Windsor

This journalist says Canada saved him. Now, he's saving a 136-year-old Ontario newspaper

Journalist Mohsin Abbas heard about the closure of the local newspaper in Tilbury, Ont., from a CBC Radio special over the holidays. He decided to revive it.

After 2020 closure, the local paper in Tilbury, Ont. is getting revived

Journalist Mohsin Abbas heard about the closure of the local newspaper in Tilbury, Ont., and the impact on the tiny town from a CBC Radio special over the holidays. He decided he needed to revive it. (Submitted by Saeed Akhtar)

Mohsin Abbas was lazing about over the holidays last month, watching TV, when he learned about tiny Tilbury, Ont., losing its local newspaper and the huge hole it's left in the community.

The journalist heard about the closure while listening to a CBC Radio special on what happens when the local news stops. Postmedia shut down the Tilbury Times and a handful of other community newspapers in Ontario and Manitoba in 2020, citing falling ad revenues.

But the demise of the Times gave Abbas an idea.

Abbas drove to the southwestern Ontario town of 4,800 that's between London and Windsor. He knew he needed to revive the Times, which halted circulation after 136 years. Now, less than a month later, he's the publisher.

"I know the importance of local journalism," he said. "It's our social responsibility."

It's nothing new for Abbas. He's started up his own independent publications before, and worked in newsrooms big and small — in Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Currently, he's a freelance contributor for BBC News reporting in Urdu and Punjabi, and runs another small news outlet called the Milton Reporter.

Tilbury's library collects old copies of the Times on microfilm and microfiche, dating back to 1898. They fit in a single filing cabinet. Postmedia shut down the weekly paper in May 2020, after 136 years. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Abbas originally worked in Pakistan. He came to Canada as a refugee claimant in the early 2000s, when it was dangerous to be a journalist in his home country.

"Just imagine a guy in a prison, sitting in this Third World country and waiting to be killed in a police encounter. And then he leaves that place, enters Canada and he's still alive and happy with a beautiful family 20 years later. It's priceless," he said. 

"What I'm doing is nothing ... I thank Canada for saving me."

Rooting for reboot

The Times reboot comes as a shock to locals, who have tried to find creative ways to stay connected since the paper closed, including local Facebook groups. Some even thought the paper's revival was a joke.

Gerry Harvieux, the newspaper's former editor, doubted it would ever return.

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But Harvieux spoke to Abbas and he's rooting for him.

"He's very sincere. I think he definitely has a passion for the industry," he said. "If he can get through the initial startup phase, I think it will be really good for our community."

Gerry Harvieux, the Tilbury paper's former editor, thinks the revival is an 'ambitious endeavour,' but hopes Abbas is able to pull it off. 'I’m just sort of cautiously optimistic.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Harvieux hopes to write for the new outlet occasionally and will share contacts with Abbas.

He knows there will be some local skepticism and Abbas will have to prove himself. He points to how Abbas lives outside Tilbury, 2½ hours away in Guelph. Abbas said he plans to be in town at least once a week.

"As long as he's sincere, and people can see that he's making a good effort and not just trying for a quick cash grab, I think it will be well received."

Listen to the radio special about Tilbury:

News outlets are dying across Canada. More than 330 local outlets in hundreds of communities have shut since 2008, a death rapidly escalated by COVID-19. Each time a radio or TV station, newspaper, or online site closes, important untold stories are lost, erasing the history, current events, and local lore in small-town Canada. Join host Haydn Watters in Tilbury, Ont., where the weekly paper shut down after 136 years.

The news wowed Humphrey Rogers, 87, who has lived in Tilbury since 1946. Although he's hyper-involved in town life, he's got no email or social media. So he's been struggling to stay in touch since the Times closed.

"It really surprises me," said Rogers, of the revival. "Older guys like me ... would think it's a great thing."

Humphrey Rogers, 87, hadn't heard about the plan to reopen the newspaper until CBC called him earlier this week. He called it a 'wonderful thing.' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

He's taken it upon himself to gather some feedback for Abbas, talking to friends over the phone and around town at the post office and church.

"I don't want a job out of this, but I'm trying to see [from] people that I know ... if the paper comes back to Tilbury once a month, would you be interested?"

Newspaper revivals 'rare'

The new iteration will look slightly different.

The paper used to be a weekly, but Abbas will mostly publish online. The website is already up and stories are trickling in. The plan is to put out a print version once a month, starting in March, to cater to people like Rogers.

He's looking for freelance writers and wants to rent a small home in Tilbury that reporters can use when filing stories.

There's even a new motto on the masthead — "for the times we live in."

Abbas knows restarting the paper will be 'difficult,' but he's optimistic. 'It’s like a new child. I have two daughters so my wife says, 'Oh you’ve got a son now.''' (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Revivals like this are "rare," said April Lindgren, a journalism professor at Ryerson University who tracks Canadian media openings and closures through her Local News Research Project.

"I'm a big fan of this. I hope that the community recognizes the commitment and is willing to step up," she said. "I'm under no illusions that it's challenging."

Less than a month ago, CBC reporter Haydn Watters went to Tilbury, to do a story about a small town that lost its local newspaper. There's been a big development since then.

She's watched news outlets start up and fail due to lack of advertising. Right now, Abbas is using his own money to finance the paper. He's looking for advertisers from town and wants to keep the website free for readers.

It all makes Gabby Glasier feel excited yet nervous for her hometown. She helps run the student newspaper at Western University in London, Ont., where she's in her fourth year.

Tilbury local Gabby Glasier is co-ordinating editor at the Gazette, the student newspaper at Western University in London, Ont. She got a message from Abbas about the return of the paper, and at first, she thought it was a joke. 'I am so envious of just that passion, that this needs to happen. It’s astounding.' (Submitted by Sarah Wallace)

"I'm incredibly grateful, incredibly happy, thrilled, but it's going to take a lot of work," she said.

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She wrote an obituary to the Tilbury paper for the Toronto Star last summer. Now, she plans to contribute as a freelancer part time. Glasier hopes her community will rally behind its return.

"No one saw it coming. No one expected it. But it's here anyways and it's going to be something good.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Haydn Watters is a roving reporter in Ontario, mostly serving the province's local CBC Radio shows. He has worked for the CBC in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and entertainment unit. He ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont. You can get in touch at haydn.watters@cbc.ca.

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