Press

There’s nothing small-time about the Herald... Well, almost nothing

SUZANNE ZWARUN May 16 1977
Press

There’s nothing small-time about the Herald... Well, almost nothing

SUZANNE ZWARUN May 16 1977

There’s nothing small-time about the Herald... Well, almost nothing

Press

In newspaper journalism, by and large, bigger is better, and the scorn of the big-city newspapers for their country cousins is a matter of bitter record. The best journalists—or so they modestly allow—are drawn to the bright lights. So it is an exceptional small-town paper that can attract and hold good newsmen. Alberta’s Lethbridge Herald is such a paper. For the last five years, despite limited circulation (27,000) and average pay ($16,500 for a five-year reporter), the smallest member of the Free Press newspaper chain has managed to keep a dedicated staff of 40 (although it recently lost one staffer in a bitter dispute). Many Herald reporters could easily work for any newspaper in the country. They stay in Lethbridge, they say, out of respect for the 70-year-old paper and its publisher, Cleo Mowers, 61. A former Prairie reporter, Mowers became publisher when the Herald was taken into the FP fold in 1960. He promptly launched the kind of editorial attack that has become a Herald trademark: the paper demanded, and won, abolition of the business hours bylaw despite threats of ad cancellations from local advertisers. Managing editor Don Pilling boasts that Mowers’ newsman background has stuck with him. “He recognizes the value and importance of news in a newspaper. Too many publishers value only the almighty dollar.”

Mowers has also nurtured the paper’s inclination to be innovative. It long ago replaced the women’s pages with family pages emphasizing social issues and in April became the first Alberta paper to legitimize the section by incorporating it into the main city desk operation. Not content with relying-on wire service copy for political stories, as most papers do, the Herald also finances its own legislative reporter in Edmonton and maintains a British Columbia-Alberta bureau near the border. It has pioneered several features later picked up by other Alberta newspapèrs, including a regular selection of columnist opinion across the country and a potpourri of short editorial notes (an idea just adopted by The Wall Street Journal).

What is more, the idea of innovation has extended to reporting techniques, as when police laid charges against a gun dealer after a Herald reporter came up with the idea of having his 13-year-old son purchase a semiautomatic rifle. “We have a lot of young reporters who really care about the paper,” says assistant city editor Lynne Van Luven, 29. Says Pilling: “They’re not paid what they should be. They stay because they like it.”

When reporter Jim Grant was considering a Vancouver job opportunity 15 months ago, the Herald came up with an offer he couldn’t refuse: full-time consumer affairs reporter. Grant jumped at the job—a first for Alberta’s dailies. Six months of steady slogging produced a series on the Canadian credit system. An exhaustive look at registered retirement savings plans gave readers a comparison chart equaled only in Toronto’s Globe and Mail and Vancouver’s Sun. Grant even burned down a tent to illustrate the dangers of camping equipment.

But nothing is perfect, not even life at the Herald, and last month a thoroughly disillusioned Grant left Lethbridge for Vancouver, his resignation prompted by a battle with advertisers. It all started with a jaunt just before Christmas to Great Falls, Montana, 180 miles south of Lethbridge. Grant priced toys and tools, toothbrushes and tampons, percolators and spark plugs, and concluded that Lethbridge prices, usually 20% above Montana’s, soared as much as 100% higher near Christmas. “The Lethbridge business community absolutely

howled,” says Grant. After the story appeared he was handed a directive—“from the top”—telling him not to write anything that would “upset the business community.” Pilling denies the paper has adopted a “cool it” policy. He says the story’s timing was poor and it was unfair not to present both sides of the story. Says Grant: “We condone anything that condemns the government, but when it involves the business community, that’s different.”

Since then, the newspaper’s normally happy staff has coined a bitter joke: “If the Mafia had bothered to advertise in the Herald, we’d never have run that frontpage series.” They are referring to a 1974 series on organized crime that led to a $3.75 million defamation suit, although the paper lacked insurance to cover a judgment that size. (Montreal meat-packer Larry Paletta, who had been linked to organized crime by the paper, won the suit late last year and collected $86,000, one of the largest defamation awards ever made in Canada.) The paper has shown that brand of courage many times in the past, and the people at the Herald have been justifiably proud. Perhaps the dissatisfaction over Grant’s experience will eventually blow over.

SUZANNE ZWARUN