Every Friday afternoon around four o’clock, 13-year-old Kelly Waugh picks up 80 newspapers, climbs onto her scooter and wheels her way through the neighbourhood delivering the St. Marys Independent. She cruises along Jones Street East and then Huron Street in the cozy, romantic town located 20 minutes southwest of Stratford, Ontario. Nestled quaintly in the Thames River valley, downtown St. Marys is dominated by Victorian-Gothic limestone buildings that reflect the town’s industrial heritage. Like other small towns in Canada, “Stonetown,” a not-so-booming community of 6,000 people, is a peaceful place where everyone knows everyone else, which means most townsfolk rely on each other, but of course, gossip constantly.

Homemaker Edna Black has heard her share through the gossip mill. One rumour involves Frank Doyle, owner and publisher of the Independent, having a mysterious backer for his new endeavour. Whether this is true or not, Black and other residents know for sure that ever since the Independent started appearing free on their doorsteps last summer, it has been a lively alternative to the stodgy, predictable Journal Argus, a weekly that has served St. Marys for over 80 years. “The Independent seems to be more family-centred. Each week they have ‘Family of the Week,’ which introduces mostly newcomers to St. Marys,” she says. “They have a kids’ page, they have jokes. It’s a lighter paper.”

Meanwhile, the commonly held view is that in the past few years the Journal, which was purchased in June 1999 by Metroland, the Torstar subsidiary that as of March 2001 owned 69 community newspapers in Ontario, has been losing touch with its readers. As Doyle says: “It’s a big company newspaper now”-a view frequently expressed by St. Marys residents ever since Lorne Eedy, the local owner, sold the paper that his family had run for four generations. “Lorne used to deliver the papers to our store himself and chitchat a bit,” says Bev Thibodeau, co-owner of West-End Variety store. “Now the owner seems so impersonal.” Richard Stevenson, a cement chemist who also referees minor hockey, becomes poetic when describing what’s happened to the Journal. Likening its new ownership to a tree, he says, “As the tree gets larger it takes more effort to reach the fruit on the outer limbs, which means good fruit is ignored and lost.”

It’s no coincidence that the Independent emerged shortly after the Journal‘s change of ownership. In several small communities across Ontario, dissatisfaction with chain-owned weeklies has inspired town members to launch newspapers of their own or run ad campaigns protesting the quality of their local papers. The Crier in Port Hope, for example, appeared in March 1999 in reaction to the Port Hope Evening Guide‘s dwindling editorial quality. The Evening Guide, formerly locally owned, became a community embarrassment after Conrad Black’s Hollinger purchased it as part of its 1996 deal with Southam. In June 2000, after The Crierfounders heard the Evening Guide would not be part of CanWest’s acquisition of Hollinger properties, they suspended publication to support the Evening Guide‘s search for a suitable new owner. If The Crier crew find the new owner satisfactory, they plan to put their time and talents toward news coverage and staff development. If not, they may publish again.

Not so the Pelham Herald. The weekly served the tiny community of Pelham, Ontario, for 40 years, but was closed in the wake of the 1996 Hollinger deal. In response, 50 shareholders created the Voice of Pelham, a weekly that continues today. And early in 1999, the 30-year-old Brighton, Ontario, Independent ran a three-week-long ad campaign denouncing its competitors for becoming vehicles for ad inserts rather than news: one recent issue of Hollinger’s Apple Gazette, for instance, had eight pages of news and 170 pages of inserts. The Independent also sponsored a presentation where John Miller, founding editor of The Crier and a Ryerson journalism professor, talked about his own community’s attempt at improving news coverage. He told the group: “We’ve made a serious point. We’ve gotten some notice from a high level in the organization. That shows that individual citizens acting together can still do a lot.”

There’s no question that Doyle has done a lot: his Independent has set off a small-town newspaper war that’s as significant in St. Marys as the Globe versus Post rivalry is in Toronto. The real question is, can theIndependent last? The changing landscape of the weekly newspaper industry has already forced many independent papers to downgrade in size and upgrade in costly technology as they face competition from large chains like Metroland. Seven corporate groups own nearly 40 percent of community papers in Canada; as a result, more and more papers like the Independent are struggling to keep from toppling off the cliff’s edge. As Bev Thibodeau observes, “[Doyle’s] gotta have rocks in his head for starting an independent nowadays.” But Frank Doyle remains confident: “We’re way ahead than where we thought we’d be.”

While I leaf through the current issue of the Journal at the St. Marys Museum, a converted 1850s limestone house perched on a knoll overlooking Cadzow Park, curator Mary Smith brings me a mug of steaming Earl Grey tea. At first, I couldn’t see why residents were disappointed with the recent Journal-it seemed fine to me. It has a professional appearance, well-written stories about community and regional news, acceptable photography and few typos or corrections. But after examining pre-Metroland issues on microfilm, I realized how much the Journal had changed over the past two and a half years, and also how out of touch I had become with the small-town mind-set from living in Toronto for four years. Thinking back to when I lived in Pelham reminded me of the things I looked forward to reading in the Herald. I didn’t expect it to look like The Toronto Star or focus on national and international news, but I did want to read about the people in my community and local news. As Smith says, “You should be able to capture the flavour of the town by reading its paper.”

The old Journal oozed St. Marys flavour. It was a 26-page broadsheet with a somewhat old-fashioned look that offered engaging photography, lots of local stories and a modest amount of regional news. Spontaneous-looking photos of children throwing leaves or playing in the snow were common. Typical front-page stories included “Arthur Meighen Added to List of Possible School Closures,” and “Put Your Name on St. Marys Newest Walkway.” Today’s Journal, a tabloid averaging 32 pages, has mostly posed pictures, fonts similar to that of the Star and a larger typesize, which makes pages look untidy and leaves less room for content. Of course, modernizing the format of any traditional weekly is tricky-readers are stubborn when it comes to change. But the changes were more than cosmetic. Long-running columns like Don MacDonald’s “With a Jaundiced Eye,” Dorothy Eedy’s “Eat at Our House,” and Eric Dowd’s “A View from Queen’s Park” still appear in every issue. But Don Van Galen’s political column “For What It’s Worth” has been dropped, while Val Thompson’s monthly family living column “Plain and Simple” now only appears sporadically. Fewer letters to the editor are published-an average of four per issue in 1998 compared to the present two. As before, there’s lots of sports coverage, but it doesn’t make up for the rest of the paper, which began dwindling shortly after December 1998, when Eedy realized he wanted to sell his mini-chain of 10 weeklies.

During this time, the masthead diminished from 15 employees to 11-one of the people let go was the photographer, which explains the poorer quality of photos. Since Metroland took over, full-time staff has dropped to 10; meanwhile the proportion of advertising has risen. “It’s not really community-focused anymore,” says Doyle. “It’s more like an avenue for ads.” Lori Black, Edna’s daughter and a high-school teacher at St. Marys District Collegiate Vocational Institute, believes the paper caters less to the elderly and young people of the community even though they make up a large part of the St. Marys population. “TheJournal is published mainly for people between the ages of 30 and 45,” she says, “and it’s those people whose views are expressed, whether it’s having their kids’ hockey pictures published or whether it’s only reporting on events that suit them.” Lorne Eedy agrees that the paper is predictable. “If you look in the paper now, you see peewee hockey, Don MacDonald’s column, always the same stuff,” he says. He also believes that without his “Rambling Reporter” column, a weekly discourse on practically anything that often took on controversial subjects like poor local banking services and Quebec separatism, the Journal has lost its edge. “It’s now more it’s-great-to-live-in-St. Marys kind of coverage,” he says.

On the other hand, Doyle’s personality is thoroughly present in his 18-page tabloid. His nine-year service on town council is evident through Independent editorials about local elections, drinking and driving and the importance of small businesses. His determination to succeed is apparent in the house ads that can appear as many as five times in each issue: The Stonetown’s Most Read Newspaper, Reaching More People. No Doubt About It. These self-promoting ads play around miniature sections including Religion, Kids Stuff and Chris Blackman’s political column “The Red Tory” (“While Clark has his heart on his sleeve, and has fought his way through his entire career, Day gives off the impression he simply isn’t willing to go into the corners”).

The Independent also has the advantage of publishing on Fridays, two days later than the Journal, which makes it possible to include more current town council news, since meetings are held on Tuesday evenings. Despite Doyle having no background in journalism, which means quite a few typos, grammatical errors and layout weaknesses, the Independent still seems to have more connection with St. Marys readers than theJournal does these days. As Richard MacPherson, owner of the M & M Variety store, says, “It has a lot of silly things from a journalistic point of view that are interesting to small-town readers.” “Celebrity of the Week,” for example, is a photo of two community members with their names melded underneath to create a famous person: John Boonstra and Wayne Cooper become John Wayne. “We want to get the community involved so it becomes their paper,” Doyle says with a slight Irish accent. This vision includes uncontrived photography and sections designed to appeal to various age groups. The kids’ page, for example, has word searches, riddles and craft ideas. The Independent also does investigative work, such as last summer’s stories on the possible contamination of St. Marys water wells in the wake of the Walkerton E. coli tragedy. One result is that even people from surrounding townships continue to seek the Independent out. “The people want Frank to succeed,” says MacPherson. “And if he has that, his paper has a half-decent chance of survival.”

Not surprisingly, Bill Huether, general manager at the Journal, is equally optimistic about his paper’s future. “If anything, the Independent will make our customers realize what a quality paper we put out,” he says. His relentlessly upbeat comments remind me of St. Marys mayor Jamie Hahn, whose booming voice fills the 19th-century town hall’s boardroom with unending praise of anything Stonetown. Huether believes the new format makes the paper modern and easier to read. And, as he points out, having a big corporate owner also frees the paper from the many financial constraints independent newspapers face; for example, the Journal‘s aging computer file server was replaced when Metroland acquired the paper. Being part of a chain also means the Journal can secure advertising deals that are rarely available to independents. “Some advertisers like to be given package deals,” says Metroland president Murray Skinner. “They don’t want to see every different paper individually.” It’s Metroland’s strategy to accumulate a number of weeklies in adjoining markets, which allows it to offer attractive group buys and provide efficient distribution of flyers. It’s hard for independents to compete. “This way, other competitors don’t have a toehold,” explains Serge Lavoie, executive director of the Canadian Community Newspaper Association.

But just because a corporate owner has more revenues doesn’t mean its papers’ editorial budgets are any bigger. Indeed, the two editors, Laura and Pat Payton, who have both been with the paper for over 15 years, have noticed differences working under the wing of a large, penny-pinching corporation. Laura caught herself hesitating to buy cheese trays for last fall’s all-candidates meeting, an event the paper has traditionally sponsored, because she didn’t know if the newspaper could afford them. “Sometimes I’m not so sure how much Metroland even cares about what’s in the paper,” she says. “But they would care if the ad revenue started to fall.”

Still, Pat puts part of the blame for the new austerity on Lorne, who he thinks was greedy for selling his papers. As Laura Payton says, there wasn’t much for Metroland to cut after Lorne was through. On the other hand, having a new owner has also given her more editorial freedom now that the “Lorne influence” has disappeared. “Lorne was right here and had ideas about how things should be done, so in a way we’re freer than we were before,” she says. The downside is that while Lorne was very hands-on with the Journal, he also tended to motivate his staff to get more stories, something the new owner doesn’t seem to spend much time doing.

The differences in attitude toward and commitment to the community at the two papers are reflected in their circulation strategies. The Journal is not home-delivered and costs $1, although recently ads have appeared in the paper for newspaper carriers. The Independent, on the other hand, is free and delivered to almost all St. Marys residents. The Journal still contributes to the museum, sponsors all-candidates meetings and creates a special issue for the homecoming festival, but in other ways it’s less connected to the community. The Journal used to employ handicapped teens from the local high school to insert flyers and deliver papers to selling points, but now Metroland takes care of that. And Stevenson can remember a couple of times where Journal employees said they would be covering an event only to pull a no-show. Eedy, by contrast, was a constant presence in St. Marys, participating in the group that worked to preserve the limestone Opera House and volunteering for the Rotary Club and the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. Such visibility was part of the family tradition. Edna Black remembers how Lorne Eedy’s father, John, “would walk the streets and pick up the sentiment of the community.” It’s hard to imagine Metroland execs engaging in the same type of walkabouts.

But while readers appreciate Frank Doyle’s connection to their town, advertisers were initially less willing to embrace the new paper. Doyle found he had to constantly fight the perception that the only place businesses could advertise was in the Journal. By March, though, Doyle was saying, “That’s not the case anymore.”

Still, his cramped, gaudy green office on Water Street symbolizes how hard it is for independents to exist in the face of a chain-owned competition. Laura Payton and Lorne Eedy suspect Doyle is deep discounting his ad space. Other people in the community think Frank has a silent partner. If so, that may explain his free classified ads. But Frank is a private man who wouldn’t answer certain questions and wouldn’t let me dig too deeply by talking to other Independent employees. “We are very busy,” he said, obviously annoyed. “And I don’t want to bash the Journal.” Eedy isn’t so reticent: the Independent, he maintains, is “worse than a high-school paper.” Laura Payton is similarly open with her views. Last November she published an ad titled “Price vs. Cost,” touting the Journal‘s high quality-it has received CCNA awards in the past-compared to its price, which was a shot in Doyle’s direction. And in late fall she was predicting the new paper wouldn’t last much past January because, she explained, advertisers get stingy after the Christmas holidays.

I’m not so sure about the Indepedent‘s fate. After conducting a survey of 50 St. Marys newspaper readers, I discovered how much the Independent has already had an effect on the town. Despite its shortcomings, people are reading it and hope it succeeds. “This new paper is down to the needs of the town people on a whole,” wrote one respondent. “It covers community news on a regular basis,” said another. More importantly, almost all the surveys came back favouring local ownership of community newspapers.

“The Independent isn’t fully developed but has the possibility of becoming one of the papers in St. Marys,” says Richard MacPherson. And as of March, young Kelly Waugh was still delivering the Independent every Friday after school.