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A brief history of <i>The Community Press</i>

Alan Coxwell

This originally ran as the lead story of The Community Press, 18 June 2004.

All good stories start with, “It was a dark and stormy night …” but actually, it was a warm spring morning on April 16, 1985, when the first edition of The Community Press hit the front doors of 4,000 homes around Stirling. We had been shooting for an April 1 launch so that if our dreams didn’t work we could just tell everyone it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. We missed our first deadline, but have never missed one since.

Here in the early summer of 2004 you are holding the 1000th Edition of The Community Press in your hands and perhaps it amazes you as much as it does us that nearly 20 years have slipped by since this newspaper was born. It has recorded the history of our time in this neighbourhood and the passing of many colourful characters. It has been an open forum for the expression of opinions on every subject imaginable. Hopefully it has informed, antagonized, championed community projects, provoked, and made people think about what is happening all around us. Now and then I hear that we even make people laugh sometimes. So, here is how it all started.

Some of you may remember a phenomenon of the late 1960s and early 1970s, other than the Beatles invading North America, which was referred to as the “Back to the Land” movement. A post-World-War-Two generation had grown up under the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation by either the Americans or the Russians, had watched the Vietnam War unfold on the screens of the first colour televisions to invade our living rooms and was getting a little disillusioned with the idea of scratching out a life which started on the asphalt of the Don Valley Parkway every morning. I was one of them.

But first of all, I should tell you my journey back to the land entailed something I called “Voluntary Poverty.” I had realized the most valuable thing we all have is our time on this Earth and to spend it wisely is to spend it doing the things we enjoy with the people we love. Living in this way doesn’t often entail a whole lot of cash.

Also, a friend had explained to me one time, “Life is like riding a bicycle. You have to pedal a little then coast a while. The further you can coast the more fun the ride is.” I took him at his word as he was older and more experienced than I; $3,000 later I had made the down payment on a vacant 50 acres of good farm land in Rawdon Township. Figuring out where to get the mortgage payments and how to build a house was up to me.

While practising long-time-life-coasting all sorts of interesting, remunerative activity came my way from pruning apple trees in the winter and picking apples in the fall to helping build a three-storey log home just around the corner from my place. Life was good. I could walk across the fields to work. Then one late summer day, as both my next mortgage payment and a depleted bank account loomed before me, I noticed an ad in the help wanted section of The Stirling News Argus. “Editor Wanted.” Well, I had written letters to the editor of various publications before. To be honest, I found writing such letters to be rather therapeutic. For me it was like a very quiet form of Primal Scream Therapy. I applied. They were desperate. I was hired.

My introduction to the world of newspapers began on my old Remington Quiet Writer typewriter. It still sits collecting dust in the corner of my office after I attempted to give it away many years ago to one of the salesmen around here who was in denial about the computer revolution overrunning us in the early 1990s. He soon returned it.

Since the end of the hot lead type era newspapers had been dependent upon photographic processes for their production. My father was a professional photographer in Campbellford so I had grown up in a darkroom and knew something about what was required on that end but phototypesetting was a total mystery to me. Back in the Marmora head office of the News Argus a young lady with very fast fingers punched keys and flipped switches on an old Compugraphics machine for most of every Monday morning. That was production day and every now and then she would get up, take a cassette out of the machine, feed its contents through some rollers in a chemical bath kept in a light-tight box and the black type would magically appear on strips of bright-white, photo-sensitive paper. Needed type was cut out, hot wax was applied to the back and the puzzle was put together with advertisements and photographs. I began to realize I really enjoyed this business. There was always something “new” happening. I was having fun and making a bit of money too.

After a little over a year of creating newspapers, I found a few things which made an otherwise enjoyable occupation unenjoyable for me and I decided there was an opportunity to start a newspaper of my own. At that time Heather McGee was the News Argus office manager on Mill Street in Stirling and one day I said to her, “Heather, I’m going to start a newspaper. Want to join me?” Without missing a beat she said, “Sure.” Thereupon she started writing out her resignation.

Coasting through Christmas from 1984 into 1985 was a learning period which verified an idea of mine which I labeled “creative ignorance.” It basically says, “If you have no idea what you are doing, you have the most to learn.”

Since living with three children had convinced me that humans are here on the planet for this life experience to learn and grow, I figured I was on the right track with this new business plan. Well, there really wasn’t a business plan. I had spent a few years in an institution in Kingston called the Queen’s School of Business so I knew enough to understand what any bank manager I might dare approach would say. No, what I needed were two bigger fools than I was and I happened to meet them at my next birthday party.

For several years a friend of mine, John Seckar, and my brother-in-law, James Eby, and I had gotten together to celebrate our birthdays. John grew cabbage, cauliflower and corn on his farm near Codrington and James was a marine engineer on ships supplying oil rigs off Newfoundland. All of our birthdays happen to fall on the same day, so I guess one could legitimately believe our fate was in the stars.

By the end of the evening of February 11, 1985, we had formed a rough partnership and miraculously, in the cold, clear light of the following morning it still seemed like a good idea. Our motto became, “Let’s have some fun, and if we all lose all of our money, well, we will at least have had some fun and we are used to paying for that!” Now there is a business plan.

Figuring out how to incorporate a company was lesson number one which we tackled by ourselves. The word interactive was relatively new in business lingo, describing an emerging relationship between companies and technology, so we filed for Interactive Publishing Limited. When we handed the lady $85 to incorporate us at the government office in Peterborough she said, “Sorry, there is already an Interactive company listed.” Much to the chagrin of our future accountants we added February 11 in front of Interactive Publishing Limited and the lady hit our papers vigourously with her big rubber stamp. We were officially on our way to starting a newspaper.

As chance would have it, with about a dozen vacant stores in Stirling at that time, the one which best suited our needs and budget was right across Mill Street from the old News Argus office, below the Stirling Bowling Alley sign. It was 12 feet wide and 100 feet long and the bowling alleys were upstairs. At about 8 p.m. on April 15, as we placed the first pages on the large vertical camera to photograph them, the entire building began to shake so hard we had to stop the process. Our camera room was directly below the pin setters and the Monday Night Bowling League was letting the balls fly upstairs! We phoned the printer to tell him we were going to be a bit later than expected.

We had rented this office space for $160 per month and started to collect the necessary used office equipment. James went back to sea while John and I hit the printers’ trade show circuit to see if we could figure out what equipment was required. As novices we got in deep by signing a $50,000 contract while enjoying a beer at the Mississauga home of a Compugraphics salesman one night. It was for the very latest, most modern, advanced phototypesetting equipment money could buy. It was a big mistake, but fortunately we had this fast-talking fellow give us a one-month cancellation clause. Soon after signing, even before we tried to get a bank loan, we ran into a real veteran of the newspaper production world at a Toronto trade show. When I explained to him what we were up to he said, “Find a Compugraphics Editwriter 7500 and buy it. They got all of the bugs out of that machine. You can shoot it with a shotgun and it will keep on running! Should cost you about $5,000 bucks.” This guy was talking our language.

We cancelled the other contract and tracked a used Editwriter to a Compugraphics warehouse in Toronto. Sitting at a table with a representative of the Bank of Manhattan, who had repossessed the machine from some fool who thought he could start a newspaper, and the Compugraphics company manager who just came to realize his guys in the repair depot thought it was Compugraphics machine and had completely rebuilt it, afforded us an interesting ringside seat. After their heated debate we got the machine for $3,500, loaded it on John’s pickup truck and drove it straight to Stirling where we plugged it in to see if we could figure out how to run it. The front of the machine looked like the cockpit of a jet airliner and when we fired it up it sounded exactly like my grandmother’s old washing machine. We started to flip switches and soon figured out what was going on inside the beast.

Next stop was at the Stirling Post Office to see what Post Master Herb Wall would charge us to distribute our as-yet-unnamed newspaper. To my complete surprise Herb said, “We distribute newspapers free of charge.” Naturally I asked him if he couldn’t give me a better price.

As the details of this amazing bit of good news unfolded it turned into some very bad news. Distribution was free to paid subscription newspapers like all of those old publications in the towns surrounding us. The catch was you had to have subscriptions sold for over half of your total press run before you would qualify for the free distribution. Until we reached that plateau the Post Office would charge us 62¢ to mail each paper upon which we placed someone’s name and address. Our problem in starting a newspaper now became, “How do we convince people they should pay for our unknown product and get our press run high enough to appeal to advertisers?” Meanwhile, our tax dollars were paying for our competition to be distributed free of charge!

This appears to have been a postal regulation instituted before the advent of radio and television, when newspapers were the only medium for governments to get their message out to the people. I have often imagined local politicians in the early 1900s coming to newspaper publishers’ offices with the good news that their distribution costs would be paid for by the government. As the politician leaves he turns and says, “Oh, by the way, here is my press release on the good works of our party.”

This largesse to established newspapers effectively froze out any competition. The existing newspaper in a town had an incredible competitive advantage. They had their subscription money, free distribution and were the only game in town if anyone wanted to advertise. Realizing we would go broke paying mailing charges before we ever sold enough subscriptions, the decision was made to print 4,000 copies and distribute them as unaddressed mail. Our objectives became, “Get it into those homes and make it interesting enough that people are going to pick it up and read it.” It worked.

Soon pressure was on us to expand into other markets. Marmora, Madoc and Tweed put our circulation up to over 10,000. It was as if neighbours were passing their Community Press to friends down the concession roads and they would call us, asking, “Why don’t we get it?”

By the September of 1985 we made the decision to start a similar edition in Campbellford which we called our Western Edition. Adding Warkworth, Hastings, Norwood and Havelock also put that edition’s press run over 10,000 copies.

Looking back now it is hard to imagine that our first edition of a 12-page newspaper required that we worked through the entire night to produce it. A small group including photographer/humourist Terry Bush, former Havelock newspaper reporter/environmentalist John Bennett, former Marmora Herald reporter Jeanette Moore and Heather McGee worked many overtime hours to produce that first edition. It is a timeless paper for in our haste we actually neglected to put the date on the front page!

In 1985 our publication date was on Tuesdays primarily because grocery store sales started on Wednesdays and their ads were critical. Thus, all week long we sold advertising, covered news events, built advertisements and wrote editorials and news reports. All day Saturday and Sunday were spent preparing the material and all day Monday disappeared in laying out the newspaper before delivering the negatives to our printer in Tweed. For that first edition I handed the printer the negatives, then went upstairs in his establishment and lay down on the hardwood floor to catch a bit of sleep while the big presses rolled below me. When they were finished I dumped them into the back of my Volkswagen Rabbit and headed off to the post office. This was the beginning of what turned out to be a work schedule of seven days a week for the next ten years. We were all quite pleased when Bev and John Williams decided to open a restaurant right next door to us down on Mill Street. On several occasions we saw the Sun rise behind Glen’s Barber Shop across the street and were very happy to hear Bev and John starting breakfast next door.

By the beginning of the 1990s we had outgrown our space in downtown Stirling and decided to build an office on an acre of land purchased from Doug Morton on the corner of Highway 14 and the First Concession of Rawdon Township. Designing a building for a newspaper enterprise was exciting and by 1992 we were in our new office.

Perhaps the most memorable part of the move, which had to be accomplished between newspaper production days, was the morning four of us lugged our huge vertical camera up to the front door and for a while thought it was not going to fit through the opening we had built. As we wiggled it left and right the phone rang. Harvey Spry was holding the camera leg nearest the counter, and, being our sales manager, he couldn’t resist answering. It was an acquaintance who worked for the Quinte Weekly News, a paper which had run through three sets of owners in an attempt to get established in Belleville over the past six years. They had just received word from their newest owners, a printing company in St. Catharines, that next week was their last week of publication. Did we want to expand The Community Press into that market?

Good question. We had never really considered going down into the city but another opportunity did appear to be knocking on our door. Even though we had yet to plug a computer in at our building we decided it might just be the new adventure we needed to keep our interest. With the addition of Belleville, Trenton and Brighton along the lakeshore our total circulation now topped 58,000 homes.

At the same time shopping patterns were changing and we switched our publication dates to Friday. On this schedule our readers had the weekend to enjoy the newspaper. Our production days gradually shifted to Tuesday through Thursday and one of the real bonuses for all of us was that by 1995 we actually could take the weekends off too!

A newspaper is an amalgam of technology and people. We have always embraced the new technology as it came along with the computer revolution of the past 20 years making phototypesetting completely obsolete. The once global Compugraphics company no longer exists. The two darkrooms built into this building in 1992 are now empty of all photographic equipment. The vertical camera has gone back out through the front door. Now we create this entire newspaper in our computers, send it via the Internet to our printer and at the same time produce a much higher quality and colourful newspaper in less time. We never work all night anymore. We have a daily version available on our web site. When we started just 19 years ago no one had ever dreamed of anything called the Internet becoming so pervasive in our everyday lives. It has been quite a ride.

In a way I can imagine The Community Press as the nucleus of an atom. People are attracted to CP as electrons are attracted to a nucleus. Some pull into an orbit around this newspaper and stay for many years. Others have their lives or deaths pull them off in different directions but each one has contributed to the character of this newspaper. It has a life of its own now and will persist for many years to come. We believe it plays a critical part in the communication necessary to develop a vibrant community. It has been my privilege to play a part in the creation of The Community Press. Ideas have come to life. It has been fun.

As I said before, I have realized the most valuable thing we all have is our time on this Earth and to spend it wisely is to spend it doing the things we enjoy with the people we love.