Fort McMurray newspaper to publish less often, more emphasis on website

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. – The newspaper that serves Fort McMurray is bracing for more change six months after a wildfire forced its staff to flee the northern Alberta city along with more than 80,000 other people.

Fort McMurray Today has announced it will only publish two times a week and focus more on posting stories to its website. It published six days a week before the fire.

Managing editor Olivia Condon said a lot has changed since those chaotic days in May.

“Our subscriptions list has completely changed since the fire,” she said. “Probably 2,000 of our subscribers no longer have homes.”

Condon said the main reason for the publishing change is Postmedia Network Inc.’s (TSX:PNC) strategy of delivering news in digital formats.

Fort McMurray Today is telling its readers that it will continue updating its website with news and information.

Starting next week, the newspaper is to publish on Tuesdays and Fridays. A different paper featuring softer news is to be delivered every Thursday.

When the city was shut down in May, Fort McMurray Today continued publishing a paper that was put together in Edmonton and distributed at evacuation centres. As grateful as evacuees were for the paper, Condon said, the biggest demand for news about the city was online.

She said Fort McMurray Today is adapting to an evolving media industry. Since the fire, the paper’s hits from Facebook have increased tenfold.

“For us, that really reinforced the importance of digital news,” Condon said.

“Essentially, everyone has a cellphone or a laptop or access to the Internet. In this case, not everyone has a home where we can deliver this news directly to.”

Sheldon Germain, deputy mayor of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said the paper’s decision to publish less often could pose a problem for the community.

But, at the same time, more people are going online to get the news, he said. During and after the wildfire, the municipality used its website and social media to provide residents with updated information.

“We have had concerns with how to get information out,” he said. “Whenever you have a less active media, you have less opportunity to get information to the residents.”

Brian Gorman, an associate professor of communications at MacEwan University, said what is happening in Fort McMurray is happening at newspapers across the country.

He said it doesn’t matter if the news is published in a paper or digitally on a website. The real issue is how much local news content there is.

“When these things dry up little by little by little you see nothing but imported news. You see wire copy. You see fluff,” he said. “You don’t see real coverage of what is going on in the community.”

The number of days the paper is publishing is changing, but not its commitment to covering local stories, Condon said.

“The city is in a complete state of flux. We are here. We get it. We are the community paper.”

— By John Cotter in Edmonton