Saturday, February 10, 2007

Small paper attracts big names (February 2003)

He is arguably the best columnist and satirical writer this province has ever seen.

And now Ray Guy is back in circulation, after a hiatus of more than five years from the local media scene.

It's astonishing that Guy has been 'dormant' for so long. What is perhaps more surprising is the publication that has brought the living legend out of obscurity.

No, it's not Maclean's, The Telegram, The Express or The Herald.

It's the Northeast Avalon Times, a community newspaper with a circulation of less than 6,000. However, if you spend a bit of time perusing The Times, it begins to add up. This is quite possibly the best community newspaper in the province. (I have not been closely monitoring all community newspapers in the R-B chain lately, and I haven't been keeping up with The Northern Pen, so I can't really say who is the best.)

The Times is a monthly paper serving Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, Torbay, Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove, Flatrock, Pouch Cove and Bauline. It is published by Kathryn Welbourn, an award-winning journalist who has worked for The Telegram and CBC Radio in this province, and has written for Equinox, Chatelaine, Harrowsmith and other magazines.

The Times publishes once a month and is distributed at no charge (advertising pays the bills). It is not a big paper - usually 12 pages per issue - but it leaves a big impression.

For starters, the paper looks great. It has a crisp, clean layout and nice use of type. The photography is first-rate and no wonder - much of it is supplied by seasoned, award-winning photojournalist Greg Locke.

The political cartoons by Doug Bird (who also does the 'Geezer' strip in The Telegram) are decent. Bird also contributes 'Pickle Harbour', a comic strip that pokes fun at both the city people who move into rural areas and the rural people who live there, without offending either group.

Then there's the writing. Reporters Welbourn and Jeff Green crank out copy that is on par with anything you will read in The Telegram, or any of our weeklies. They don't shy away from difficult topics or interviews, and strive to present both sides of a story. (Reporter Gavin Will also contributes on occasion.)

The columnists are astounding. Ivan Morgan writes a witty ditty called 'Politics 101'. Renowned scientist and professor Bill Montevecchi writes a birdwatching column called 'Birds I View' (clever title, what?). Gammel Ost contributes a column about national and international affairs. Robin McGrath pens a column about books, writers and publishers. Myles and Dick Whitaker furnish a well-written column about gardening. And then, of course, there's Ray Guy. (I attempted to contact Guy for comment, but couldn't reach him before press time.)

Finally, there's the editorial direction. The copy is well-edited and typo's are at a minimum. There is a rhyme and reason to what stories go where, a good balance between 'hard' and 'soft' news, and even a healthy sprinkling of investigative journalism. Welbourn's editorials are intelligent, provocative and always focused on issues that matter to the community.

It is, without question, a damn good paper. So what is the secret to its success? The key factor, of course, is the steady hand of Kathryn Welbourn. She was a busy freelancer, cranking out print and radio work, until three years ago, when she had her second child. Suddenly, there weren't quite enough hours in the day.

"I was freelancing for everybody... and I missed a deadline!" she whispers, as if confessing to a sin. "So I decided I have to make a living... and I can't miss a deadline so I better have my own deadline. So I phoned around to see if I could get enough ads and I started a paper."

She started modestly enough, limiting the coverage area in the first year to her hometown of Portugal Cove, then expanding the coverage area. "The paper has paid for itself from the beginning," she said "Rightly or wrongly, I've moved extremely slowly with any changes to this paper... Everything I'm doing is very slow, very steady. I'm not making the paper any bigger than what I can handle. This is what I can do now."

Welbourn graciously accepts compliments about the quality of The Times, but is not given to bragging about it. She prefers to let the paper speak for itself. But don't get her started on the ideals that drive her as a reporter, editor and publisher...

"With journalism, like with everything, it's your intentions, your attitude and your abilities... I still think you can put out an intelligent newspaper for intelligent people to read. And I don't think that because someone lives in a small community means they should not have good writing sent to their door, or be expected to read something boring... I think they merit and deserve real journalism. I don't see any point in putting out a paper that doesn't at least attempt to provide that."

The Times is not a one-woman show. Welbourn farms out the invoicing, some of the layout, and of course has plenty of help from freelance contributors.

"The columnists are like a dream," she said. "I've just managed to get these really terrific columnists... they don't take much editing, they're good writers, they're intelligent, they've got lots to say, they're original... And I don't censor anybody. My rule with my columnists is 'No boring and no libel' and that's it. I don't always agree with the columns in my paper, but I think that's a freedom that's not always enjoyed by writers."

The community of Portugal Cove has seen an influx of new residents from the suburbs and downtown of St. John's. For a small town, it is blessed with a rich intellectual ferment of artists, writers, academics, scientists and more. Welbourn can yell a politically-charged comment from the verandah of her home, and be hit with three opposing viewpoints before closing the back door.

There is a ready source of freelance talent residing in the town, and many have been given voice in The Times. How often do you find the likes of Ray Guy, Bill Montevecchi, Greg Locke and others inside one 12-page community paper? How many community papers can afford such talent?

Ah, and herein lies the other secret to The Times' success: Welbourn readily admits that she can't pay all contributors their "normal rates".

Quite simply, the contributors aren't in it entirely for the money. Their work is a labour of love. They believe in Welbourn's journalistic ideals, and they want a quality newspaper for their community.

The latest edition of The Times rolled off the press earlier this week. Due to rising postage costs, it is not being delivered via Canada Post. The paper is available at corner stores and other businesses throughout the coverage area.

The Times is also available at a handful of locations in St. John's, including Auntie Crae's, the news kiosk in Atlantic Place, and the provincial House of Assembly.

Good luck in finding a copy. I understand they disappear quickly.

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