Municipalities in Alberta are moving to online advertising for public notices instead of using local papers to get the word out, a move media professionals say could negatively impact government transparency.
Through the Municipal Government Act (MGA), Albertan communities are required to advertise bylaws, council meetings, and public hearings, through local papers. In 2017, however, the provincial government added legislation that allows municipalities to pass their own bylaws outlining the advertising rules for their community. These methods can include electronic means, such as a city’s own website or social media accounts.
Since then, several municipalities across Alberta have passed their own advertising bylaws, including the City of Edmonton, Leduc County, the City of Lacombe, and the Town of Morinville.
St. Albert is currently pursuing its own advertising bylaw, which will come before council for final approval on Aug. 15. The vote will be preceded by a public hearing, where members of the public can register to share their opinion on the proposed bylaw.
If passed, the bylaw will allow St. Albert to publish notices through one or a combination of these methods: the City of St. Albert’s website, the City of St. Albert’s official social media sites, and/or on local media outlets’ official websites or social media sites.
The bylaw mirrors several other existing ad bylaws in municipalities — including Leduc County, the City of Lacombe, and Morinville — which outline a similar suite of options for city administration in sharing public notices.
Marta Caufield, St. Albert’s deputy solicitor, outlined the benefits of the bylaw in a report to council from the April 19 meeting where it passed its first reading.
These benefits included increasing the ability to use lower-cost methods of advertising, modernizing the city’s communications, and allowing St. Albert to “act more nimbly and quickly in response to timely matters.”
Media expert raises concerns
April Lindgren, a journalism professor at the Toronto Metropolitan University — formerly known as Ryerson — expressed skepticism about the advertisement bylaws adopted by Albertan municipalities.
“People don’t wake up in the morning and go to the local municipal website to find out information,” Lindgren said.
Further, Lindgren said municipal websites only showcase one perspective, meaning seeking information on these avenues comes with limits.
“You get into a situation with the potential for a vacuum of misinformation and disinformation if there’s no other sort of counter-source,” Lindgren said.
Ad bylaws anticipate closure of local outlets
Some municipalities that have adopted advertisement bylaws cite the future disappearance of local news outlets as a major driver for adopting the change.
For example, a report to council included with the City of Leduc’s advertising bylaw outlines that a local publication must be used as the second round of advertising following city methods such as their own website and Facebook page.
However, the bylaw stipulates that “if it is determined that no local publication means exist to provide wide exposure to the notice/advertisement,” first round methods are permitted.
Ryan McAdams, group publisher for the Alberta Newspaper Group, highlighted that planning for the closure of local publications in ad bylaws appears contradictory.
“More papers are closing because government spending in newspapers has declined at a level that is unprecedented in the last 10 years,” McAdams said.
A March 2016 Canadian Heritage report found that between 2008-09 and 2014-15, federal government ad spending fell by 31 per cent for community newspapers while increasing by 106 per cent for the Internet.
McAdams argued the current trend of local governments moving notices online has a “very dangerous potential outcome.”
“They’re potentially removing a level of transparency,” McAdams said. “Not everyone will know to look there, and it’s easily removed or changed on a website … where a printed copy is eternal. Once you print it, you can’t retract or change it.”
While some publications The Gazette reached out to said the municipalities they report on had continued advertising with them following the creation of ad bylaws, Stephen Jeffrey, a publisher with the Chestermere Anchor, said the city has ceased advertising with the paper all together.
Jeffrey said during the pandemic, The Anchor’s staff fell from 11 to five due to loss in ad review, a number he calls a “skeleton” of the paper's former self.
Now, the city sends along news briefs about city hall matters, which Jeffrey said differ “very little” in appearance from the paper’s own articles.
“To me, it’s just wrong in the fact that they have the ability to make public what they want to see public,” Jeffrey said.
The City of Chestermere did not respond to The Gazette's questions related to their advertisement bylaw and its implementation by press deadline Tuesday.
Concern for residents without Internet access
In addition to potential transparency issues with municipal ads no longer appearing in local news publications, experts highlighted the problems with moving advertisements online for those with limited Internet access.
McAdams said areas in rural Alberta either don’t have Internet access at all, or don’t have consistent Internet access.
“I believe the towns and counties have an obligation to continue that relationship where they’re communicating to the residents and to the ratepayers in a fashion that they have access to,” McAdams said.
For McAdams, this means keeping advertisements in local newspapers.
“If you put it on the website and someone doesn’t see it, they can say ‘well it was on our website,’” McAdams said of municipalities. “But when residents are getting a paper delivered to them, they’re going to look through it.”
Leduc County’s new ad bylaw passed this March outlines electronic advertisement by means of the county’s website as the primary mode for notifying residents, with additional methods including newspaper advertising and social media posts also included as optional methods.
Renee Klimosko, general manager of financial and corporate services for the county, said the reduced newspaper circulation is the main reason the county adopted their ad bylaw, "particularly being a large municipality."
"We don't control newspaper distribution, and we're unable to guarantee that the current distribution levels will be maintained," Klimosko said.
Before the bylaw passed, county administration received public input expressing concerns about the change. Klimosko said these concerns centred around lack of computer, Internet, and cellphone access from residents who voiced support for news ads and letters as means of communication.
Klimosko said the county still advertises through local newspapers, though the bylaw does not require them to do so.
"From an administrative perspective, the processes we had before the bylaw still exist today," Klimosko said, adding that changing these methods has never been the county's intent.
The county is also working on alternative communications methods, Klimosko said, including encouraging residents and businesses to sign up for weekly electronic newsletters, which she described as a "direct line of communication."
"I do think there's value in advertising in different ways for as many people as possible to know about the issues that are coming in front of council," Klimosko said.
Similar changes scrapped in Saskatchewan
In the fall of 2019, the Province of Saskatchewan considered changes to legislation governing municipalities that would similarly allow municipalities to give their public notices online, instead of through local papers.
However, the province announced it would be dropping the proposed changes in 2020 after hearing enough community newspapers exist to ensure gaps in coverage would not prevent towns and villages from getting their notices out to the public.
Dennis Merrell, executive director of the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association (AWNA), said his group has plans to advocate to Alberta Municipalities and the minister of municipal affairs to challenge the MGA changes.
According to the MGA, before approval of their own advertising bylaw, council must be confident the methods in it would bring notices to "substantially all residents in the area to which the bylaw, resolution, or other thing relates, or in which the meeting or hearing is to be held."
Merrell said in AWNA’s view, the legislation fails to fill the requirement, and has the potential to bury essential notices on a website “that many people won’t ever see.”
“While [municipal advertising] is an important income source for our member newspapers, I think really as newspapers and journalists, what’s more important is that governments be fully transparent and meet that test,” Merrell said. “The biggest issue is the lack of transparency in government.”