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‘Anger has not entered the picture yet. It’s more about sadness,’ says long-time Guelph Mercury sports reporter. Friday marked the last printing of the paper, leaving 26 people jobless. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)
‘Anger has not entered the picture yet. It’s more about sadness,’ says long-time Guelph Mercury sports reporter. Friday marked the last printing of the paper, leaving 26 people jobless. (Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail)

When a newspaper dies, a community is lesser for it Add to ...

Tony Saxon, sports reporter, columnist and photographer for the Guelph Mercury, is on the line.

“It’s funny,” he says, “but schools don’t ask for journalists to come in and talk about their jobs on ‘career day’ any more.”

Certainly not in Guelph, a thriving city of 130,000 in southern Ontario, where it’s now easier to find work as a blacksmith or a lamplighter than it is as a journalist.

Friday marked the very last printing of the Mercury, a newspaper that not so long ago earned readers’ respect, and a National Newspaper Award, for an exposé on the area’s gravel business.

After 149 years, the Mercury will no longer appear on the streets of Guelph, leaving 23 full-time staff and three part-time workers jobless.

The same day, in Nanaimo, B.C., the Daily News closed down after 141 years of serving readers, leaving 10 staff out of work.

The carnage in journalism seems to continue unabated. Postmedia has merged its newsrooms in four cities, cut 90 jobs and will soon offer buyout packages to those workers willing just to go away. Rogers Media has announced it is cutting 200 jobs across its various divisions. Earlier in the month, the Toronto Star shed more than 300 jobs in production and editorial. The month before that, it was 170 producers, camera operators, on-air personalities and reporters at Hamilton television station CHCH. And the month before that, pause for breath, 380 cuts in Bell Media.

A communications expert talking on CBC’s The Current Thursday morning estimated that about 10,000 journalism jobs have vanished in Canada in less than a decade, and 1,000 such jobs a month are being lost in the United States.

Tony Saxon never saw it coming. Nor did his co-workers. They knew circulation had fallen to 9,000 from 22,000, but they believed their leaner operation was working. He heard about the closing by telephone message from a colleague at another paper.

When the Mercury journalists turned up to console each other and talk about what had just happened to them, managers told staff they would be paid until week’s end but didn’t need to work through Friday – and every single one of them decided to keep going as long as they could.

“It’s a labour of love,” Mr. Saxon says of the job he held for 20 years. “Anger has not entered the picture yet. It’s more about sadness. We’re sad, but we will move on and we will survive. The blow is to this community. You cannot replace a newspaper that has been around for 150 years.”

Mr. Saxon knows that journalists are not some sacred profession that deserves protection. The 430 workers at the Picadilly potash mine in Sussex, N.B., who lost jobs this month may well be in more dire straits. They do not have equivalent media attention – both social and mainstream – to share their pain so publicly, but the hurt is no less palpable.

At 51, Mr. Saxon is unemployed this morning, his family of six with no idea what will come next. There has been some chatter of a website continuing, but the only certainty is that a city of significant size has lost its local newspaper.

Does this matter? Perhaps if you lived there, you would shake your head at such a foolish question. Mr. Saxon followed the local junior team, the Guelph Storm, and now their road trips will have a score but no account. Council meetings will go unreported by this newspaper that has covered 43 mayors but will now cover no more. With no daily newspaper to state the bad and celebrate the good, a community is lessened.

As David Carr, the esteemed columnist for The New York Times who died last year, once put it: “What I am worried about is who is going to tell you about the school system is the school system – and it will be all good news.”

Given the frenetic job cutting, it seemed almost poetic that this past week would carry news that one of the last truly great newspaper characters, Val Sears, had died at age 88 in Almonte, the charming little Ottawa Valley town where he had happily retired with his wife, Edith Cody-Rice. The cliché “larger than life” would never have been used by Mr. Sears, but it describes him perfectly: tall, elegant, well-spoken, with a tongue as sharp as the stylish hats and suits he preferred.

He was a role model for a vast array of familiar bylines in this country, a journalist who could report well, write beautifully and was fearless. He was foreign correspondent, political reporter, science reporter, feature writer – but above all, “storyteller.” He took no prisoners, played no favourites.

Covering a federal election campaign for the Toronto Star back in the Diefenbaker-Pearson era, Mr. Sears will be forever remembered for his challenge to the Parliamentary Press Gallery: “To work, gentlemen, we have a government to overthrow.”

Covering Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark during the 1979 election that Mr. Clark won, Mr. Sears was greeted by the soon-to-be prime minister and asked how long he might have the pleasure of Mr. Sears’ company.

“As long as it takes, sir,” Mr. Sears responded.

Five years later, Mr. Sears and I were dispatched to follow John Turner in his quest for the Liberal leadership. We spent weeks travelling together – Mr. Sears was recovering from a stroke at the time, so each morning I would have to do his cuffs and knot his tie exactly right.

At a photo-op at the small mining museum in Rossland, B.C., Mr. Turner happened to pick up a rock sample, feel its heft and check out its label: “Imagine that – 90 per cent lead!”

“Much like you, sir,” Mr. Sears cracked from the back of the crowd around Mr. Turner.

Next day, the quip was attributed to a local wit under Val Sears’ magnetic byline.

He wrote a memoir in 1988 about his life in journalism. He called it Hello, Sweetheart … Get Me Rewrite: Remembering the Great Newspaper Wars.

Tony Saxon so far has given no such thought to a memoir, or what one on today’s trade might be called. You can’t ask for rewrite if there’s nowhere to write.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Saxon says. “This is not a recession. And we are not the last paper.”

But it was, in its day, a good paper with good people. The Guelph Storm asked Mr. Saxon if he would do the honours of dropping the puck at the Friday home game he would not be able to cover.

And Friday the paper carried the last column he would ever write for it. No bitterness, just fondness.

“What a wonderful time,” he wrote.

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