This Ontario town lost its local newspaper. But the stories haven't stopped
After 136 years, the weekly paper in Tilbury, Ont., closed its doors in 2020
Humphrey Rogers has no email. He doesn't use Facebook. So he keeps missing events in town.
"People say, 'There was a car show out there on Saturday. How come you didn't go to it?' I say, 'I didn't know about it.'"
It's not for lack of trying. The 87-year-old is hyper-involved around Tilbury, Ont., the smallish town of 4,800 between London and Windsor where he's lived since 1946.
Rogers volunteers in sports, at the Legion, with the historical society and the Kinsmen, sits on the cemetery board and goes over to the nursing home to host bingo on Wednesdays. (He calls out so many numbers, his voice goes hoarse).
But there's no local newspaper here anymore. He's struggling to stay in touch with the town.
"It doesn't make me feel very good. I don't know exactly what the word is for it ... it's just, you're not on the in-group," Rogers said. "I hear it every day, 'Didn't you see it on Facebook?'"
Postmedia shut down the weekly Tilbury Times in May 2020, after 136 years. Rogers used the paper to find out about — and advertise — events, track sports scores and learn who died.
He now gets his friend with a computer to look up obituaries for him.
Sorting through fact and fiction
There's no clear alternative. Tilbury sometimes gets covered in Chatham's newspaper, the closest big centre 25 kilometres away. But it's not the same.
- Circulation, a show on what happens when the local news stops, airs Tuesday, Dec. 28 at 12 noon local time, 12:30 p.m. in Newfoundland, on CBC Radio One, or scroll up to listen any time. Hosted by Haydn Watters.
Some use Tilbury's local Facebook groups. The most popular, The Tilbury Tymes, is named in tribute to the paper. At 2,300 members, it's almost half the population of the town.
Recent posts include searches for lost pets, an advertisement for schnitzel night at the golf course and someone trying to figure out who left the cooler full of beer on the old railroad tracks that they just hit and dragged with their car.
Char Spinosa runs the group from her home in the Niagara area, approving who gets in and moderating posts. She grew up in Tilbury and moved when she was 15.
"What I've done is come in and fill the void," she said.
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Keeping discourse civil has been tricky. Spinosa bans any posts about COVID-19 and politics because people get too nasty.
When things get out of hand, she tries to remind people they are neighbours.
Spinosa, who is winding down her career as a canine tracker, says she doesn't see her Facebook group as a replacement for the newspaper. She's still trying to figure out a better option.
"[The paper was] 10 times better than Facebook because you didn't have to sort through and figure out what was fact and what was fake and what was fiction."
Still stories to tell
The stories haven't stopped. The town is currently fighting to keep its lone nursing home and its beds from moving to another community, about 25 minutes away. The province says there's no decision yet and that the application is still under review.
Kathy Cottingham and her friend, Sandy Tetreault, have been circulating petitions around town and keeping track of hundreds of signatures, all opposed to the move.
"We see it as a bit of a death knell to our community," Cottingham said.
"If we still had the Tilbury Times, this would have blown up much sooner than it did," Tetreault added.
Across town, Simon Shaw is soaking wet, walking a 40-kilometre stretch of highway back and forth to find his gigantic yellow duck, Teddy, made of plastic, fibreglass, rubber and steel. It flew off the back of his truck during a storm.
"There wasn't a shard of beak or anything. He just vanished," said Shaw, who was passing through Tilbury when he lost Teddy, who was built on a nude beach in Nova Scotia.
Locals have been trying their best to help him find his prized bird.
"I often joke with people that he's kind of my best friend," said Shaw, who is a violin bow maker. "He's very much a symbol of me as a person."
Tiffany Beaulieu hears all of this gossip while cutting hair, one of many hairdressers in Tilbury. Her role has evolved in a town without local news.
"I feel like we are a staple of a city, of a town. We're like the advertisement page," she said, between shears and snips.
Beaulieu has customers involved in all aspects of the town who come in and share local news with her, from sports to service clubs.
"Now I'm passing that information on. 'Oh hey, I heard next Saturday, they're going to have a steak dinner.'"
It's helpful for newcomers, like Jonathan Lee and Zevi Harris. The couple moved from Toronto a few months ago and are still trying to figure out their new community. Lee now runs a Tilbury institution: Canadian Tire.
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"I've learned that everybody knows each other. It's a small community and everyone talks," he said.
"People are friendlier," added Harris, who had never heard of Tilbury before their move. Their house is in nearby Chatham.
"Strangers who drive by constantly are waving at me," Harris said. "I have never met these people."
Lee's already gotten invites to come over for coffee.
"There's a lot of good people here that are just hoping that you do well, and they're always happy to have new faces."
- Listen to the CBC Radio special Circulation, hosted by Haydn Watters, to hear even more Tilbury locals and their stories — including the paper's former editor, town youth and a master taxidermist. Airs Tuesday, Dec. 28 at 12 noon local time, 12:30 p.m. in Newfoundland, on CBC Radio One, or scroll up to listen any time.