Now Or Never

Why this out-of-work reporter decided to start her own small town print newspaper

Melissa Schneider lost her job when her newspaper shut down. So, she decided to start her own paper.

Melissa Schneider is self-funding a newspaper to serve her rural Ontario community

Melissa Schneider is the owner, publisher, editor, photographer of The Echo. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Melissa Schneider was wearing pyjamas when she found out she'd lost her job.

It was November 2017, and Schneider was working as a freelance reporter with the St. Thomas/Elgin Weekly News, one of several papers shut down after a major swap between Torstar and Postmedia.

Schneider had just wrapped up her fourth story of the week, and called her editor to let him know it was on the way.

"He picked up the phone and told me that we were all fired," said Schneider.

"We just disappeared into the night."

For Schneider, the phone call was unwelcome but not unprecedented.  She'd been in the news business for over a decade and it was the third time she'd been laid off.

Still, Schneider said she felt blindsided.

"It felt like there are no more chances to get into this industry, no more chances to get kicked out of this industry," said Schneider. 

"There just are no more opportunities, because they'd consolidated now to the point where there's nothing left, there's nothing left to consolidate. There's nobody left to fire. There's nothing left to shut down, so where are you supposed to go from here?"

The Echo relies on advertisers to generate money, and hasn't yet become financially sustainable. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

Although some might have taken the layoff as a sign to hang up their tape recorder and move on, Schneider had a different thought.

"If I'm going to do something, if I'm going to really do something and I'm really going to put my wherewithal behind it and make something spectacular, then I'm going to make something that's my own," she said. 

So, she decided to create her own print newspaper: The Echo. 

Doing things the old-fashioned way

Today, Melissa Schneider is the owner, publisher, reporter, and main financial backer of The Echo, a print newspaper covering a pocket of Elgin County, Ont. where Schneider grew up. 

It's an old-fashioned business model, but Schneider said it makes sense for the coverage area, which has many seniors and where internet connections can be spotty.

"I always joke that when the power goes out here, which it does quite often, you can still sit with a flashlight and read your hard copy of The Echo," said Schneider. 

Schneider's grade eight yearbook lists her career goal as 'author or journalist.' (Paula Duhatschek/CBC)

There's another reason behind her dedication to the old-fashioned newspaper.

As a child, Schneider made the news herself while figure skating at a nearby arena. She was warming up when a local reporter-photographer snapped her picture as part of a photo feature. 

The day the paper came out, Schneider was captivated over breakfast by a picture of herself in newsprint.

"It was laying there on my plate and I thought, 'That's it for me, that's exactly what I want to do,'" said Schneider. 

A baby and a newspaper

Still, The Echo isn't immune to the financial challenges of the media industry, and although Schneider is living her childhood dreams, dreams on their own won't pay the bills. 

For now, Schneider keeps the paper afloat using her savings, but only has enough in her Echo fund to keep the paper going until the end of the year.

I always joke that when the power goes out here, which it does quite often, you can still sit with a flashlight and read your hard copy of The Echo.- Melissa Schneider

The paper's precarious financial situation was made doubly complicated when, just two months into publication, Schneider found out she was pregnant.

"Which was another kind of, 'So now what are we supposed to do?'" said Schneider.

"Because I literally just started this venture and it seemed to be going OK. And I didn't really know what that meant for the future, for us, for the paper, for life really in general." 

But Schneider is optimistic about the future. She jokes about taking a three-day maternity leave, and then setting up a crib in her home office and diving right back into her work. 

"All I'm doing is bringing one more reporter into the universe," she said. "The baby's going to get into the industry and take over from its mom, that's my plan B here." 

For Schneider, showing up is important. She wants her neighbours to know that when news happens, they can count on her to be there and to write about it.

And whether The Echo lasts one more edition, or is around for another 30 years, Schneider said she can be at peace with herself knowing that she gave it her all.

"I would rather have dreamed a dream and made it come true," she said, "than to only ever have thought of it and never been able to live it."