Small group gathered at event

“Don’t count out small-market media.” – Warren Schlote, Guelph-Humber alumni and reporter at CBC Sudbury and the Manitoulin Expositor 

While much public discussion of media focuses on the Toronto-based operations, smaller non-GTA markets – perhaps their size makes them nimble and hungry – are vibrant and thriving. Think larger cities like Toronto are the only playing fields where your media career can flourish? Think again!

Take it from the grads: Humber College alumna Sarah Woodley and Guelph-Humber’s own Warren Schlote both sought out small-market media jobs after finishing their education in the big city. After living in the GTA his entire life, Schlote sought out adventure and change, accepting a multimedia position at the Manitoulin Expositor. With the town of Little Current, Ont. boasting a whopping population of 1,500 people on Manitoulin Island, Schlote definitely wasn’t in Toronto anymore.

He explains, “I have done a whole wide variety of things that I never expected out of a small community news organization. They’re not just small little places where nothing happens; there’s quite a lot more to them. I think working at a place like that does wonders to set you up for the rest of your working life.”

Woodley, now a program manager and morning host on the radio show The Fox and Blackburn Media Inc. in Sarnia, Ont., shares the same sentiment. “I did my studies in Radio Broadcasting, and [my professors] all said smaller markets allow you to get your foot in the door and get experience,” she says, “I came to Blackburn Media in Sarnia in May of 1997 when I graduated from Humber, and I’m still here!”

“Going to a small market really worked for me. I opened myself up to every opportunity and didn’t say ‘no’. I made myself available, worked on all the necessary skills, and now here I am.”

Sarah Woodley

So, what sets smaller markets apart? Mainly the atmosphere.

Jake Bourrie, Director of Marketing & Corporate Partnerships at Sarnia’s OHL team, the Sarnia Sting, has always had a love of hockey. Growing up in Canada, hockey was in his blood. Bourrie interned with the London Knights OHL team in their marketing department, then went on to work for a year as an account executive with the Toronto Marlies before landing in Sarnia.

“The culture and work environment in Toronto is very different compared to a smaller market,” he says. “In Toronto specifically, people are trying to climb the ladder and are looking for the next opportunity, which creates more of a competitive culture – whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But, here in Sarnia it is a bit slower-paced and more relaxed.”

Woodley echoes the sentiment. “The idea with a lot of radio is you have to move to a bigger market with bigger audiences. But there is also higher turnover and more pressure,” she explains. “If you aren’t getting your numbers, you’re out.”

Another major difference between small and large market media is budgeting. Being in a smaller city means less funds for media initiatives and campaigns. Because of this, small market media professionals often need to pivot their thinking and reimagine the meaning of marketing.

“The mindset of scaling and growth is more attached to the local community than ‘if I put more money into marketing, then I’m going to get more money in return,’” says Jenni Shaw, founder of social media and content management agency Social Wellness Co.

While large markets like Toronto have greater budgets, you sometimes need to pay to play when it comes to brand exposure. However, in smaller markets, exposure relies heavily on word-of-mouth.

“Media isn’t so expensive,” explains Shaw. “There are a lot of ways to connect with local media and form those connections with small businesses.”

“In small cities I find that collaborations are so huge,” she adds. “Everybody knows everybody, right? In smaller towns it’s not as much about virality, but brand awareness.”

Narrowing down your focus is essential. “What we especially focus on in a smaller market, perhaps more than in a larger market, is our core product,” states Woodley.

“It is essential in small markets just to show up! Going to local events, taking photos, tagging people, sharing photos, and ultimately just talking to the community members is a great way to engage your audience.”

Jenni Shaw

Advertising in small markets definitely demands creativity and innovation. With the goal of gaining local support at the forefront, success in small markets comes down to one word: personability.

For Bourrie, the contrast between working for a team in Toronto and one in Sarnia was stark. “The Marlies were marketed more as an affordable live entertainment option in the GTA, whereas here in Sarnia there aren’t as many options to spend your disposable income,” he explains. “We feel that being positive role models will lead to kids wanting to see their heroes at the game, and parents wanting to give their kids the opportunity to see these positive role models.”

With the Sting, Bourrie says there is more of a focus on grassroots and community-based marketing programs despite some big-name sponsors. “We just did a program with our partners at Imperial Oil and Esso where we went and pulled the Sting bus up to Lake Chipican in Sarnia, and the guys on the team got off and played pond hockey with some minor hockey teams and those from the community,” he says. “This was a really great initiative that got a lot of traction, whereas with the Toronto Marlies there are so many options – and the GTA is such a big place – that you aren’t really able to have those grassroots, community ties.”

Whether you’re a city slicker or a small-town homebody, there’s opportunity everywhere in this world. There is no one correct way to pursue a media career, and many journeys have winding roads. One piece of advice was echoed in every interview: don’t be afraid to take that jump and make the necessary connections.

“When I was at the Expositor, I was doing things that I never would have expected you could do at a small publication,” reflects Schlote. “I had a one-on-one interview with Premier Doug Ford at one point, I have spoken with cabinet ministers, I’ve done breaking news like crime reporting as it happens in the community.”

As for marketing, Woodley sums it up like this: “You still have the same ultimate goal, whether in a large or small market: helping clients promote their business.”

Your Media Future in… Manitoulin Island? Why working in smaller markets may be the way to go.

As graduation inches nearer and nearer for many post-secondary students, questions arise about the future. One thought pushes ahead of them all: what’s next?

Guelph-Humber graduate Warren Schlote shared these same feelings after finishing the then-titled Media Studies program, specializing in journalism. After completing his internship with The National on CBC News, he was eager to start his career.

 “I applied to jobs everywhere, from Charlottetown to Whitehorse. Right across the country,” he recalls. “I was looking for an adventure and was willing to go anywhere. I landed right in the middle and applied for a writer, editor, and photographer position at the Manitoulin Expositor on Manitoulin Island. It was a wonderful decision and I am very, very grateful for taking that leap.”

“The Expositor was my first career job where I was in a community-focused newsroom, versus The National where you’re working with Canada-wide coverage and stories, and stuff is being sent in to you.”

“Working in a small hyper-local newsroom, you’re the one that’s actually out there getting all of the information. Talking to people, and figuring out the pulse of the community, and how you can relay that to people in a way that’s meaningful and that they can connect with.”

According to Warren, there are two main benefits that come from working in a smaller market:

1. You’ll receive a greater range of experiences and opportunities

“When you work at a smaller place, you get to do interviews, chase and pitch stories, write and produce those stories. I even convinced the station to purchase a video camera and I started doing multimedia work with them. You definitely get a breadth of experience.”

2. You hold more responsibility

“The other reason that I think is absolutely key, especially for new journalists, is when you’re working in a small community that is very tight-knit, you are held to a greater standard of accountability for the work that you do.”

Ultimately, Warren Schlote absolutely recommends looking for internships or your first job in a smaller market.

“You get to do a lot more and build up your skill set. I think it could really pay off in the long run for sure.”

Featured Image Credit: Hivan Arvizu via Unsplash

Abigail Zalewski

Abby Zalewski is a fourth-year Media and Communication Studies student specializing in Public Relations. Abby was a member of the Writing and Editing team for Emerge 2022 and wanted to showcase her hometown in this story.