Bob Verdun proudly admits to being a muckraker. He publishes without fear or favor and systematically subscribes to the old newspaper adage of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. Today such sayings are as dated as press cards in fedoras. But as editor and owner of the aptly named Independent in Elmira, Ontario, Verdun sees himself as part of a dying breed in the community newspaper industry.
At 40, Verdun is a tall, gangly man, meek in appearance until he starts to talk about his craft. He folds his arms tightly into his chest as his voice deepens in a stern I-mean-business tone. “There is this view,” he says, t at somehow weekly newspapers can only restrict themselves to good news. That’s unreasonable. Even in the smallest communities, there is corruption.”
“Bad news” is front-page news at The Independent, where small-town boosterism gives way to the shortcomings of the municipal powers that be. This at a time when “good news” and PR puffery are feeding the presses at most Canadian weeklies caught in the current trend toward concentrated ownership and humdrum blandness.
Verdun and his wife Carol, The Independent’s publisher, have been fighting that trend since they started the paper 14 years ago with a borrowed typesetting machine and a $6,500 loan. Their brash editorializing has not gone unnoticed in this generally conservative town of 7,200 just north of Kitchener Waterloo. At one time, the opinion ~ pages of The Independent, which has a 9 circulation of 7,500, featured columns by Verdun’s “political animals” – his own horse, cow and sheep dog Oliver. Oliver Dog later gained notoriety when his master ran him for mayor. Another regular feature entitled “Regrettable Racism of the Week” displayed snapshots of black lawn jockeys perched in front of their Elmira addresses. And Verdun’s progressive ideals clashed with community tradition last fall when he not only denied coverage to the Elmira Fair beauty queen contest but denounced the event in an editorial as “insulting and demeaning.”
Verdun’s eccentric messages have also found a country-wide medium in the national edition of The Independent, a monthly publication “for thoughtful Canadians” he and Carol launched three years ago. The paper is a bizarre mix of international and local news. In one issue, a story about a local collector of jukeboxes runs on the same page as a wire photo of child beggars in Bombay. Despite his flair for the unusual, Verdun is a newspaperman who takes his role seriously. “The first duty of a newspaper is to keep the community fully informed about what is being done with the people’s tax dollars,” a statement on the front page of the first edition of The Independent read in 1974. The statement of goals also promised the paper’s readers a commitment which it argued couldn’t be delivered under the stranglehold of chain ownership. Just three weeks before, Verdun had been fired as editor of what was then the town’s only weekly, The Elmira Signet, for insulting a general manager who wanted more fluff and less opinion.
Verdun pioneered his crusading journalism at the University of Waterloo’s now-defunct campus newspaper in the late 1960s. A first-year engineering student fresh from his home town of Aylmer, Ontario, he marched into The Chevron’s office determined to learn the craft, and took to the job with gusto. For one of his first stories criticizing CBC-TV for canceling Nightcap, he picketed the final taping of the late night variety show in Toronto. By his second year he realized finding news angles was more fun than aligning sewer drains, so he dropped out of engineering to go into journalism fulltime as editor of The Chevron.
It was the same blunt writing Verdun had refined at The Chevron that cost him his Signet job and would later gain notoriety and subscriptions for The Independent. Advertisers responded well too, and over several years they switched allegiance from the Signet to The Independent. When the Verduns took on the Signet, they also took on Fairway Press (now The Fairway Group Inc.)-a newspaper chain that owns all but two of Waterloo Region’s seven weeklies and forms part of the company that also owns the area’s only daily, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record.
The rivalry gained national coverage and spurred a piece in the old Canadian section of Time which observed: “Verdun does things to the Signet that would be unthinkable in the mutually protective world of big city newspapers. He tells his readers when the Signet merely runs a press release and when it fails to cover municipal township meetings.” In 1982, the 91-year-old Signet folded. “We were a real newspaper,”Verdun says, still savoring the Signet’s demise.
The Independent’s victory not only asserted the strength of the individually owned newspaper but proved that hard news still had a place in community journalism. While sports results graced the front page of the Signet, The Independent’s lead stories gave blow-by-blow accounts of town council meetings. Its first editorial, headed “The Taxpayers Are Not Suckers,” has set the paper’s tone to this day.
Last year, when Pilkington Township’s council drafted a development plan designated for land owned by some town officials, The Independent was hot on its trail. Detailed articles chronicled the shady plan and Verdun was characteristically blunt in his weekly column, “Sweeping the Printshop Floor”: “It is flagrantly obvious,” he wrote, “that most council members’ first priority is the financial well-being of their colleagues.” In a later editorial, Verdun suggested the municipality change its name to The Pilkington Soviet Socialist Republic.
“If everybody took Bob Verdun’s opinions seriously, I don’t think anybody would run for government,” Woolwich mayor Bob Waters says with a wry chuckle. But he credits Verdun for providing a keen opposition to local councils: “There’s no doubt that he’s raised the quality of politics here.”
Other local politicians aren’t as quick to acknowledge The Independent’s contribution to democracy. “As far as I’m concerned, Bob Verdun doesn’t exist,” grunts former township clerk Len Day, who resigned from Pilkington council after articles about the plan were published. Albert Erb, a frequent target and long-time mayor of Wellesley Township, is equally disenchanted with Verdun: “He’s very unfair, but he seems to sell papers.” Despite Verdun, Erb says he likes The Independent: “Other than his editorials and the things he writes, it’s a good paper.”
Verdun’s audacity is the reason Shaindel Zimmerman regularly picks up the paper from the newsstand. “He takes on issues other local papers won’t touch with a 10-foot pole. The other papers are piss poor. All they tell you is who won the local curling match,” says Zimmerman, who has lived in Pilkington Township for 18 years.
While curling scores and strawberry socials frequently appear in the pages of The Independent, the paper prides itself on being a watchdog for the community. An Elmira manufacturer, Martin Feed Mills Ltd. (described by Verdun as the town’s “leading capitalist”), shelled out $13,500 in fines after articles about nighttime noise at the loading docks encouraged residents to complain. And after a front-page story appeared, a steep road the paper deemed as hazardous to Mennonites in horse-drawn carriages was reconstructed by the Region.
Verdun insists that the paper’s first priority is hard news-and lots of it. With four full-time reporters, there is rarely a shortage of stories: in many issues, news accounts for as much as 50 percent of the paper. In contrast, the Ontario Community Newspaper Association (OCNA) requires its members to run as little as 30 percent news, leaving the rest of the space for ads. The Independent’s bulky copy trades off substance for style, but that suits Verdun just fine: “We’ve never put a high priority on appearance, not in the conventional sense.”
A quick glance at the front page of a recent issue confirms that the paper is anything but conventional. The wide broadsheet is a blur of grey, punctuated only by headlines and a photograph which is sometimes foggy or overexposed. Set in characteristically tiny type, the headlines convey more information than the lead paragraph. Screaming they are not: “Renovations for Arena Just Under Budget as Tenders Total $140,000” is typical front-page fare.
The standard 25-inch stories are enough to make another editor reach for the closest Exacto. But Verdun has made it a policy never to cut copy-he makes it fit. He disregards “the graphic obsessions” of the industry for one simple reason. “I don’t think the readers give a damn,” he says.
That assumption has made Verdun the odd man out in the community newspaper business, where the emphasis has been more on slick packaging than tough muckraking. “If Bob Verdun was marketing Corn Flakes, he’d sell them in paper bags,” remarks fellow newspaper owner Terry McConnell. McConnell, a former OCNA president and publisher of the nearby Tilbury Times, is pragmatic about the trade. His paper relies on 60 percent ads. “The bottom line is you gotta pay your bills or you don’t exist,” he says. “If the paper isn’t making money, all the goodwill and high ideals become moot points.”
The price of principle has cost The Independent. Verdun jokes that the paper “is as close to a nonprofit organization as it can get.” The Verduns live off revenues from North Waterloo Publishing Ltd., their publishing and printing firm which, besides the newspaper, prints the prosperous KitctenerWaterloo Real Estate News and a monthly publication called The Farm Gate.
Profit-oriented papers have been making money at the readers’ expense, Verdun says: “They simply do not put enough back in. Thomson is a classic example. Thomson gets away with it and it’s expected of everybody else. Even if we’re only half as bad as Thomson, we’re still bad.”
Ever critical of his media colleagues, Verdun has tried to shift the focus of news from the urban powers to a small community perspective with the national edition of The Independent. He prefers to ignore the “Toronto tribe” of journalists in favor of a national sampling of views by unpaid contributors from British Columbia to Newfoundland.
Verdun uses the national edition to expose the mistakes of other newspapers. In her column “Working with Words,” Carol assiduously compiles embarrassing faux pas from Canadian and American publications. Once she gave The Ottawa Sunday Herald an award in creative spelling for printing “paraphernalia.” After The Globe and Mail printed a story which said lawyers were “pouring over” the manuscript of Reign of Error, Carol scoffed at the typo: “What are they pouring? Their martinis? Their morning coffee?”
Even Robert Fulford, widely hailed as one of the craft’s best, does not escape the Verduns’ wrath. In a scathing, full-page article they lambasted “Toronto-based scribes” for attacking the Stratford Festival and accused Fulford of “failing to meet the basic standards of journalism” when an incorrect date appeared in a review of the festival he wrote for The Toronto Star.
The Verduns have a reputation for being equally tough on their own reporters. After the non-word “alot” appeared in an Independent article, a notice posted in the newsroom warned the reporter responsible to seek shelter in “a well-fortified barracks” should the mistake appear again. Such less-than-tactful managerial ways have meant a high staff turnover in recent years. Verdun, who freely admits to being a poor manager, says he has tried to hire team players to pick up the diplomatic slack.
Not that he’s one himself. He’s a se described loner who confesses to “da when I wish it was a small enterprise when I could do it all myself.” Which in fact, he did. In the first few years ~ business, he handled most of the r porting, photography, editing and eve advertising sales. During lulls in cow cil meetings, he sketched the paper layout. Now, with coverage extended from one township to four, that loa would be physically impossible. As it is The Independent saps most of Verdun’ time, leaving the national edition simmering on the back burner.
By Verdun’s own account, the pail subscription of the monthly is stagnant at 1,000. He doesn’t advertise outside his own paper, and direct mail campaigns are beyond his reach. Instead he relies on word-of-mouth and chance publicity to draw subscriptions. Where he first started the national edition as ~ fortnightly, he had hoped to gain 1,OOC new subscribers a year. But withou1 any marketing resources, that turned out to be a pipe dream.
The Verduns had also hoped the 12page ‘edition would sound a national voice for other community journalists across the country by “getting the story and viewpoint from the place of origin” as opposed to the urban media centres. But, by his own account, the national Independent, which frequently attacks free trade and the use of nuclear submarines, has evolved into a more left-of-centre publication than he intended. “The government certainly isn’t even-handed and two-sided about the issues, so I don’t mind that we’re not,” he says.
None of this, however, seems to faze Bob Verdun. Described by one colleague as “a man with a mission,” he exhibits a quixotic drive that seems to know no bounds. He attacks a counsillor’s proposal to have a fire hydrant removed from in front of his house with the same zeal he brings to patronage in Mulroney’s government. For Verdun, stirring society’s complacency doesn’t stop at just conquering the next township in the Region. “It starts in my own community,” he says, “and extends to the world.”