Put university graduates to work in small towns to eliminate student debt, save local newspapers
You are a recent university graduate with a liberal arts degree. History, English, Poli Sci, take your pick (though probably not Classics or Theology). You have moved back into your parents’ suburban home and have a healthy amount of debt from student loans. With a tight job market for a CV like yours, you work the morning shift at the local café to make your $500 monthly payments. (If the café is too clichéd, then you live with an aunt. And install windows.) One day, you return home to find a piece of mail waiting for you. A letter! For you! It can’t be a bill, since these processes have gone green and are withdrawn automatically. Silently pleading that it is not yet another wedding invitation—with the concomitant obligatory ostentatious gift—you slit the envelope open. A small card falls from its folds.
“CANADA REGISTRATION BOARD” it reads at the top, next to a facsimile of the nation’s coat of arms and a six-digit identifying number. The card continues: “This is to certify that [Your Name] residing at [Your Address] is duly called to register for the national purposes of Canada this [yesterday’s date].” A sloppy sideways signature marks the bottom of the page, and on the back are instructions for where and when you are to appear.
You feel slightly numb. You had heard of a recent bill that passed through the legislature that reinstated, after nearly a century of absence, some form of conscription to national service, but you assumed that this reinstatement was little more than the party in power making good on an election promise to enhance civic engagement. Besides, what sort of “national purposes” could you serve? The only real images that this little card conjures up are of bearded men holding Zippos to them in the ’60s, or of old posters from Canada’s own crisis declaring that “The Slacker Must Not Rule.” But no hot war looms, and the army seems to be well stocked anyway. The government has not proposed any major infrastructure project for which labour needs would outstrip supply. Why could you have possibly been drafted?
Another slip of paper falls out of the envelope. This one, mercifully, seems to be personally addressed and less obviously officious. “Dear [Your Name],” it begins. “You have been selected to participate in a new pilot program. Given your educational background, as part of the new National Service Act, you will report for journalism work. Your length of service has been set at 18 months, and you will be stationed at the community newspaper in Wrightborough, Ontario. Compensation rates vary from posting to posting, but at the completion of your service, assuming a satisfactory performance, your educational debt will be eliminated. Prior to your stationing at Wrightborough, you will receive six weeks of basic training. Please report by the end of next week to your local government office to proceed. This service is compulsory. If you believe you may qualify for a medical exemption, you may indicate this upon reporting.”
Drafted! Stationed! Eighteen months! Wrightborough, previously unknown to you, turns out to be a small town far from your city. Its community paper is part of no conglomerate. At basic training, which you reluctantly attend after concluding that bone spurs will not preclude you from participating, the whole system is explained by the attending officer, a kindly retired journalist who was herself requisitioned into her position.
“This program is indeed a trial,” she tells you and your class of a hundred other similarly positioned recent graduates. “Its nascence comes from several concerns, but the biggest is a general collapse in faith in democracy. There are only two responses to this—to let the wind sweep us where it may, or to try and recommit to some principles we might have once had. Faith in the media is even lower than faith in democracy, and falling just as fast.” Trying to repair this faith with the big outlets is too daunting a task, she says, and so it was decided to begin by bucking up local community papers in isolated places in a trial run. Where there were once real papers in these towns, with writers and editors who cared, a long period of corporate raiding blew holes in their hulls that scuttled them. And now no one wants to move there.
The rest of training is relatively straightforward. You are taught the basic tenets of fact-checking, interviewing and note-taking, forced to read through a few different newspapers a day. “You all have read thousands of news articles in your lives,” the group is told. “You know it works intuitively. The form is not hard.” You are brought frequently to the most important of journalistic offices, the bar, and taught that this place is not about—at least not just about—getting drunk but more importantly a spot for hearing the news before it’s the News. During your last week, you all meet individually with natives of the towns to which you’ll be dispatched and given primers about the places you’ll be going. Wrightborough, lonely as it is, doesn’t seem such a bad place to be for 18 months.
A short while later, after having been given a spell of leave, you are deposited by bus on Main Street. Your term starts today—a car mechanic shop is having its 50th anniversary celebration, a school has its talent show and, most important, there is a council meeting where a controversial development plan is set to be approved. You pull out a notepad and get to work. ♦
Former Voice reporter Samuel Piccolo is a PhD student in Political Theory at the University of Notre Dame. He holds a degree in International Political Economy from Brock University (2017). In 2019, he received the Dalton Camp Award, a prize given by Friends of Canadian Broadcasting for the best essay on media and democracy. This essay orginally appeared on the FCB website.