"Owned by the Staff"
Started on a shoestring, co-operatively owned, the Vancouver News-Herald is unique among Canadian daily newspapers
EVERY morning except Sunday, Vancouver’s News-Herald appears on the streets of British Columbia’s capital with front-page headlines devoted to the more startling and bizarre of current news events; yet in all its six years existence the paper has never published a more unusual story than its own—the story of how a group of unemployed and relatively inexperienced newspapermen, in the days of deepest depression, ignored the scoffing of the sceptical and the grim recollection of unhappy precedents, and created a newspaper which today boasts the third largest morning circulation in Canada.
Vancouver’s News-Herald is a going concern today, giving work to more than 185 regular employees and 300 carrier boys, and with an annual financial turnover of more than a quarter million dollars. It has established itself in the community, and dispelled the old theory that a morning newspaper in Vancouver could never be made to pay. It’s been tough going at times, any one of the paper’s young executives will readily tell you, but it’s been a lot of fun.
“We haven’t been a big money-maker so far perhaps,’’ admits Roy Robichaud, the publisher, still in his thirties, who was just another front-office bookkeeper before the inception of the Neivs-Herald. “There have been times when we’ve just barely got by. We’ve had worries galore and a great many crises. We’re probably not through our troubles yet, but we’ve been able to put a fairly big organization to work, and that’s something worth while in these times. And we still get a kick out of having proved that even yet it’s possible to start a metropolitan newspaper on a shoestring.”
That, after all, is the most astonishing and the most heartening feature of the News-Herald's success—the fact that an enterprise so complex and relatively costly as a modern newspaper can be built from the ground up and maintained successfully. But the really unique fact is that from the very beginning the News-Herald has been a co-operative venture. At its masthead every day the News-Herald still publishes, quite truthfully, the line, “Owned and Controlled by the Staff.”
Jobless Men Co-operate
ALL THIS doesn’t mean, of course, that the business of establishing a newspaper in a large city has grown any simpler in the last few years. Anyone who knows anything at all about publishing will tell you that newspaper production is about the most complicated proposition imaginable, and that it still requires capital—usually a great deal of capital, unless you are prepared to accept the long, long odds that the founders of the News-Herald took. What makes the News-Herald venture so unusual is not that the odds were accepted, but that the gamble was won. Scores of other attempts to launch a newspaper under similar circumstances would have failed dismally after the first few months.
“Probably we had some luck—in spots,” confesses J. Noel Kelly, the young editor who has been boss of the editorial rooms since the News-Herald's beginning. “But mostly it’s been co-operation and the sort of loyalty that keeps you plugging away even when the outlook is black.” But however hopeless the situation might have seemed to the pioneers of the News-Herald after the paper was once established, it wasn’t anything like as bad as it had been before, when the only reasonable prospect for several of the staff had been an uncomfortable place in the breadline.
Most of the men who started the News-Herald had been members of the Vancouver Star organization, which had flickered for a few rather melancholy seasons in the morning sky and then vanished behind the clouds of depression. Brigadier-General Victor Odium had been the publisher of the Star, and it had been his purpose to maintain a sound, conservative morning paper in a city that traditionally had given most of its support to the two solidly entrenched afternoon papers - the Province, largest of the Southam group, and the Sun, owned by the late dynamic Robert Cromie. General Odium had many other interests. Publishing appealed to him, but it was a side line and, as the months passed, the side line became increasingly unprofit-
able. When he announced indefinite suspension in the winter of 1932, the announcement was not particularly surprising to anyone, but to the staff of the Star it was bitter news.
At first. Star employees banked on the hope that the clouds would pass, that publication would soon be resumed. But when weeks dragged into months, prospects of reemployment became slimmer. The other newspapers absorbed a few of the Star men, but at that time few papers were adding to their staffs. Jobs, especially newspaper jobs, were scarce.
“A group of us would meet occasionally and discuss the possibility of starting our own paper,” recalls Kelly. “But everyone kept telling us what we were already pretty sure of—that it would require about half a million dollars to carry out our plan. In the winter of 1932 they might just as well have made it a billion; it would have been no more difficult to obtain.”
Selling a Non-Existent Product
SO IT was just a day dream, to be talked over the coffee cups, in the same category as voyages to the South Seas, fortunes from the Irish sweep, and other fantasies. But people do rash things when they are desperate, and some of the Star men were approaching that condition. When, as a sort of lark, the boys went to work on a canvass of businessmen and secured signed pledges totalling $5,000, someone a little more hopeful than the rest exclaimed: “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go to work !”
It was work, all right, and not just mental toil either. When, with a capital substantially greater than $5,000 as a result of loans, the ex-Star men rented a small downtown building as headquarters, they rolled up their sleeves and cleaned and scrubbed the long vacant, dust-covered rooms, and made them moderately presentable to prospective advertisers, subscribers and the staff.
The whole idea behind the News-Herald was explained by the originators to representatives of all departments of the now defunct Star. Obviously it would be a step in the dark, but there was very little to lose and perhaps a good deal to gain. It would be an adventure at any rate, and co-operative. Everyone joining the enterprise would have an equal chance.
They went ahead on that basis. A small cash salary, plus
an interest in the enterprise in the form of stock, was offer«!. Even the trade unions responded, thus hurdlinR a barrier that many had imagined would be insurmountable. The printers, despite their wage standards, were reasonable, and recognized that men employed, even at less than the established scale, were in a better position than men without jobs at all.
For several weeks prior to publication, News-Herald advertising and circulation men had a difficult assignment, trying to sell something that didn’t exist. They could only tell their prospects what they hoped their product would lx*. It was a heartbreaking job at times. The Star’s recent experience had only confirmed the deeply seated conviction that Vancouver simply wouldn’t support a morning newspaper. Even the more optimistic advertisers estimated that the NewsHerald would last perhaps two weeks; not much longer.
But there was a psychological element that favored the News-Herald. The venture had set Vancouver talking. “You’ll have to give these boys credit for trying,” Vancouver was saying. “They’ve proved they want to work. They ought to be given the chance.”
And so ten thousand people signed up for a News-Herald subscription, even before they had the slightest notion of the sort of paper they would receive and only the vaguest guess as to how long it would be delivered to their doors.
A Haywire Outfit
"PRODUCTION present«! another problem, just as it does to every newspaper. It had been hard enough signing up advertising on an "if, as and when” basis, and getting subscribers on the assurance that one of these day3 they’d get a paper. Obtaining adequate mechanical equipment for the publication of the News-Herald was even harder. The paper simply had to have a press. The board of directors, consisting of all the department heads of the “dream paper.” consulted an old-time printer. What to do? He scratched his head and thought in silence for a long while.
“I think I’ve got it,” he said eventually, and he told them about an ancient press that could probably be bought for a few hundred dollars. It was a pretty hopeless-looking machine, and when it was inspected, under an accumulated
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,/Owncd by the Staff”
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litter of junk in an abandoned shack in the suburbs, the spectacle was enough to sadden the hearts of the eager executives. It was about fifty years old, to begin with. The tucking blade was missing, and the tapes on the folder and the pulleys were off. The rollers were rotted, and the bearings not set. But, said the old-time printer, it would do the job. And that, after all, was the only thing that mattered.
The stereotyping equipment consisted of a brush for molding; a steam table with a discarded kettle that gave eighty-five pounds of steam ; a one-ton metal pot and a double hand ladle for plate casting; a tail cutter and a plate shaver and finishing block. Altogether, a haywire outfit if there ever was one. The typesetting problem was easier; the News-Herald merely leased a near-by linotype plant.
They were all set to go, but there were several false starts. When the great day came for publishing the first issue of the News-Herald, the old press groaned and sighed and refused to roll. It had to be turned by hand, laboriously, to produce the first few’ thousand papers. But eventually, after almost every newspaper mechanic in Vancouver had been consulted and an expert brought in from Seattle, the old press agreed to co-operate.
The whole operation was pretty cumbersome at first, because the editorial and business offices w’ere in one building; the composing room was a block away, and the press and mailing room were three miles out of towm. Every time the forms containing movable type w’ere locked and loaded on trucks to be sent on their way to the press, the editor and mechanical superintendent breathed a prayer; but in a w’hole year of this awkward process there w’as not a single accident. The paper was late some mornings, but it ahvays came out.
“We spent practically nothing on office equipment,” says Editor Kelly, looking back on those pioneering days with a complacency he could not then afford. “The editorial workers who had jwrtable typew’riters used them and passed them around to those who had none. The desks were old kitchen tables and packing cases. The business office had to put on more of a ‘front,’ so we hired typewriters and adding machines, but our ledgers w’ere secondhand.”
The NewsHerald started as modestly as any paper in modern times, but no appeals for sympathetic support wrere made on that account. The staff knew’ that their project w’ould live or die on its merits. The paper made no attempt to win customers by pyrotechnics of a sensational order, either. It didn’t even try to compete with the afternoon papers, recognizing the futility of attempting to match their resources. But it did make a genuine effort to meet the demand for an independent morning paper that would at least cover the high spots of the news. “We ignored the theory that a morning newspaper to be successful should be dull,” says Kelly. “All stories w’ere made short and snappy. And we kept out of politics.”
No Longer an Experiment
AFTER the first few’ months, readers of d*the News-Herald began to recognize its worth. It was no longer an experiment; no longer a guessing contest as to how long the “stunt” would continue. The NewsHerald was being bought for the service it gave, and the shrewd importers of morning newspapers from Seattle and points south w’ho had been loudly hawking their wares on downtown street corners in Vancouver in the absence of a local morning daily, soon were forced to curtail their orders. For the new Vancouver paper had definitely “arrived.”
Circulation for the first year was around
10,000. It is now more than double that figure, the highest for any morning newspajier west of Toronto. This is an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that the company had no funds for costly promotion or soliciting. It was a job for the carriers—the boys who delivered the paper to the homes. They were the paper’s chief salesmen, and they were apparently inspired by the same enthusiasm that kept the office staffs on their toes.
The co-operative idea has really worked, according to Robichaud and Kelly and their co-workers. Few of the original partner-employees have left the organization. Those who did. sold their stock holdings within the organization at a figure based on demand. It was stipulated in the articles of incorporation that no stock could be sold outside the company. This arrangement was made to forestall any attempt on the part of outsiders to get control. The number of shareholders was limited to fifty, all of them regular workers. Not long ago the company needed a new press and other equipment. It negotiated a loan from a Vancouver businessman, but directors of the News-Herald emphasized that it was only that. Participation in the company’s owmership was not involved. On the rare occasions w’hen blocks of stock are offered for sale, each shareholder is advised of the fact and given an opportunity to buy. Usually the stock is scattered among a group of holders, and as the distribution stands today, there is no danger of any one group or department obtaining a controlling interest. The News-Herald, unlike many larger newspapers, is free of front-office domination, thus guaranteeing freedom of editorial expression.
The scoffers have been silenced now’, but the News-Herald found that one serious obstacle was the mental one, based on the sceptical theory that a co-operative newspaper in which all partners would have an equal voice simply wouldn’t function.
“It’s never been done before,” the critics said, although a few of them managed to recall attempts that had been made all of them ending in disaster. “You can’t run a newspaper with everyone dictating policy. You’ll have a miniature soviet on your hands.”
The fact that the News-Herald has survived this long has been a convincing answer to the pessimists. There has been no important disagreement among stockholders from the outset, and questions of policy have been settled satisfactorily by making the department heads responsible to the company rather than to individual shareholders. In its routine operation there is very little difference between the NewsHerald and any other conventionally owned newspaper.
“We’ve never had any serious trouble maintaining discipline.” says Kelly. “The department heads have the right to hire and fire just as in any other organization. Since we became established, two stockholders have been dismissed for cause. We’ve made no distinction between shareholders and non-shareholders. They’re all working for the paper, and in the case of the shareholder the tendency has been to work harder and better because he knows he is rewarded according to the paper’s growth and prosperity.
The News-Herald executives are modest. They say that any other group could perform a similar job if things broke right for them. But the experiment of the News-Herald, successful though it has been, is not likely to do more than pEbve that a venture of this kind isn’t impossible. The News-Herald is probably the exceptional case, and the reason for its success i may not be due so much to the soundness of an idea as to the spirit of the men and women who made their dream come true.