How a small-town Saskatchewan newspaper is surviving in a changing industry

Click to play video: 'Still Printing: the Cut Knife Highway 40 Courier' Still Printing: the Cut Knife Highway 40 Courier
WATCH: Some experts have warned that the loss of conventional news represents a crisis in how Canadians inform themselves and understand each other – Oct 27, 2019

“Our crops have been late this year,” Ruby Sleath says to herself as she reads the paper.

The 104-year-old says she reads the Cut Knife Highway 40 Courier every Wednesday.

She said the Courier is “the one thing that I pick up first thing… because I feel very community-minded.”

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Sleath was born in Wyanet, Ill., in 1915 and her family moved to Cut Knife, Sask., about two hours northwest of Saskatoon, when she was two. She married at 24 and moved away but returned in 1985 after the death of her husband.

She says she began reading the Courier when she was a teenager and started again when she moved back.

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Sleath now lives in the Cut Knife Health Special Care Home, a retirement home, and said she reads the paper to stay connected to her home.

Three years ago she almost lost her weekly ritual.

“I was very much afraid that Cut Knife was going to lose our paper… and I was so thankful when the Stewarts were interested in keeping it going.”

Ray and Andrea Stewart bought the paper shortly after they moved to a nearby acreage. The previous owner was prepared to shut it down.

Andrea had previous writing experience “for local and national publications” but neither had ever worked at a newspaper. The couple had met while working on racetracks. They moved to Cut Knife in their retirement to be close to different doctors.

“I didn’t want to put up a sign at the end of the driveway saying “Ray’s Hermitage,” Andrea said.

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They now write and publish the Courier from their living room, about 20 minutes away from the town of fewer than 600 people.

“I think everyone has a story so it doesn’t matter who we interview, but it’s a matter of when someone’s doing something that is particularly interesting or have done it for a long time,” Andrea said.

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Ray said the paper focuses on a specific type of news.

“Everybody’s got a TV or the internet or whatever, and they get all the bad news on that,” he said.

“We just kind of figure we’ll keep it a good news newspaper.”

The front page of the issue they are delivering today has a profile of a local senior and an article about the recent Terry Fox Run.

In 2017, they offered an email version of the paper, which boosted their overall subscriptions by 150 people.

“We had a lot of people who were out of province and some (were) in the States,” Ray said, going on to explain that most of the recipients were originally from the area.

The Courier’s success, albeit on a hyper-local scale, is an anomaly. Many small towns are losing their local newspapers.

READ MORE: ‘I’m going to be lost’: Residents across Ontario upset over community newspaper closures

“We’ve seen probably 400 papers close over the last decade, a couple hundred papers in the past year, more community newspapers than daily newspapers,” said Ed Greenspon.

Greenspon is the CEO of the Public Policy Forum (PPF), a think tank and a former editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail.

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He is also the author of a 2017 report from PPF about the decline of local Canadian news outlets called “The Shattered Mirror.”

The name borrows from a 1970s Senate report entitled “The Uncertain Mirror,” which said the news wasn’t accurately reflecting Canada to Canadians

“The mirror is no longer uncertain, the mirror is no longer distorting,” Greenspon said.

“The mirror is just shattered.”

Greenspon said that most of the failed newspapers were supported by advertising. Ad revenue, The Shattered Mirror reported, declined from a total of $875 million dollars spent on daily newspapers in the country in 2005 to just $119 million by 2015.

Total newspaper ad revenue in Canada dropped by more than $750 million between 2005 and 2015, according to the Public Policy Forum. Figures taken from 'The Shattered Mirror' from the Public Policy Forum.

That decline resulted in 169 local media outlets closing and another 54 reducing services between 2008 and 2016, according to “Mind the Gaps,” the PPF’s follow-up report to The Shattered Mirror.

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Among the papers that closed were the 128-year-old Moose Jaw Times-Herald, the Confederation-era Guelph Mercury and the nearly 150-year-old Nanaimo Daily News.

Click to play video: 'Moose Jaw Times-Herald Closes' Moose Jaw Times-Herald Closes
Moose Jaw Times-Herald Closes – Nov 27, 2017

Greenspon said the failure of a local news outlet is a tremendous loss.

“A newspaper… is part of the social glue of the community. It brings people together and informs them about each other, it keeps them up to date on a simple thing such as who was born or who died or what city council is deciding,” he said.

“When you lose newspaper, you lose a lot of that social glue that helps define and manifest community”

That’s exactly how lifelong Cut Knife resident Michael Wismer described the Courier.

“It’s just nice to have a paper that works hard and… is making sure our local schools are always covered (and is) making sure our local sports teams are covered.

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READ MORE: Here are all the newspapers in B.C. that have shut down this decade

Wismer owns the local grocery store, an AG Foods, which sells the Courier. He said he’s been reading it ever since he was a child.

“Anytime you’re trying to do something, if there’s recognition of it in the paper or anything, it just draws more interest,” he said.

“The more people know, the more people are likely to come help out or support whatever you’re doing.”

The Stewarts said they intend to keep the paper running for a few more years and then hope to sell it to another retiree. They’re able to have that sort of financial clarity, they said, because the Courier is a retirement project.

“It survives because we don’t have to survive on what it makes,” Andrea said.

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The Courier’s email subscriptions brought their total number of subscribers to 500.

“As long as it continues to pay for itself and a little better it’s something that we enjoy doing.”

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If they can’t find a new buyer then the paper will shut down and Cut Knife, like so many other towns across the country, will lose a reflection of itself.

Greenspon said that a potential solution may come from another Saskatchewan institution that, much like many papers, once faced bankruptcy — the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

READ MORE: New home, new beginning: Moose Jaw Express newspaper moves into former Times Herald building

“The idea of being a not-for-profit that is based in the community (and) that has support for individuals in the community, I think that’s kind of probably the model (of where) newspapers will go,” he said.

That would preserve one avid reader’s weekly ritual.

“It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t have the paper once a week,” Sleath said.

“I would miss it very much.”

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