Right in the centre - Get it in writing!


By Ken Waddell

Neepawa Banner & Press

About the time we got started in the newspaper business in 1989, a man from Stonewall, named Merv Farmer, was building up some nice newspapers. He wisely told us, if you are going to have a newspaper, you have to spend money on news, on journalists. We have always taken that to heart. 

As a local guy who owned three papers in the southern Interlake region of Manitoba, he knew his communities and he served them well. 

Farmer also had his daughter, Lana, join him in the business.

There came a time when Farmer decided to retire and he sold all three papers to the company that is now known as Postmedia. I believe he stayed on for a while and Lana stayed on for several years. The day came when Lana departed and the Postmedia group plodded along as large corporations tend to do. They strayed from the Farmer family philosophy and went all corporate on their readers, advertisers and communities.

After a few years, Lana started some new newspapers in competition with the titles her dad had owned. She and some partners started a paper in the Winkler-Morden area, also in competition with Postmedia, although I don’t believe it was called Postmedia then, maybe Quebecor. Can’t remember, as corporations change names every time they run into trouble.

So what kind of trouble do corporate papers run into? According the Kevin Slimp, who is likely North America’s leading expert on community papers, there’s lots of trouble to run into and most of it is self-inflicted.

The first thing corporations do is cut staff. But they don’t tell readers, they just sneakily do it and hope nobody catches on. Subscriptions and ads keep flowing for a time and because print runs and staff costs go down, there is a profit. CEOs get their bonus and shareholders get their dividends. All is good, for a while, that is. But sooner or later, the readers and advertisers catch on. So corporations make another round of cuts in staff and and circulation to get some more dividends. Then they sell printing presses and buildings and whatever else they can lay their hands on to feed the profit line. Somehow, they scratch out another year or two of false profits. Maybe false prophets generate false profits.

But, as Slimp points out, the profits eventually diminish when the corporations run out of places to cut and things to sell. Corporations are then left with two choices: Sell out to another hedge fund group or shut down.

So it was not unexpected that several Postmedia papers closed down a couple of weeks ago. Six were in towns already covered by Lana’s relatively new papers. Of all the towns that lost a paper last week, namely Stonewall, Gimli, Carman, Morden, Winkler, Selkirk and Altona, only Altona will be left without a paper. The rest will continue to be served by a locally owned company and that is likely the way it should be.

Sadly, Merv Farmer passed away a few years ago. When he uttered those words of wisdom to us 30 years ago, maybe he foresaw the fake news effects of the internet and social media. He said you had to invest in journalism and if you invest in local journalism, you are also investing in truth, fact finding and your community, all at the same time. Anyone who spreads fake news in a local newspaper doesn’t get away with it for very long.

Farmer knew that in order to have a newspaper, you need two things, you need news and paper. Most people get the news part, but might question, why paper? The answer is simple, social media posts can be changed or deleted in a heartbeat. But, once you put news in print, it’s there, forever!  Immutable and unchangeable. There’s a reason people say “Get it in writing.” There is a certain accountability and dependability you can be assured of when you “get it in writing”.

Disclaimer: The writer serves as a volunteer chair of the Manitoba Community Newspaper Association. The views expressed in this column are the writer’s personal views and are not to be taken as being the view of the MCNA board or Banner & Press staff.