TVO hub looks to explore Southwestern Ontario

Adela Talbot // Western NewsMary Baxter is one of four full-time journalists embedded across the province on behalf of TVO’s Ontario Hubs, a new project designed to explore local issues and increase public engagement. Responsible for the southwestern Ontario hub, Baxter will work out of the new Faculty of Information and Media Studies and Nursing Building.

Cutbacks in newsrooms across the country have not only resulted in an increasingly documented dearth in local journalism – they have also severed ties that bind communities by way of shared experiences and concerns.

It’s a journalism “crisis” TVO wants to address within the province with a new initiative, funded by a $2-million donation by Goldie Feldman and the Barry and Laurie Green Charitable Trust – one of the largest philanthropic gifts to journalism in Canada.

TVO’s Ontario Hubs, announced last week, is a new project designed to explore local issues and increase public engagement across the province. The initiative will expand TVO’s current affairs model through ‘journalism hubs’ the public broadcaster hopes provides in-depth analysis and inclusive debate, resulting in more engaged citizenship.

Hubs will be led by full-time TVO journalists embedded in regions across the province in northwestern, southwestern, and central Ontario, with more locations to be announced. Editors will create and lead networks of freelancers and contributors to share stories important to their specific communities.

“There’s been a challenge, in terms of media coverage, throughout the province, given the contraction of legacy media in so many different communities,” said Mary Baxter, who will be responsible for the southwestern hub, and work out of the new Faculty of Information and Media Studies and Nursing Building.

“In this region, there are a lot of smaller media outlets, hyperlocal publications and web-based publications springing up, while the legacy media here are so reduced in numbers that they’re tending to focus more on the local community. But we really are a region; we have a lot of shared issues and challenges,” she continued.

“TVO wanted to bring high-quality journalism efforts to the regions. We’re not about daily reporting – we’re about doing in-depth journalism, being the place where there is still the time, when somebody tells you something, to call somebody else to talk about that. Sadly, in a lot of legacy media, there’s no time or resources to do that anymore.”

TVO is the second public broadcaster to set up shop in London in the last few months. In May, CBC London expanded its footprint in London, by launching a new morning show and local news website.

Baxter grew up in Toronto but has lived and covered southwestern Ontario – particularly its farming and agriculture communities – as a freelancer for years before stepping into her current role. She will be working to establish connections and a team of experts and freelancers to identify issues and ideas of importance to the region. Collectively, her team will report on how these issues matter locally, regionally and to the entire province.

Baxter will contribute written pieces to while also contributing to weekly feature reports for The Agenda with Steve Paikin, which will air Fridays. Segments won’t take the form of a traditional news report – they will be longer, more in-depth and potentially a precursor for a panel discussion on The Agenda.

“There’s an understanding of the region that I almost liken to the GTA because of shared similar interests. We are more rural-based, but we still kind of function in the same way as the GTA unit,” Baxter said.

“We have environmental concerns we’re looking at. Just one small example of that is the phragmites infestation along our shorelines and the implications for our natural environments. The soil here is very rich; it’s a place where we’ve mined natural resources for years. Now, we see issues coming out of that. We have agricultural questions, phosphorus in the Great Lakes, oil production and manufacturing,” Baxter noted.

“How do we find our identity after manufacturing? Identity is maybe a big issue because we also have that pull from the GTA, and we see that play out in things like the high-speed rail issue. If we connect that way, do we become a suburb of Toronto?”

The region, as Baxter sees it, needs to be defined in order to properly hone in on common issues of concern. ‘What is southwestern Ontario?’ is a burning question, she said, adding she sees it as everything west of, and likely including, Guelph. Individuals who live in the region are highly mobile and commute from one community while living in another and, as such, they personally encounter common concerns across the region that deserve a journalist’s attention.

“It’s a lot of area to cover. I want to reach out to different communities and develop a strategy for connecting and (sharing stories and issues). But I also want to make sure I am here (in London) and accessible to students and the community,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to working with students here – to boost our freelance contributors, including students at Western and area colleges, but also to look for specialists in their field to provide analysis on current events that touch the region.”

There has been some discussion on providing Western’s Journalism students internship opportunities through Ontario Hubs. The fact her office will be on Western’s campus shows TVO’s commitment to its education mandate, she added.

“It’s all new. We’re exploring as we go along. I would certainly like to work with everyone.”