Wednesday, July 14, 2010

No News is bad news for Nelson residents

Bob Hall, managing editor of the Nelson Daily News, is producing the final edition of the 109-year-old newspaper.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 14, 2010


Bob Hall planned to spend this week of vacation on the golf course with his young son, a respite from workdays spent staring at a computer screen.

Instead, he has made a daily pilgrimage to the historic offices of the Nelson Daily News, a newspaper that has served the residents of the Kootenay city for more than a century.

Over those years, the paper’s staff has chronicled booms and busts in the mining industry; recounted the lives of young men lost in great wars; written about the internment of Japanese-Canadians in local ghost towns; covered the fires and naked demonstrations of the Sons of Freedom sect of Doukhobors; noted the arrival of American draft dodgers and back-to-the-landers and assorted marijuana aficionados; described the film crews and Hollywood stars such as Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah in town for the filming of “Roxanne” in 1986; reported on countless city council meetings; and, recorded the births, deaths and marriages that are the lifeblood of any small-town publication.

All that comes to an end on Friday.

“How do you properly put a 109-year-old newspaper to bed? It’s daunting,” said Mr. Hall, who has been managing editor for eight years.

It is the burden of the newspaperman to be both obituarist and undertaker when the body on the slab is your own.

The paper has put out a call to readers for memories of a journal launched just 15 months after the death of Queen Victoria. The founding editor’s promise: “All the news that is news will be published.” That was a more responsible pledge than that of its predecessor, the Daily Miner, whose masthead included the statement, “The Miner is printed on Saturdays, providing the staff is sober ...”

Mr. Hall, 42, said the staff knew the Daily News had been struggling. (What’s black and white and bleeds red ink all over?) In competition for advertising dollars with other media, including a rival weekly paper, the newspaper did not share its precarious situation with readers who now say they wish they had not let a subscription lapse. Their regret comes too late.

“I love the newspaper,” he said. “I love the fact that a small community like this has a daily newspaper.”

The managing editor does not have much staff to manage — two reporters, who also take photographs; a sports editor; the editor of the The Weekender. Mr. Hall has a grand title, but he does the scut work at the heart of any publication. He edits copy, writes headlines, lays out pages, answers telephones, writes a daily column (often featuring his own family, described as the Hall Clan), takes yuletide photographs of Santa Claus atop a snow plow, and, on occasion, personally delivers a copy to a disgruntled reader.

It is journalism at a neighbourly level. The same cannot be said of ownership.

Local ownership of the Daily News ended in the 1970s with its sale to a couple of buccaneering capitalists who got into the newspaper business “as a bit of a lark.” Conrad Black and David Radler bought papers, fired employees, pocketed profits. The Daily News lost much of its editorial staff, precipitating a decline in quality and — surprise — in readership. Then, having sucked a newspaper dry, the owners flipped the paper. Such practices earned both men fortunes on their way to the hoosegow.

On July 2, the Daily News was one of 10 British Columbia newspapers sold by Glacier Media of Vancouver to Black Press, owned by David Black, the Victoria newspaper magnate who is unrelated to Conrad. Within days, Black Press announced the closure of four of their new properties. Among the victims — the Daily News with its 17 full-time and 17 part-time workers.

Black Press owns the rival Nelson Star, a weekly that has since announced it will now publish twice a week.

Mr. Hall said a twice-a-week paper is no replacement for a daily.

“A city council meeting will be on Monday night. On Tuesday, the initial story will come out about what happened on city council. On Wednesday, we’ll have a reaction story to whatever that news item was. On Thursday, letters to the editor start trickling in. By Friday, there might be a column by me. The story evolves. With a weekly, it just doesn’t live as long.”

One former staffer angered by the demise is B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair, who worked at the paper as a news reporter and sports editor until being let go in 1982. “Local newspapers are the guts of democracy,” he said Tuesday. He blamed the closing on lax competition laws that permit a rival to buy a publication with the intent of killing it.

The managing editor said the Daily News’s absence will be most pronounced when citizens go to the polls.

“Elections are our Stanley Cup,” he said. “That’s when we matter the most for people.”

On its 50th birthday, the Daily News had a circulation of more than 9,000, remarkable for a city then counting just 6,772 residents.

Today, the Daily News has a circulation of 3,100, about two-thirds of those paid. Single copies cost $1, although the owners decided to charge $1.10 after the introduction of the HST at the start of this month, one more excuse for potential customers reluctant to part with a loonie.

The managing editor is not the only member of the Hall Clan to be losing his job this week. For the past three years, his children, Kyle, 12, and Ashley, 10, have shared a newspaper route in their neighbourhood. His daughter presented him with a hand-drawn card illustrated with her drawing of a person crying. It included a helpful suggestion: “Here are places you can work: Walmart, Safeway, Restaurant!! Yay. I’m sorry. I still love you.”

Mr. Hall will be out of work and he might be out of journalism after Friday, but he is not angry at the people who sent his newspaper to the Great Spike in the sky.

“I want print journalism to succeed here. I want it to survive in some capacity. I want to read it.”

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