By Mary Smith
The St. Marys Independent has reached a milestone this week with the publication of its 1000th issue. Our community weekly newspaper is only a couple decades old. However, remarkably, it not only has survived but also continues to thrive in these turbulent times for newspapers. Inevitably, there have been ups and downs. The paper has had to weather periods of great anxiety – like the current Covid-19 restrictions. Steps to control this virus have meant the slowing, or complete shutting down, of many services and events that customarily advertise in the newspaper. But still, the Independent continues to publish weekly. This spirit is consistent with its history.
In the mid-1990s, Frank Doyle seized the opportunity to try something he had long considered: he started a second newspaper in St. Marys, an alternate voice to the long-established Journal Argus. He had no formal journalism training but he did know the community very well. Born in Ireland, he came to Canada in 1967 as a young man. He and his wife, Margaret, had raised their family of three boys in St. Marys. He had served on town council and was involved with a number of community organizations, including the St. Marys Museum and the fledgling Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
The first Independent office was on Church Street South near the bowling alley. A pleasant, airy space, it accommodated the editor, a reporter, someone for layout and a few other part-timers. However, Doyle realized that he had started up too quickly and was not able to attract enough subscribers or sell enough advertising to prosper. Reluctantly he closed the paper. (No copies of this original Independent survive. They were lost during flooding of the newspaper office basement.)
The year 2000 presented a more promising chance to try again with a new business plan. The established local newspaper, the Journal Argus, had been sold in 1999 to Metroland Media. This made the Journal Argus a bit removed from the community. Doyle believed that his newspaper could concentrate on local concerns with no constraints. At a time when many small town newspapers were being bought by outside corporations or were simply closing because of economic pressure, starting up a new locally-owned publication was an act of considerable courage. The first issue was published from an office behind 140 Queen Street East beside the post office parking lot.
The Independent did address local concerns right from this first 12-page issue. The front page headline states: “Our hospital will not be closed.” St. Marys Memorial had recently withstood the very real threat of closure and was now settling into its role within the Huron Perth Hospital Partnership. Vice-president Andrew Williams delivered an update to St. Marys Town Council with assurances that core services would be protected in all eight hospitals within the partnership.
It was also a municipal election year. The Independent began its tradition of extensive coverage of the race for seats on town council in its first edition with an interview with Mayor Jamie Hahn. Provincial and federal elections received the same in-depth coverage. It also consistently advocated for greater effort to attract business and industry to the town. The tag-line concluding all Doyle’s editorials was: “Something to think about …”
The Independent experienced some challenges during its early years of publication. It took some time to establish an advertising base and to set up a distribution network. The paper was determined to live up to its name and to present local news from its unique editorial viewpoint. Sometimes, its position provoked controversy but, in spite of periods of tension, the Independent took root in the community. Within a few years, the paper was publishing 20 or 24 pages each issue – twice as many pages as at the start.
Many people just found it fun to read. If it lacked journalistic polish, it had humour, enthusiasm and sincerity. Bill Cubberley’s long-standing column, for example, was very popular, especially his recollections of his boyhood days in town. When Dan Rankin, a young local man with a degree in journalism, was hired as a reporter/editor, the paper benefitted from his insights and writing ability. (When he was killed in a car accident in December 2016, the entire community mourned.)
But as Frank Doyle grew older, the future of the Independent seemed uncertain. Would it just vanish when he retired? This crisis was avoided in 2014 when Doyle sold the newspaper to Stewart Grant, a St. Marys accountant and businessman. Grant had no journalism training but he did know the town and he relished the challenge. He was young, energetic and ready to try new ideas. Frank Doyle remained as editor-in-chief and, to the readers, the transition was seamless. The paper continued as before but gradually introduced some modifications. It began to use more colour and to include more photographs. In July 2018, it went to full-colour printing. Each issue could be read online and online subscriptions made it readily available to St. Marys folks now living elsewhere.
On November 27, 2017, the news broke that the St. Marys Journal Argus had been closed by its corporate owners, effective immediately. This was devastating for the staff of that newspaper. It was also a defining moment for the Independent. Founded originally as a somewhat cheeky challenger to the Journal Argus’ monopoly on local news, it was now the survivor – the one remaining community newspaper. Stewart Grant decided to seize this opportunity to build a better paper. Bit by bit, many of the popular features from the Journal Argus have been incorporated into the Independent. Regular columns such as Looking Back and Historic St. Marys have moved over to join the existing Independent columns. Lauren Eedy’s column, What’s For Dinner, harkens back to her grandmother, Dorothy Eedy, and her long-standing Journal Argus column, Eat at Our House. Sports reporter and photographer, Pat Payton, agreed to continue his exceptional coverage of local sports teams. The Independent still covers council meetings and reports on decisions affecting the community. St. Marys continues to get the local news it craves.
NOTE: Material for this article is based on research for an exhibit at the St. Marys Museum on the History of St. Marys Newspapers in 2018.
By Mary Smith