and providing community information.  But they are more than reflectors, they are active participants.  We set out to study this in a national study of community newspaper editors.


We produced a list of all weekly community-based newspapers in Canada.  Weekly newspapers in cities of over 75,000 were eliminated from the list, as the focus of the research was to be on rural newspapers. The sampling frame then comprised 818 newspapers from across Canada. A questionnaire was sent to 648 randomly-selected newspapers from this list, in either English or French (depending on the language of the newspaper). Twenty-six of the questionnaires were returned due to an address change or the closing of the newspaper, making a total of 622 possible respondents. The analyses below are based on 205 responses, representing a 33% response rate.  First of all, we wanted to confirm the types of information which appeared in newspapers:


Types of content which appear every issue




Letters to the editor


Opinion columns by local writers


Reports from municipal or regional councils


Columns from local schools


Columns about local history


Columns written by local service groups


Provincially or nationally syndicated columns


Religion columns written by local people



As can be seen from this table, there is a significant amount of substantive local content in community newspapers which is not found in any other media.  The survey then provided a list of seven statements regarding the role of community newspapers, and the respondents were able to check off whether they strongly agreed, agreed, were unsure, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statements. This provided a sense of the editors' perceptions of their role.


First, it was accepted that the role of a community newspaper was different from that of a provincial or national daily newspaper. The statement was "The role of a community newspaper is different from the role of a provincial or national daily newspaper." Fully 94% agreed or strongly agreed with that sentiment (in fact, over 76% were in strong agreement, the most significant consensus of all of the items).


Second, the role of the newspaper in economic development was confirmed. Editors were asked to respond to the statement: "The community newspaper plays an important role in a region's economic development." Over 85% agreed or strongly agreed with that assertion. A third statement was: "This community would not be as successful if there was no community newspaper." Again, there was strong agreement with this, with 73% agreeing or strongly agreeing (only 10% disagreed or strongly disagreed). These two results indicate the editors' perceptions of an important economic development role for their newspapers.


Several statements were constructed to relate directly to the possible tension between pro-active reporting which takes a clear stance and the need for journalistic objectivity. In a sense, community newspapers have one foot in both camps, being both community voices as well as members of an industry which prides itself on being fair and even-handed. One rather prescriptive statement which referred to this tension was: "Sometimes community newspapers have to champion particular development strategies (and dismiss others) to help the community to develop appropriately." Here the results were more split, with 57.6% agreeing or strongly agreeing and 26.7% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing (15.7% were unsure). Nevertheless, it is significant that the majority of respondents agreed with the statement, which included rather strong normative language (such as "champion" and "dismiss").  However, in a further statement there appears to be more hesitation about this prescriptive role: "Community newspapers should consider the possible effects on the region in deciding whether to cover certain stories." To agree with this statement might mean to go against a strict journalistic ethos to bear witness, speak the truth, and damn the consequences. Just under half of the sample (43.1%) agreed or strongly agreed, and 48.6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. So, while the community newspaper editor is a part of the power structure of a community and may be interested in promoting certain development strategies, there is still an expectation of many of them that they have responsibilities to report the truth, even if it harms the region.


In a similar vein, the survey included the statement: "The most important goal of a community newspaper is to maintain journalistic integrity, even if it means having to criticize local leaders." Fully 92.2% agreed or strongly agreed with this (in fact, well over half -- 56.9% -- strongly agreed). In this response we see the dominance of the journalistic ethos over parochial concerns with protecting local sensitivities. The following table contains the full results of the previous statements.



Strongly agree




Strongly Disagree

The community newspaper plays an important role in a regionıs economic development






The most important goal of a community newspaper is to maintain journalistic integrity, even if it means having to criticize local leaders






Sometimes community newspapers have to champion particular development strategies (and dismiss others) to help the community to develop appropriately






Community newspapers should consider the possible effects on the region in deciding whether to cover certain stories






The role of a community newspaper is different from the role of a provincial or national daily newspaper






This community would not be as successful if there was no community newspaper








Cable Television


One of the technologies which the Community Education Network has been using has been community cable television.  In many communities, the cable system still maintains a community channel which broadcasts text messages as well as occasional programs.  We have been able to use these channels (which are often based in schools or service clubs, such as a Lionıs Club) to broadcast community programs.  Some of these programs have focussed on issues such as employment, strategic planning for a region, youth and the environment, and access to services such as water.  We have found the programs to be widely-viewed and valued, and  see them as opportunities for local people to gain some pride in their own community and the efforts of their leaders.


In this work, we have found our link with schools to be crucial.  Young people are not afraid of technology, and they seek opportunities to use technology to tell their own stories.  For example, one of the communities in which we have worked, Burgeo (on the southwest coast of Newfoundland), there is a community-owned and operated cable television system.  With just over 600 subscribers, they are able to pay for two full-time staff, one a technical expert and one who works on community programming.  (Those who question whether there is profitability in cable television could learn from the Burgeo Broadcasting System.)  The community is very supportive of BBS, with over 95% of the people of the community watching the weekly news show, ³This week in Burgeo² (according to a telephone survey of residents).  In fact, some people pay their cable bill a year in advance, which is a remarkable indicator of community pride!  One of the prime engines of the BBS is youth who volunteer to help out with technical matters, as well as on-air talent.  Every year, they accept 14 new youth volunteers, and there are always waiting lists.  In fact, the new school complex in Burgeo has included space for the BBS television studios.  This link between community cable television and the local school is repeated in many other rural Newfoundland communities ­ Trout River, Port Saunders, Hampton, and so on.


The community cable channel used to be a more prevalent (and even required) part of the service of cable systems, but unfortunately the CRTC has been decreasing the requirements for such channels.  However, in many rural communities, the cable channel is a crucial form of communication.  I would challenge CRTC to have the courage to take a stand and reinstate the value of local investment in broadcasting by requiring community-based cable channels for every cable system.  I realize that the cable industry is worried about their competition in the satellite business, but I would argue that satellite services should also contribute to locally-based programming.  Maybe they could pay a small amount into a fund which would go to supporting community-based communication initiatives.  Indeed, if they had the vision, satellite systems could set up another channel, of all community-based shows (in some ways similar to some segments of the APTN schedule).  Without such foresight, television viewers will continue to be victims of the market in relation to channel choice.  To force satellite and cable systems to carry certain channels (such as APTN, for example) may seem to be ³tampering² by some.  However, the television system should be regulated in the public interest (this may seem rather old-fashioned, I realize ­ the idea of the airwaves being a part of the ³public ether² which should be protected).  It is in the public interest to provide a wider variety of locally-based communications outlets.  It is not in the public interest to provide yet another American cable specialty channel or Fox outlet, or whatever seems to be able to pay its way.


It has always struck me that community cable channels are a blessing for cable companies.  At present, the community channels are one clear advantage that cable systems have over satellite systems.  In a place like Burgeo, there are people who sign up for satellite services, but who still keep their cable service ­ just for the community programming.  I think that community programming can actually be a competitive advantage, and this message needs to be emphasized to cable operators.  Of course, they also ask, ³will people really watch local programs, if they are not slick like national programs?²  Of course they will.  Indeed, there are a number of very popular national shows which make fun of the slickness of mainstream media.  (Besides, I think that, in many communities, one could set up a camera in a mall and people would watch it, just to see if they noticed anyone that they recognized!)


In terms of our New Rural Economy research, we found that leading communities were more likely than lagging communities to have cable television systems.  Fully 89% of leading communities had cable, compared to 67% of lagging communities.





Another medium we have experimented with is radio.  Newfoundland is, in general, underserviced in relation to radio.  Drive across the province and notice the lack of choice throughout rural Newfoundland, and this becomes obvious.  There is plenty of space for community-based stations, operating on low-power and with limited schedules, but which would provide an essential communications function.


One of the strategies we have used is a program through Industry Canada, called Special Events Radio.  This allows a community-based group to broadcast, on a temporary FM frequency, within a given area.  This process has been used as a way to stimulate discussion of local issues, as well as a way to celebrate local culture.  As with television, youth are often interested in being involved in these events.  For example, in October of last year, we set up a broadcast in Tweed, Ontario, during a conference of the Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation.  This allowed us to broadcast some of the conference to the local host community.  But it also offered an opportunity to many of the local high school students to participate in a radio event.  In fact, one morning we arrived at the temporary radio station, in an old playhouse, to find a busload of high-energy high school students waiting for the station to go on the air!  We signed on, and they regaled the listeners with stories, songs and poetry of what it was like to be young and rural.


After one radio event in the Bay St. George South region of Newfoundland, we administered a survey, to find out whether these radio broadcasts had an effect on listeners.  Here is an example of our findings:


Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with the following statements regarding the radio broadcasts:









9) I learned something new during the community radio broadcast






10) I gained a new respect for the actions and abilities of local leaders during the broadcast






11) Since listening to the broadcast, I now have more hope for the future of my community






12) Since listening to the radio broadcast, I am now more interested in community affairs







In general, the responses to these questions were encouraging.  For three of the four statements, close to three-quarters of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed.  In terms of additional hope for the future, just over half of the respondents felt that the programs had increased their sense of optimism.  It could well be that the programs fed into a pre-existing sense of dedication and hope within many of the listeners, rather than having ³caused² the increased hope.  Nevertheless, whatever the origin of the hope, the fact that the programs increased their confidence in the community and in the leaders of the area is clearly significant.  It is evidence of the efficacy of this use of communication technology for community development assistance.


Does media matter?


For those still questioning whether it matters what is on our media systems, consider the following finding.  As a part of our research, the New Rural Economy did a household survey in 20 communities across Canada, randomly surveying 1,995 households, from Winterton, Newfoundland to Mackenzie, BC.  One of the questions we asked (on a rather long form), was how people managed change in their lives (whether it be employment-related, or family-related, or health-related).  In a modern, fractured society, with more mobility, fewer family connections, we found that a significant number of people used the media to manage change in their lives.  The question was where people turned for support to manage a major change.  The findings are in the following table:


Type of support

# using that type of support









Business people



Media supports were most common in changes related to financial, educational, and to some extent, personal achievement, and parenting (maybe consulting Dr. Spock on how to manage the changes toward a sleepless night).   It appears that people are using the media for direction.  They wander into doctorsı offices, with sheaves of papers from the internet in their hands (much to doctorsı dismay, at times).


Possible Policy Directions


Finally, it is obvious from the tone of the above that I have a number of recommendations to support community-based media.  But let me summarize several below.



To conclude, we have become an information society, or as it is more currently referred to, a Knowledge Society.  Now letıs make sure that we are also a Knowledge Democracy.  My over-arching argument is that, in order to achieve the latter, we need to pay attention to small-scale communication initiatives in rural communities.


Further information on any of the items above is available by contacting:


Dr. Ivan Emke

Chair, Social/Cultural Studies

Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Corner Brook, NL, A2H 6P9

709-637-6200, ext. 6322, Fax: 709-639-8125