The idea for running a newspaper happened to come at a time
when Don and Sandra were considering their next project. They
had operated a group home for teenage girls in Fort Smith
for four years but had decided that it was time to try something
different. Sandra had taken some time off and Don had studied
welding at the local college.
There had always been a community newspaper of some sort in
Fort Smith. In 1978, there were two newspapers operating.
One, the Slave River Journal, had been operating for a year,
and the other, owned by a local man named Joe Mercredi, had
been in operation for about five months. News North, a territorial
weekly newspaper based in Yellowknife, wanted to expand and
its owners approached Don and Sandra. Don recalls, "We
had been looking at buying the Slave River Journal but were
reticent about the deal. Somebody else in town bought it and
their kids ran it for awhile. News North figured that the
chances were that these kids wouldn't lst very long, so they
decided to start a newspaper. They approached us to do it.
At that time we were quite interested in doing a newspaper
but we didn't have the expertise ourselves.
Our attitude was that if there was no risk involved and they
were going to teach us, then let's give it a try. If nothing
else we'll have an interesting experience and learn some new
Sandra has an arts degree with a major in sociology. Don explains,
"My background was political science and I could write
fairly well. I found that out in university when I used to
make a little bit of money on the side writing people's term
papers for twenty dollars."
They started a newspaper called the Fort Smith News and were
affiliated briefly with News North. Sandra recalls, "We
collected the information, wrote the stories, took pictures,
and gathered the ads together.
We sent all the material with a mock-up dummy of the newspaper
to Yellowknife every Tuesday and they put it together. We
distributed our newspaper on Thursday."
Don recalls their rapid expansion in the first year. "Mercredi's
newspaper folded about seven months after we were in operation.
About that time we bought the Slave River Journal and used
that name, since it was the oldest publication. It had been
a tough period until then because a newspaper is not eligible
for government advertising for the first nine months of operations.
Advertising is the major source of income, which is the base
of any newspaper. In the first nine months, we were losing
money every week and working very hard for nothing."
They survived the first year operating out of their house.
Their circulation was about 1,200 and has grown to 1,950 in
twelve years. Sandra recalls how they split duties in the
early years. Don sold the advertising, did all the writing,
and developed the photos in the darkroom. I organized his
work into a format and looked after the books and the circulation.
We would work all week then we would be up all Tuesday night,
so we could get the paper to the airport at seven o'clock
the next morning.
We made money because we didn't have any expenses and we only
had several part-time staff. The territorial government, Fort
Smith businesses, and the government of Canada were our main
advertisers. By 1980, we had bought another house and we moved
the business there and out of the basement of our house.
We had help in the early years from the Federal Business Development
Bank's program. They had retired people from all professions
who were available for consulting. Three different fellows
came to give us ideas about running a newspaper, organizing
the books, and how to handle advertising. After several years,
the next area they expanded into was graphic arts. Sandra
states, "Some of our equipment wasn't used on Thursday
and Friday, so we could handle other projects.
slowly evolved into that area." Until this expansion,
they had operated as
a partnership. On the advice of an accountant, they incorporated
Cascade Publishing Ltd. in 1982. They had reached a sufficient
revenue level, planned to continue operating, and could reduce
the level of taxation through this legal move. Sandra
notes: "We did our own books and taxes in the first years
because we were always careful about spending large sums of
money on people. We were always very frugal and so we paid
fifty or seventy-five dollars and incorporated the company
ourselves." The next step was to buy land for their own
building. About three years later, they built the building
and moved in.
Sandra recalls, "We thought that it would be a good idea
to add a little extra space and rent it out." Don drew
up the initial designs of the building and then acted as general
contractor. The 4,000 square-foot two-story building is located
on Fort Smith's main street. The newspaper office is on the
upper floor and takes up one quarter of the building. Don
assesses the changes in the newspaper since 1978. "The
quality of our publication has grown significantly, in large
part because we have hired university grads from the south.
For the first year or two we tried hiring local people with
a general arts degree or a teacher's degree. We found that
there's turnover after one or two years. So we were training
people and then they would move on. I decided to hire trained
journalists who are committed to the profession."
Don does have some favorite memories. "When we first
started out, the equipment was very antiquated. For example
the typesetter that we used had one type style and one type
size. When you typed you couldn't see the copy. You didn't
know what you were typing until it came out on the ticker
tape. Then you took that tape and fed it into another machine
that put it on typesetting paper. If you made a mistake then
you had to go back and do it again. Now our machines have
hundreds of type styles and hundreds of sizes at the press
of a button."