One of the ideas the Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun implemented last year to encourage print readership was to dive into issues that matter to new residents in our city. We worked to ensure their stories were reflected in our news pages.
When we talked about the impact of new Calgarians in the community, the conversation often turned to Syrian refugees. We had covered the Syrian refugee story extensively. In 2015, Canada implemented a national project to welcome thousands of refugees from Syria who were fleeing their conflict-torn homeland. Ultimately, more than 48,000 Syrians settled in Canada over the following two years, with several thousands landing in Calgary.
Much of the initial coverage was focused on political and social issues, but we began to talk about what was going to happen next for these new arrivals. Our local news editor started a dialogue with reporters: What now? Would new arrivals be able to find work? Learn English? Live happily in a foreign, snowy land?
Two of our visual journalists, photographers/videographers Leah Hennel and Kerianne Sproule, took the question even further. They talked about how these new Calgarians were dealing with some of the everyday joys and struggles we all face: marriages, babies, deaths, health issues, and myriad family issues. How were these new Calgarians dealing with the challenges of life?
To find out, Hennel visited Syrian families and began photographing the same people over a period of many months. While visiting one family, Hennel taught a young Syrian girl to use a camera. The girl gave Hennel the nickname “Click-click,” referring to the camera’s sound. A number of other children taught Hennel rudimentary words in their native language. Several Syrian families trusted Hennel with their stories to such an extent that they invited her to key family events, including a wedding, which led to a stunning photo essay.
This ongoing project enabled us to tell stories of how our city embraced Syrian refugees and to share their struggles and successes with the community. It demonstrated how Syrians have made our community richer by opening new businesses (a catering company, a chocolate shop, and a soap manufacturing business) and by working to help the community that has welcomed them, through activities such as blood donor clinics, preparing meals for the homeless, and day-to-day acts of kindness.
The Calgary Herald and Calgary Sun did what newspapers do best — we committed to ongoing local coverage of this story throughout 2017. We committed to providing in-depth, contextual stories, analysis, and photos. We made a decision to commit resources and ongoing space to tell the stories of Syrian refugees, as many hit the first-year anniversary of their arrival. At a time when many other media turned their attention and cameras elsewhere, we stayed on the story.
The results were astounding. On days when we published material from this project, we experienced single-copy circulation lifts up to 19%. The stories were posted on bulletin boards across the city and shared by numerous social agencies that work with Syrian refugees. We also received feedback from Syrians and many others in the community, who thanked us for taking the time to follow these stories.
In addition to this increased engagement with our print product, we achieved significant learnings in terms of how we can better work with diverse cultural groups. Those learnings included everything from how to appropriately enjoy tea with a Syrian family to communicating with non-English speakers via iPhone translation apps.
This project resulted in increased diversification of our content and our journalists’ contact lists. They formed professional relationships with these new Canadians that continue today.