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Opinion My small-town newspaper died a year ago. The community has been grieving ever since

The St. Marys Journal Argus in St. Marys, Ont., was one of the many shuttered last year when Postmedia and Torstar swapped some of their newspapers and closed them, eliminating competition.

Andrea Macko

Andrea Macko is a former journalist and columnist from St. Marys, Ont.

There’s a perception that small towns never change. But my small town – bucolic St. Marys, Ont. – can now mark the passage of time from one specific day, almost a year ago: Nov. 27, 2017.

That day, the St. Marys Journal Argus and more than 20 other community weekly newspapers were suddenly shuttered by Postmedia Network Canada Corp. The papers were purchased from Torstar Corp., and immediately closed in an apparent effort to strengthen community newspapers by eliminating competition.

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To say that “the Journal” was as much of St. Marys as our namesake cement concern or scenic trestle walkway is a gross understatement. For starters, our community newspaper actually predated the town it served. The St. Marys Journal began publishing in 1853, a year before the incorporation of the village (now town) of St. Marys. The Argus first went to press in 1857. The two papers merged almost a century ago.

The Journal Argus building at 142 Queen St. E, shown in 1930. The St. Marys Journal and St. Marys Argus had merged about a decade earlier, but the sign on the building had not yet been changed.

St. Marys Museum

By the time my husband and I moved from Toronto to St. Marys in 2003, the Journal was the archetypical small-town paper, earnestly reporting on all facets of small-town life, from municipal politics to school plays to giant produce. There was no other way to learn about our new hometown or to meet the characters who made it tick.

I learned all the more when I joined the Journal as a full-time reporter in 2005. The job tested my professional mettle in ways my former life as a fashion editor never could. The weekly hamster wheel of community reportage is not for the faint of mind or body.

I would eventually travel down a different career path, but I came to contribute a weekly column to the Journal – when the lifestyle/recipe columnist retired after an incredible 60 years, I jumped at the chance to return to the lighter side of news.

Andrea Macko's picture from the Journal Argus masthead.

Andrea Macko

I also kept my feet professionally wet by covering vacation leaves. When I joined the Journal, there were three in the news department. By 2017, there was nobody in the news department other than the indefatigable Stew Slater, who wrote for the Journal as a high-school student and returned full-time when I departed to begin my family. (The sports department was solely in the hands of Pat Payton, a 30-year veteran of the position.)

I had covered for Stew the week prior to Nov. 27. When I came into the office that Monday morning, Stew’s tone was unforgettably taut as he cut short my conversation. “The Journal’s done. It doesn’t matter any more.”

In the news release announcing the closure, which also affected a supplementary publication called the Weekender, Postmedia spelled “St. Marys” wrong. Had the Journal ever inserted a possessive apostrophe into our town’s name, a crowd of indignant readers would have stormed the office. For a national media company to make the mistake was strongly symbolic.

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One hundred and sixty-four years of informing civic life, ripped from my community on a sunny Monday morning.

At a jewellers building under renovation in St. Marys, shown this month, a sign on the window thanks the newspaper for 164 years serving the community.

Andrea Macko

A year on, I still can’t believe that my hand was the last to ever shape the Journal. I regret that we couldn’t cover our biggest news story – Postmedia’s fatal low blow was made all the lower because it immediately halted operations at its newly acquired papers. We couldn’t analyze our demise or say thank you and farewell to our readers.

I tearfully posted my reaction to Facebook the night of the closure. A few days later, our municipality graciously released a statement from Stew. Comforts – but cold comforts when your life’s work was delivered weekly on newsprint.

St. Marys still benefits from a weekly, independently owned newspaper. As competitors do, it has a different feel than the Journal did. With a youthful history and a renegade spirit, the St. Marys Independent continues to evolve as the sole voice of our town.

It’s easy to dismiss the need for good journalism in smaller communities. The stories may not seem as sexy as Donald Trump’s latest dust-up or some new environmental disaster, but these microcosms – what small town hasn’t had an outspoken mayor or a suspicious smell emanating from a pillar of industry? – have a much greater effect on daily lives.

The responsible spread of information and analysis is not as simple as starting a blog, or sharing on social media. Many St. Marys residents don’t use social media for a variety of reasons, from lack of access, to age, to a desire for privacy in a place where everyone already knows you. As a result, platforms such as Facebook community pages only reach a portion of our population. Digital saturation remains years away, if it ever occurs at all.

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For many, the physical act of picking up a paper remains the easiest way to be informed. Admittedly, journalism is fraught with challenges, especially in a small town where lives and interests are often entwined in complex ways. But small-town journalists can’t hide behind a byline: When you face your audience at every turn of the day, you must work in a way that allows you to always hold your head high.

A front-page story by Andrea Macko from Aug. 30, 2006, notes a community visit by then prime minister Stephen Harper.

Andrea Macko

A few months after the Journal’s closure, St. Marys’s community museum mounted an exhibition-cum-tribute on local newspapers. Amid the clippings of notable stories – threats of hospital closure, a visit from Terry Fox and debates over municipal debentures – one of the informative panels noted that after being family-owned for almost 150 years, the Journal was sold in 1999 to the Metroland chain (a Torstar subsidiary). It was a time when globalism, and the internet’s potential, were gleaming with promise.

“The paper continued to publish under the new owners but now it was only a small cipher in the cut-throat world of national media,” the panel aptly stated. How sacred is one newspaper when an entire chain of print and digital communities must be considered in the bottom line?

Corporate ownership was a slow vise on the Journal and its ilk. By Nov. 27, 2017, it didn’t take much effort to close the clamps.

After the Journal’s demise, visitors to its homepage were redirected to one of two “local” Postmedia papers, which, at 20 and 30 minutes down the road, might as well be a different universe for St. Marysites. I suspect other communities that lost their papers feel the same.

It’s a different universe for the families whose generations of birth, marriage and death notices would all have appeared in the Journal. It’s certainly a different universe for those who anticipated “Journal Wednesday,” and the visit to our community post office for their copy and subsequent chat with acquaintances while there.

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It’s definitely a different universe for all the stories that now go untold in communities lacking a news outlet. Fundraisers that aren’t successful due to lack of publicity. Political decisions that go unquestioned because there’s no reporter to ask. Lives less informed and engaged.

When stories, good or bad, are no longer shared, it’s all the easier to believe that nothing changes in a small town. Apathy grows, and communities wither as a result.

Earlier this week, as the first anniversary of the death of the Journal approached, the federal government pledged almost $600-million in funding to Canada’s news industry. Hopefully, it will help another small town avoid the same fate as St. Marys. For the Journal Argus, it came too late.

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