One weekend in October 1985, John and Tuula McPhee left behind the tacky delights of Niagara Falls and found themselves driving down the Niagara Parkway. Along the banks of a green Niagara River they followed two-lane concrete curves through autumning peach orchards. Farmland turned to forest as they neared the mouth of the river. A canopy of oaks shaded the road and rained golden leaves as they drove by Fort George, an 18th century garrison, its small, green hills bristling with spiked wooden fences.
Queen’s Parade ushered them into Niagara-on-the-Lake, Upper Canada’s first capital, a tourist town of 12,500 people, 20 kilometres from Niagara Falls. They stopped their car under a dark red maple and stared up at the 125-year-old Prince of Wales Hotel. “We were stunned by Niagara-on-the-Lake,” says Tuula. “I thought it was something out of this world.”
Back home in Scarborough, John and Tuula subscribed to The Niagara Advance. They spent Christmas that year at the Prince of Wales, seduced by Niagara-on-the-Lake’s friendliness, charmed by the Christmas carols piped onto the main street. In summer they picnicked in town, explored the side streets and prowled the lakeshore for homes for sale. “We just absolutely fell in love with the town,” says Tuula. In June 1988, they collected a down payment and bought a white clapboard house with a green high-peaked roof on Shakespeare Avenue, a little street running from the back end of town right up to Lake Ontario.
It’s a 15-minute walk from their house on Shakespeare Avenue to the office of The Niagara Guardian, the newspaper Tuula and John started 15 months after moving to town. Sandwiched between the Country Krock Deli and Towne Health Foods are their lift~savings. “We made a decision and we put everything we had into it,” says Tuula. “If the business went under we’d be moving back to Toronto and living with my parents. Our life hinges on this.” It is a gamble inspired by their love for a newfound home.
The Canadian Community News paper Association reported 22 new member papers taking similar gambles in 1988, a healthy increase after five years of no growth. There are about 900 weeklies and biweeklies in Canada. In the old days community newspapers were run by families who belonged to the community and faithfully chronicled small-town life, often bequeathing the job of observing and reporting to successive generations. But after a decade of corporate interest in their sound money-making ability-community weeklies captured seven per cent of total advertising revenue spent on the media in 1987-more than half are now group-owned.
Though conflicts arose between old editors and new owners, many established editors were left to run their papers in the same-profitable-way. Ironically, it is new computer technology that may be taking the community newspaper back to the days of individual ownership. A newspaper can be created with a couple of PCs, a laser printer, an art scanner and page making and typesetting software. And, of course, the crucial mix of the right town, and enough energy and love for the town to make it work.
The Niagara Guardian is tucked away in one of the brand new one storey malls springing up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, catching the businesses that can’t afford Queen Street rents, just where Lakeshore Road curls away from the lake and heads into the old town. The office, still smelling of paint, is white and blue, not cluttered yet. A glass case displays baby-blue Niagara Guardian sweatshirts and baseball caps for sale and up for grabs as prizes in The Guardian’s photo caption and short story contests designed to raise and gauge reader interest. Now The Guardian’s task is to woo readers and advertisers away from The Niagara Advance, which has cornered Niagara’s media market, unchallenged, for 70 years.
A kid lets the office door slam behind him. His promised paper route was cancelled when John and Tuula decided to mass-mail . 1,000 weekly copies, and he has to refund some potential customers. Tuula, her long blonde hair pulled back with a barrette, writes out a cheque. John walks to the back to grab another cup of ‘coffee. He is a small man, thin and wiry, and walks stiffly because of rheumatoid arthritis he developed as a seven-year-old in Orillia. His electric-blue tie matches the color of the walls. He plays with his pipe, talking too much to get it puffing. It’s obvious he runs on nervous energy, fuel required in quantity and consumed voraciously by the hungry, money-grubbing, time-consuming business of running a small, independent newspaper.
When the McPhees first moved to Niagara-on- the-Lake, John, a Ryerson journalism graduate and eight-year veteran of newspaper circulation, was self-employed, writing advertising copy. He was commuting four times a week to work in The Toronto Star’s circulation department. Tuula, who had worked in human resources at Prentice-Hall where she met John, and in accounts receivable at The Toronto Sun, hunted for a job. They began renovating their house, and Tuula landed a job at the town offices. One afternoon in October John called The Niagara Advance to advertise his copywriting business and the editor, Shirley Dickson, answered the phone. Ready for ~ more change in his life, John impulsively offered to freelance for her: one ;;! week later she called back to offer him a nearly full-time reporter’s position. He d accepted the paper’s sole reporting job at $13,000 a year because, after concentrating for so long on journalism’s business side, he wanted to write.
At The Advance John covered the usual local events-sports, fires, cats stuck up hydro poles- and in the process met a lot of townspeople. Tuesday night’s council meetings were a highlight in a town as fiercely opinionated as Niagara-on-the-Lake, and on Wednesdays people stopped John on the street to discuss his coverage. His writing style became an irreverent blend of reporting and editorializing: “Not the straight dope,” says Tuula.
About one council meeting he wrote, “The expected sparks did not rekindle. The combatants were more interested in clearing the smoke with final summations than igniting another round of rhetoric.” Shirley Dickson says people liked the way he wrote: “It was friendly and intimate and amusing.”
In July 1989, John took on the editor’s duties for one month when Shirley went on holiday. His reporting skills honed, his writing style fluid, he found he liked an editor’s control. He joked to Tuuia about starting their own newspaper. And one day over a beer, a local businessman granted his wish: he wanted to start a second newspaper in Niagara, and he wanted John to be the editor. The partnership didn’t work out, but by the end of August John was so anxious to quit The Advance-“So much work for so little money”-that John and Tuula decided to do it alone. Their plan was to focus on tourists, a group not served by The Advance, by delivering to hotel rooms and townsfolk alike with a mix of local news and views. After some legal wrangling they paid off the partner’s initial investment, borrowed money from Tuula’s parents, took a second mortgage on their house, sniffed out the advertising, rented the office space, leased the computer equipment and in early September, set up shop.
They spent the whole month at the office, their house renovations halted in mid-kitchen.” The intense work of setting up operations, attracting advertisers, developing the paper’s look and mandate, always spurred on by the spectre of that second mortgage, took 16-hour days, litres of coffee, and huge doses of adrenalin. They labored together, dividing the work. The week before the first paper hit the newsstands, John slept a total of 12 hours. Exhausted, he delivered the paper to Economy Web Printing Co. in St. Catharines and, bleary-eyed, scraped $1,000 worth of damage off the side of his Chevy Corsica when he drove into a metre-high wall by the loading dock. “John has always been an extremely hard worker,” Tuula says, smiling. Her smile is already a real small-town smile, welcoming, slow and steady. She pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose and laughs. “Sometimes it drives me crazy as a child [with arthritis] he wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things. He was held back. I think he came out with a vengeance, making up for lost time.”
A perfect complement, Tuula is cool: she is steady where John is not. She is the general manager of the paper, the calm centre in the craziness of running an independent newspaper.
The Guardian made a profit in October, but lost money in November. Tuula and John make enough money to pay the mortgages and the groceries, a part-time secretary, two delivery people and two advertising sales staff who earn over $20,000, including commission. But advertising revenue often comes in after deadline, slowing the flow of payments. John still commutes to The Toronto Star once a week to supplement their income. The enormity of their investment scares Tuula sometimes, but she remains confident. “We work well together,” she says. “Some people say that husband and wife aren’t supposed to be able to work “together, but that’s a myth to usWe’ve become risk-takers in the last couple of years. We took a deep breath and dove into this business. The whole thing is based on the foundation of our relationship. That’s the only reason we’re able to do [this].”
On the other side of town The Niagara Advance is tucked into the bottom floor of a two-storey brick building just off Queen Street, across from the clock tower, nestled between the historic Court House that serves as mayor’s chambers, and some tourist boutiques. Since 1919 The Advance has reigned over Niagara, observing the town’s evolution from an elegant summer resort for Toronto’s wealthy, to a small town, poor and down on its luck in the fifties and sixties, into the tourist mecca and real estate paradise it has become. One of seven Niagara Peninsula weeklies owned by Rannie Publications Ltd., a subsidiary of The St. Catharines Standard, The Advance has a paid circulation of 2,822 and a solid advertising base in Niagara-on-the-Lake, St. Catharines and surrounding towns. The Advance’s office is crowded. Smaller than The Guardian’s it houses six fulltime staff and is cluttered with back issues and current issues spilling out of displays, forms and rate cards bulging out of their holders and bits of ad copy littering the floor.
Like a puppy, the upstart Guardian has been barking around the fat ankles of the dowager Advance and, truth be told, The Advance has looked sprucer lately. It’s trimming down, becoming leaner. It features more reporting, highlights local ,voices, encapsulates bites of council news and the obits have been pushed to the back of the paper. In a surprise move, The Advance started publishing a free supplement called Niagara This Week-clearly aimed at tourists-one day after The Guardian’s first issue hit the hotel rooms. Roddy Heading is a freelance artist who draws editorial cartoons for The Guardian. He speculates The Advance was worried about the new competition: “Here’s a guy who blows into town with a Web Press contract, a word processor and a camera and he’s ready to do business. The Advance has immediately thrown together a supplement where they’re hoping to buffer anything John is doing.”
Ariela Friedman, who has since quit to travel in Europe, got the editor’s job in July 1989 when Shirley Dickson retired after 15 years at The Advance. Ariela says her housecleaning had nothing to do with The Guardian’s arrival on Niagara’s media scene. She’s 24 years old, a first-time editor after a year reporting for another Rannie paper, The Lincoln Post Express, and a recent graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program. “Obviously a new editor will come in with changes,” she says, furiously smoking a cigarette. “We weren’t running scared of John McPhee. He didn’t scare us or cause us to go into a panic. I was just a new editor with some new ideas. The changes happened before John showed up. They had nothing to do with him.”
A battle between the independent Guardian and the chain -owned Advance is romantic, but unrealistic. The Guardian, billing itself as the “newspaper that delivers,” is the challenger which has to prove to the town that The Guardian deserves, if not total attention, at least equal billing. The Advance, with its paid subscribers, is still the medium of choice for advertisers, many of whom buy space in both papers, but more space in The Niagara Advance. Some businesses, however, are conspicuously absent from the pages of The Guardian. Kevan O’Connor Real Estate is sticking with the “tried and true” over the “brand new.”
Other local businesses appreciate the double exposure, though chartered accountant Ken Bridgman doubts it will double his business. “I like to support local businesses,” he says. “That’s part of being a good citizen.” Bridgman likes the perspective a second newspaper brings to news coverage: “There’s still a great belief that what you read is the truth. When you read the: truth as seen by two different eyes, it’s fun to compare the different coverage.” Judy Dick, who manages the Chamber of Commerce says, “Competition forces them to be a little more aware of what’s going on in the community. They’re being more aggressive and we’re getting a lot more information.”
Though John McPhee boasts three scoops in the first eight issues, he hopes to distinguish The Guardian with “community brainstorming.” He plans to present some of council’s biggest issues directly to readers and ask for their responses. Then he’ll present the best ideas to council. He wants to be a liaison between the town and its government, to provide an avenue for change in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Ariela doesn’t think that’s the job of a community’ newspaper. “My goal as [an] editor is to reflect this community,” she says, “to inform the people about what’s going on in council1f council makes a mistake we let the community know: we’re the watchdog. But I’m not here to take complaints to the mayor. People can write a letter to the editor or they can talk to their alderman.”
Winter is a slow season in Niagara-on-the- Lake, traditionally a time when businesses tighten their belts. The Guardian will also feel the downturn. But John and Tuula are betting that when the clouds of peach blossoms color the Niagara Parkway pink in May, they’ll be in town, working toward their first anniversary, certain of their newfound niche in Niagara-on-the-Lake. “This has become our life,”
About the author
Kathleen Wiebe was an Assistant Managing Editor for the Spring 1990 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.