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'Everybody else's news': The Moose Jaw Times-Herald closes its doors after 128 years

It has been a bloody week in local news. In Ontario, more than 20 small newspapers are shut down. In Saskatchewan, The 125-year-old Moose Jaw Times-Herald is folding. Now, Moose Jaw is just one of dozens of towns facing a no-newspaper future. David Gutnick’s documentary explains what happened, and why it matters.
The 125-year-old Moose Jaw Times-Herald is folding. Moose Jaw is just one of dozens of towns facing a no-newspaper future. (David Donnelly/CBC)

By David Gutnick

On Wednesday, December 6, carriers will heave their canvas bags over their shoulders and go door-to-door to deliver the final edition of a newspaper that has been around for more than 128 years.

The first edition of the Moose Jaw Times was published on April 2, 1889. By 1906, it became a daily.

Moose Jaw was a boom town then — a major stop on the Canadian Pacific Railway line — and settlers were hungry for information.

The Moose Jaw Times-Herald has operated out of its offices at 44 Fairford St. W. since 1954. (Google Street View)
This Wednesday's Times-Herald will be a collector's item — 32 pages of photos and articles pulled from the newspaper's morgue.

In a way, it's a bit of a miracle that the Moose Jaw paper lasted as long as it did.

Over the past decade, dozens of other Canadian dailies and weeklies have gone under. Most of the rest are hanging on for dear life.

This week, media giants Torstar and Postmedia struck a deal that shuffled ownership of dozens of Ontario community newspapers — and then killed most of them off.

But Roger Holmes thought he could buck the trend.

Holmes, president of Star New Publishing Inc., bought the Moose Jaw Times-Herald just a year and a half ago, boldly predicting that he could make it thrive.

Holmes is in his mid-60s, thin, friendly and energetic. He loves showing off the home of the Times-Herald, a one-storey yellow brick building just off Main Street in downtown Moose Jaw.

Standing in a backroom piled with freshly printed copies of the paper, he takes a deep breath. He says he's relished the smell of ink ever since he was a small boy.

Ink runs in the Holmes family's veins.

His grandfather was a typesetter in England, and when he immigrated to Canada he first found a job at the Winnipeg Free Press. By 1929, he was living in Alberta and had become the owner of the Provost News.

Times-Herald owner Roger Holmes outside the building in downtown Moose Jaw. (David Gutnick/CBC)
"My father inherited that newspaper when my grandfather died during the war, and that is where I grew up," says Holmes.

His brother still runs that paper. Holmes's daughter Sarah is also in the business:  she and her husband run the weekly Gabriola Sounder on the B.C. Gulf Island.

For almost 30 years, Holmes has published the Wainwright Star Edge, in the Alberta town where he lives, and two Saskatchewan weeklies. His plant, which prints more than 60 community papers from all over Alberta and Saskatchewan, is doing well.

He says that on Friday mornings people in Wainwright line up to get a copy of the Star Edge. It's why Holmes is convinced there is "a thirst for good local community journalism."

"But it needs to be done in such a way that it can be sustainable. And that is the trick."

Newspaper readership in steady decline

In 1950, virtually every household in Canada had a newspaper delivered to the door.

Twenty years later, it was one in two households.

Now it's fewer than one in five and is soon projected to be one in 10.

Last year, Holmes was president of the Canadian Community Newspaper Association, and he watched other publishers, both big and small, struggle desperately to find viable business models for the digital age.

Postmedia, Torstar, Transcontinental Media and independent weeklies all laid off reporters, cut back on news copy, redesigned themselves for tablets and smartphones and put up paywalls. 

Anything to slow the hemorrhaging.

This week, media giants Torstar and Postmedia struck a deal that shuffled ownership of dozens of Ontario community newspapers — and then killed most of them off. Metro Ottawa is one of them. (Laura Beaulne-Stuebing/CBC)
Back in Wainwright, Holmes had been thinking about slowing down. He would spend more time flying the company plane, exploring prairie towns and helping his daughter Sarah and his brother with their own papers.

Then in the spring of 2016, Transcontinental Media asked Holmes if he would be interested in buying the company's dailies in Moose Jaw and Prince Albert and a handful of Saskatchewan weeklies. He turned them down.

The Times-Herald had only 2,000 subscribers. Who in their right mind, he thought, would want to buy it? But when Transcontinental Media sweetened their offer Holmes hesitated and took the plunge.

He says that he felt that he could pump life back into the Saskatchewan papers. He felt that they had suffered under an absentee landlord and that he had the ability to turn them around.

"Even if, at same time, we were in a free fall with the advertising revenue and a free fall with subscriptions because the internet is coming on," he says he still believed in print, even if "other people do not see it."

On June 1, 2016, when Holmes met the Times-Herald staff, he told them, "I am a newspaper person."

"I know how hard you work. I know the dedication that you have to this industry. I know who you are. We can make this thing work."
Rick Smith has been delivering the Times-Herald for a couple of decades. (David Gutnick/CBC)

A downward spiral

Holmes was wrong. Fewer and fewer Moose Javians were buying it, and advertising revenues continued to fall.

Rob Clark predicted that would happen. Clark, CEO of the Moose Jaw & District Chamber of Commerce, is paid to create new jobs in Saskatchewan's fourth largest city.

A couple of years ago he was doing the opposite: He was cutting them.

Clark worked for Transcontinental Media, and he was the publisher of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald. 

Transcontinental's head office in Montreal ordered him to make the paper more efficient, leaner and more profitable. Clark's job was to keep the Times-Herald full of local news, while laying off the reporters who were writing it.   

"All of a sudden your editorial staff is shy," he says, recalling how overworked reporters grew reluctant to challenge authority on a tough story or dig a little deeper for dirt.

"Everybody is rushing off and hitting deadline after deadline."

Clark says Transcontinental reduced the newspapers "down to nothing."

"Then you start losing credibility in the communities. Your staff morale goes down. It is a spiral," he said.
Times-Herald owner Roger Holmes with the old Linotype machine that was used to print the paper before the technology became obsolete. It will be sold as scrap. (David Gutnick/CBC)

Local businesses 'culpable'

"If you wanted to see an improvement in the Times-Herald you needed to be fighting for it years ago," says Hannah Elich, 30, a civilian youth services programmer at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, the Canadian Forces flight training school.

Elich loves newspapers, and in this small city, the story of what happened inside the Times-Herald under Transcontinental and Holmes got around.

She said at one point, with the managing editor gone on vacation, all on their own, "two reporters put out two weeks of papers" — that's five days a week, for two weeks.

"I don't think I should value local news any less than I value national news," say Elich. "But I do, because of how this paper has gone."

Kelly Scott, the owner of Moose Jaw's Parkview Funeral Chapel, used to be a frequent advertiser in the Times-Herald, but by a few years ago, she found the paper was no longer reaching her target audience. She switched to social media.

Fewer than one in five households in Canada purchase newspapers. (CBC)
"For a fraction of the cost," she says, "I could get triple the distribution."

Scott says she is sad to see the Times-Herald close because she has friends who work there, "but we are also a business, and we have to see a return."

Scott and local business owners like her "are culpable," says Holmes. "They voted with their wallets for what kind of a future they want."

When advertisers leave, there is simply no money to pay the journalists.

"The breath in the newspaper industry is the money from advertising that allowed us to do the public good."

Holmes says that in retrospect he should have turned the Times-Herald from a daily into a weekly.

"I had advice from other newspaper publishers in Western Canada who said, 'Roger you have got to close the daily down. It is going to kill you.'"

What price democracy?

As of Wednesday,  26 Times-Herald employees will be out of work.

Editors Sarah Ladik and Marlon Hector know their chances of finding jobs at another community paper are basically nil with this week's announcement that more than 20 Ontario papers are shutting down and 300 more journalism jobs are gone.
Sarah Ladik, the news editor and Marlon Hector, managing editor of the Moose Jaw Times-Herald (David Gutnick/CBC)

"There are a lot of people theorizing. Why did the Times-Herald close? Even Roger has to theorize, he has to figure out what's his story," says Hector.

"The reality is a mix of many factors, that are not related to history, also related history, not related to ownership and also related to ownership," he says.

"The story of newspapers struggling is not a new story. We can say, 'Oh, there are not enough advertisers in here,' but even that is not the one thing that has caused it."

Over the last half century there have been at least three major examinations of the state of Canadian media — the Davey Report in 1970, the Royal Commission on Newspapers, known as the Kent Commission  in 1981, and a Senate report on the Canadian news media in 2006.

All examined pressing questions of corporate concentration, journalism and regional reflection.

None could have predicted the digital revolution and the extent of disruption and damage it would wreak.

In last spring's budget in Quebec, Finance Minister Carlos Leitão promised to spend $35 million over the next five years to support that province's largely French-language  print media. A coalition of  publishers responded that that's not nearly enough to keep newspapers in the province afloat.

Last June, News Media Canada, which represents more than 800 print and digital media companies, asked federal Heritage Minister Melanie Joly for $350 million to support daily newspapers and free community weeklies.

She turned them down flat.

"Our approach will not be to bail out industry models that are no longer viable," Joly said. "Rather, we will focus our efforts on supporting innovation, experimentation and transition to digital."

Holmes says that something has got to be done.

"Democracy is not free," he says. "It comes with a price to be vigilant and hold people to account."

"The method that we have had for that is journalism."

Moose Javians are now "going to have to make some decisions about how they behave in this town, and how they see themselves," says Holmes.

Erma Bretnall on her red scooter used to deliver the Moose Jaw Times-Herald when she was young. She says she will be lost without the paper. (David Gutnick/CBC)
"This community is not supporting the newspaper institution, so they can't have it. Is that the right thing for them? The right thing is very subjective. For me the right thing is to close this place."

Elich, too, is philosophical.

"We talked for decades in Saskatchewan about the death of the small town," she says.

"The overarching theme of prairie literature is the land. That theme always focuses on death and renewal and then death again."

Watching the newspaper fold after more than a century is a kind of death, she said.

"Is there a possibility of renewal? Perhaps. But we haven't reached that part of the narrative yet."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full documentary.