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OPINION: Some thoughts on a half-century of publishing in Sudbury

I was lucky to be born at the right time and in the right country.
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First, I have been lucky. Lucky to have landed in this fantastic city through a string of almost comical misadventures in the fall of 1973. I was 25 years old.

I was lucky to be born at the right time and in the right country. There’s a book on that somewhere about boomers and their bloody luck.

Lucky to run into a group of reprobates – Bob Bateman, Rennie Mastin, Andrew Markle and Ron Heale – who were prepared to put some money up to help me try to do what no one had succeeded in doing against the Sudbury Star before: compete. Two of those fellows, Ron and Bob, are no longer with us and dearly missed.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of the city of Sudbury on my life. 

Although my father died before my fourth birthday, he was a union man. Somehow, although I am an entrepreneur, my affinity for the workingman allowed me to feel at home in the city and run a newspaper that included labour as well as business points of view. This was not done at the time. J.R. Meakes, the Sudbury Star’s publisher, ran the town in those days and took no prisoners. He would decide who had access to his 40,000 subscribers. Two of my long-time columnists, Mick Lowe and Jim Tester, cost me hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising. Or at least that’s what I was told and I was lucky to get away with it.

The city in the early years was hardened by tension between competing unions (Steelworkers and Mine Mill), and the unions and the nickel companies. It was war all ’round, for generations, and it was ugly.

All of this peaked in 1978, 11 years after the Steelworkers had won the right to represent the miners at INCO. They went on strike for nearly a year and the city was brought to its knees. Because I owned a newspaper I could call a meeting. I became the co-chair of a community group called Sudbury 2001 along with Elmer McVey, the president of the Sudbury and District Labour Council. 

For the first time in its history, labour, business, academia, cultural organizations, and political parties left their politics at the door and worked together to speak for Sudbury. It was groundbreaking. I’ll never forget it. Among other things, the greening of Sudbury emerged from that cauldron of fear, resistance and pride. The bonds of those involved remain tight to this day.

The paper has always done its job well but, just as importantly, it was the mothership for so many other projects. 

The paper begat Northern Ontario Business newspaper, the Northern Ontario Business Awards, the Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, the Northern Ontario Medical Journal, the Influential Women of Northern Ontario Awards, the Community Builders Awards in Sudbury and our biannual 40 Under Forty celebrations. The most critical new business the newspaper incubated was Sudbury.com, which has taken its place as one of the most successful digital news websites in the country. 

In the end, the tail (Sudbury.com) started to wag the dog (Northern Life). Never far from our hearts was Sudbury Living Magazine about the lifestyle and growing sophistication of the city of Sudbury.

The incredible talent the newspaper attracted filled the pipeline with creative people those brands required. We lived in a hothouse on Elgin Street managing these disparate platforms, and it was fun and not occasionally chaotic.

These different lenses and celebrations of excellence brought us closer to the heartbeat of the city. Even as Facebook and Google and Instagram gobbled up our attention, the power of our communities was in full view when we gathered to celebrate the best among us at our various awards programs. They were never boring and almost always inspiring. It was confirmation of a special culture tempered in fire.

The civility, innovation and courage of Sudburians, who come from all over the world, is fantastic.

I believe its power comes from the constant danger and frequent reality of economic setback. You can’t live by the price of nickel without humility and preparedness. You can’t suffer setbacks without learning how to look after your neighbours during a strike. You don’t plant 10 million trees unless you’ve lived through the devastation of your landscape. And you don’t learn how to innovate in the mining business unless you have spent a goodly amount of time underground.

In the life of this newspaper, the city of Sudbury has evolved from a mining camp to a world-class mining cluster that exports innovation around the world. It is a city-state that solves problems and has miraculously survived the layoff of tens of thousands of miners in the last 30 years.

What I like most about this city is that it is an open city. You can find a miner and the president of a mining company in the same fishing boat or on the same hunting trip. Because those presidents often were miners, the arrogance of money is muted. Also, to be fair, miners can make a lot of money and they do spend it.

We share a spectacular environment with beautiful lakes readily available to everyone and fresh air not to be taken for granted.

The disruption of publishing (from print to digital) is just plain painful. It has been coming for a long time. We have scrambled to be ready and of course we are. Sudbury.com is best in its class. The problem is that it doesn’t take as many of us to drive a fabulous digital website as it does to manufacture and distribute a newspaper. No different than the number of people it takes to manufacture or fix an electric car instead of a gas engine.

I am thrilled we have been able to maintain our fantastic editorial and sales teams for both Northern Life and Northern Ontario Business, which are now digital properties purchased by Village Media. It’s really no different than the capitalization of the mining industry. We have 15,000 fewer miners in Sudbury moving the same amount of muck they moved 30 years ago. Our website delivers 10 times the news as our newspaper and is available by the hour, not by the week. So the website is better for our audience today than our newspaper. It’s just not the same experience.

We have had some wonderful leaders in our company: Mary Gordon, David Gillespie, Patricia Mills, Norm Tollinsky, Giselle Perrin, John Thompson, Vicki Gilhula, Ian Ross, Carol Mulligan, Mark Gentilli, Sharon Bowes, and Abbas Homayed, who has been captain of the ship for many years.

I am deeply indebted to our leaders and our fantastic writers, marketers, designers, salespeople, and circulation pros. We worked as a team. We had to write and sell ads to survive; we had to market to be persuasive and design to be impactful. We had to take risks to grow and employ paper girls and boys to get our words into your hands. If one team failed we all failed – and we did not fail.

We did that for nearly half a century and now our award-winning websites (Sudbury.com and NorthernOntarioBusiness.com) stand on our shoulders and join a wonderful young Northern company to carry on our mission.

We cannot underestimate the short-term disruption of COVID-19. It is not going to be easy and I wish our team safe travels in this difficult time. You are well prepared and ready for battle. It is in your DNA.




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