Thursday, December 18, 2008

A 150-year-old newspaper keeps up with the times

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 17, 2008


Who says newspapers are dying? Just the other day I spent several hours engrossed in the local daily.

The Times Colonist carries a hybrid name adopted in the wake of a shotgun wedding ordered by a new owner. (Please note, dear editor, the paper is an unhyphenated Canadian.) Critics still insist on calling it the Times Communist, which is more laughable than funny.

It boasts solid columnists and a talented reporting staff. On some days it offers almost 20 minutes of good reading.

The edition I couldn’t put down was dated Dec. 11. It remained riveting despite being a few days old. A few days and 150 years.

The inaugural issue of the newspaper now known as the Times Colonist features four pages of dense columns of type. It is unsullied by photography. The lone graphic is a thumbnail sketch of a leaping stag, part of a small notice for the Washington Restaurant on Government Street, whose proprietors “continue to keep their table well supplied with all the substantials and luxuries which the market affords.”

Other advertisers in the debut edition of the British Colonist include a druggist, a shoemaker, a bookseller,an auctioneer, the Victoria Coal Co., and a merchant announcing “GOLD DUST PURCHASED.”

Three years earlier, Victoria counted just 148 adult residents. Reports of gold discoveries along the Fraser River in 1858 caused the rapid construction of a ramshackle city of 20,000 with muddy roads and creaky wooden sidewalks. Among the new arrivals was a 33-year-old dreamer from Nova Scotia formerly known as Bill Smith.

The warehouseman had left the Maritimes to seek his fortune in the California goldfields, where he set up shop as a photographer in Mud Springs. When the settlement changed its name to the evocative El Dorado, plain Bill Smith decided to follow suit. He legally changed his identity to Amor de Cosmos, a name he said expressed what he most loved — “order, beauty, the world, the universe.”

In Victoria, he started a newspaper. The editor promised “an independent paper, the organ of no clique nor party — a true index of public opinion.” A year’s subscription cost $5, a single issue 25 cents.

A history published by the newspaper at the start of the sesquicentennial celebration stated only 200 copies of Vol. 1, No. 1 were produced on an old hand press.

Today, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the first edition can be read at a computer terminal anywhere in the world at any time of day for free.

Every page of every issue of the Colonist dating from Dec. 11, 1858, to June 30, 1910, has been digitized in a searchable form at . That’s more than 100,000 pages to be perused by historians, genealogical researchers and fans of old newspapers. No more scrolling and squinting and scanning reels of microfilm in some dark corner of a library.

The project is a collaboration between the newspaper and McPherson Library at the University of Victoria, with support from other university and public libraries.

Those of us who have spent hours at library microfilm machines know well the joy when a prospector spotted a good-sized gold nugget. Trolling through needle-in-a-haystack film of old newspapers demands a certain but-I’ll-find-it-anyway mania. Now, the thrill of discovery is just a few keyboard clicks away.

Those prospectors, many of them American, brought with them to the colony their passion for a game involving a bat and a ball. The baseball historian Geoff LaCasse has uncovered a recorded game of baseball played in New Westminster on the Queen’s birthday in 1862. A quick search of the Colonist unveils “base ball,” still spelled as two words, being played at Beacon Hill Park in 1863. Coverage includes a basic box score for the 39-33 match.

The first local baseball brawl happened less than a week later.

“Row on Beacon Hill,” the Colonist reported. “A breach of the peace took place on Beacon Hill yesterday. Two men seated in a buggy, and driving round the hill, came in contact with a party who were engaged in play base ball, and after some altercation, one of the base ball players pulled one of the men out of the vehicle, and, as we are informed, presented a pistol at him. Some of the by-standers prevented ay further violence occurring, and quelled the disturbance.”

A hint to the reason behind this puzzling confrontation — why so sudden and why so violent? — can be found a few items further along the column. Another game was to be played that day with the prize for the winner being a keg of lager beer. Hic hic hooray!

Technology is making the fustiest of communication devices — a century-old printed newspaper — as accessible as the most recent Twitter posting. This comes at a time when newspapers are undergoing a crisis — the National Post has axed weekday distribution in Manitoba, even though Canwest, which owns the Post and the Times Colonist, has headquarters in Winnipeg; Sun Media Corp. announced 600 job cuts yesterday; and, the Detroit newspapers are offering home delivery on only three days a week. In Victoria, the local community newspapers sometimes seem to be little more than flyer delivery mechanisms.

These days you wonder which will be the final surviving newspaper to report on the last North American automobile manufacturer to declare bankruptcy.

Mr. de Cosmos sold his newspaper to employees less than five years after launch. An advocate of the colony joining Confederation, he represented Victoria in the House of Commons and also served as British Columbia’s second premier. In the end, he went mad.

Happy 150th birthday, Times Colonist. Here’s to many, many more.

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