“The rumours of our death were exaggerated,” announced the Town Crier in its September 2013 issue. The Toronto community newspaper’s parent company, Multimedia Nova, had gone into receivership in May, but five former employees bought and resurrected the publication by the end of July. “It’s always been our view the Crier could sell its advertising to support itself,” says Eric McMillan, the current publisher and editor-in-chief. “It’s part of the community and it would be a shame to lose it.”
After a few months of trying to reach out to former advertisers to get off the ground, the paper is back to publishing twice a month, though it now has three separate neighbourhood editions instead of the five before receivership. Today, 14 former employees work part-time or full-time at the new Crier. While it was difficult to find financial stability right after buying the paper, they’ve since brought the paper back to its former glory—and with full editorial control, they can run the Crier on their own terms.
Launched 35 years ago, it was owned by a couple until Julie Morris bought it in 1996. Under Morris, the Crier published six editions. But when Multimedia Nova bought the Crier in the early 2000s, it moved the office from its midtown location, which kept writers close to the communities, to the suburbs. “It was like industrial parkland, away from everything,” says McMillan. “You felt you were separated from everything and away from the community.” The new office also meant sharing space with 150 employees, many working for different language publications such as the Italian newspaper Corriere Canadese, which Multimedia Nova closed after a $2.8 million grant from the Italian government was cut in half by 2010. Even before that, employees had missed paycheques as the publisher struggled to cover its bills—and staff began musing about taking over the Crier. When the company finally went under, McMillan purchased the name under Streeter Publications. And the current office is in midtown Toronto in a small white building that’s so narrow and bland it looks abandoned. Although there are just four desks and computers, it’s a welcome departure from what McMillan describes as the “cubicle city” of their former office.
Under new management, the Crier remains much the same as it did before. The March 2013 issue for the Forest Hill neighbourhood features a front-page photo of two kids playing with ice after a festival, artist Robert Bateman’s inspiration from a local ravine and news of a survey seeking input from residents on a new parking lot. The first Leaside-Rosedale edition after the relaunch features photos of Kathleen Wynne and Stephen Harper on the front page; inside, there are stories of local businesses being affected by LRT construction and two brothers that started a business 25 years ago.
The quality of reporting remains the same as well, but instead of doing a lot of desk reporting from cubicle city, reporters can now attend community events. The paper addresses issues that would most likely be brushed off by bigger dailies in favour of national or international issues. “You get to actually have an effect. You help local people and local business,” says McMillan. “It’s fulfilling in a way that working at a larger, faceless kind of publication is not.”
The immersive community reporting sometimes requires staff to take on multiple roles. Kathy Kerluke, the associate publisher and advertising director, says investors and clients found out about the imminent shutdown only a few days before it was official and they weren’t pleased. For now, she says, many former advertisers are taking a “wait-and-see” approach. Indeed, the latest issues don’t have many ads. She’s reaching out to clients and trying to rebuild relationships that will keep the Crier running.
But Jeffrey Dvorkin, lecturer and director of the journalism program at University of Toronto Scarborough, warns that clear lines between the editorial and business sides of operating a paper need to be established because in community newspapers, there’s a tendency to avoid offending potential advertisers. “If you’re buying back a newspaper that you once worked for as a journalist and you’re suddenly in the position of being an owner,” he says, “you need to keep a firewall.”
While it’s still working on re-establishing its brand, distribution is fairly steady with a reach of 20,000 for each edition, and employees are relieved that an important piece of the Toronto community journalism scene wasn’t lost. “I think it’s refreshing for us to be in control, where we get to make our own decisions,” says Jennifer Gardiner, a former Crier employee under Multimedia Nova, and now its associate publisher and account manager. “Because we’ve all worked for the Crier for so long we basically understand what needs to be done, and now we’re in a position where we’re able to actually get it done.”