They left the big daily in town to start their own community weekly, and Dale Brin and Cam Hutchinson aren't looking back. Angelina Irinici talks to the two men about how their community news start-up came to be and how it is different from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, where Brin and Hutchinson spent many years as publisher and managing editor, respectively.

They left the big daily in town to start their own community weekly, and Dale Brin and Cam Hutchinson aren't looking back. Angelina Irinici talks to the two men about how their community news start-up came to be and how it is different from the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, where Brin and Hutchinson spent many years as publisher and managing editor, respectively.

The second the hostess showed us to our booth the unmistakable smell of chlorine hit me, but I suppose that’s what you get when you put a hotel restaurant right next to its pool. The server seemed a bit miffed that we weren’t ordering any breakfast and aside from the couple with the whiny child and the employee setting up for the afternoon buffet, Cam Hutchinson and I were the only ones in the diner.

There are plenty of other restaurants in Saskatoon, Sask., the city where Hutchinson was born, raised and lives today, but he told me why this simple diner — with its beige walls and busy patterns — is so special to him: It is the place that a man named Dale Brin brought him a little over a year ago to discuss launching a new community newspaper. We talked over coffee (he had a Pepsi) about that paper, the Saskatoon Express, in the place where it was born, and after a while, I didn’t even notice the chlorine smell.

The Saskatoon Express — a people’s paper

The Saskatoon Express is an independently-owned weekly newspaper — where Hutchinson and Brin are the editor and publisher respectively — that celebrated its first anniversary on June 25. Although the sunny office — whose brightly coloured sign resembles more of a strip mall’s friendly café or pet groomer than a newspaper — is located in a more industrial part of town, it aims to be at the heart of the community with its simple yet effective mandate: “local, local, local.”

Saskatoon’s people are truly the focus of the paper. Whether it’s a new business opening or a city event, the Express aims to showcase people in the community that are making a difference.

“It’s not just the philanthropists and key business people, but the volunteers and the people working on grassroots community projects,” Brin says.

There are stories like the one of a couple who are an integral part of Saskatoon’s theatre industry and are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary, or that of an inner-city clothing program, or Hutchinson’s column that turned buying corn on the cob into a witty tale.

“Our stories make me feel like we’re doing the right thing for the community and the unsung heroes that make up the community,” Hutchinson says.

You’ll probably never read a piece of hard news in the Express because that is simply not what the paper is about. Aside from the columns that Hutchinson says have become “must-reads”, the paper aims to give attention to the people and stories the city’s dailies don’t cover.

“There’s just so much doom and gloom and we all get to tell positive stories about people. For me, that kind of writing is what I love doing,” says Hutchinson.

Meeting Hutchinson

Growing up in Saskatoon, I knew Hutchinson’s name — for as long as I can remember he 

was the managing editor 

of the city’s only daily newspaper, The StarPhoenix. And to me, Cam Hutchinson is a big name, managing editor is a big title and in Saskatoon, The StarPhoenix is a big newspaper.

He deflated all of the newspaper big-wig stereotypes when I met him; he seemed genuinely happy to meet me as he shook my hand. He suggested he could drive to the diner for our chat and there I discovered he is remarkably humble, surprisingly shy and downright honest. I also discovered why Hutchinson moved to the Express after spending the final 15 years of his 33-year stint at The StarPhoenix as the managing editor.

Leaving the familiar

After Postmedia bought The StarPhoenix from Canwest in the summer of 2010, a few key staff members left.

Postmedia’s president and chief executive Paul Godfrey announced a digital-first agenda and Hutchinson says some StarPhoenix employees were resistant — enough so, that a few people left, including himself, in May 2011.

“The newspaper didn’t fit me and I didn’t fit it,” he said.          

Marty Klyne, The StarPhoenix’s publisher (who also publishes Regina’s Leader-Post) says that most of those who left did so on voluntary buyout packages and that the there is a “total disconnect” between the digital-first mandate and some of the staff’s leaves.

Hutchinson stayed longer than some others, like Brin, who left in September 2010 after serving as The StarPhoenix’s publisher for seven years. He thought the timing was perfect to bring a community based paper to Saskatoon. He and five investors (two of whom are staff, and whose names he would not disclose) purchased The Neighbourhood Express, a monthly community paper, and turned it into the Saskatoon Express. He says that The StarPhoenix serves the community well but some changes prompted him to leave.

“I believe that there was an overall reduction in the amount and quality of local content that The StarPhoenix was producing,” Brin said.

Hutchinson quit on a Tuesday morning and he cleared out his desk by Wednesday, though he didn’t leave with a lot — two weeks severance pay and some vacation time he had built up. But what he did have was an offer from Brin to be the editor of a new community start-up after that hotel restaurant meeting.

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Hutchinson was confident that moving to a smaller team at the Express was giving him back something he had lost at The StarPhoenix.

“My first 15 years in the field I just wanted to write and design papers. When I moved into managerial roles I kind of lost that, and the Express gave it back to me,” he said. “It’s really a back to my roots thing.”  

Starting a paper: 1. Recruit staff

Hutchinson’s first task was to recruit staff, and today nine of the 14 staff members at the Express previously worked at The StarPhoenix. There are only three staff writersas the paper relies heavily on freelancers and contributors that include two well-known Saskatoon writers: Ned Powers and Ken Noskye, both of whom were in the top four of a readership survey at The StarPhoenix some eight years ago, says Hutchinson. Hutchinson managed to get 82-year-old Powers, who started his career with The StarPhoenix in 1953, out of retirement to write for the Express, and Noskye is so popular that if his column is missing one week, readers contact Hutchinson, hounding him about when it’ll return.

The two bring different styles to the paper: Powers is known for writing profiles — in 15 years he profiled 600 Saskatonians. Noskye has a more alternative style: one of his columns in June recalls when he was sleeping on park benches and under a bridge after moving back to Saskatoon from northern Alberta in order to write for the Express.

Brin and Hutchinson made it a point to include well-known names on the paper’s masthead.

“That is one of the keys to our success to date,” says Brin. “When we hired Cam [Hutchinson] his primary focus was to bring recognized journalists to our paper so the community could identify with us.”

Although the seasoned writers produce much of the paper’s content, there is room for younger voices as well. Joelle Tomlinson* has been with the paper since May after graduating from Ryerson University’s journalism program. She appreciates the responsibility a start-up gives her.

“The tough thing about this industry is that it’s hard to really make an impact with your first entry-level job. Here, I’m pitching, taking photographs, editing and making decisions that are normally left to senior roles,” Tomlinson said. “It’s a great way to learn, and fast.”

Creating a community presence: first in print, now digitally

For the Express, print is its primary focus, but has the digital basics in a Twitter account and a website. Although not all articles that appear in the paper can be found on the site, there is a PDF version of the current issue available and a link to their past issues.

Brin says that he feels a pressure to have a stronger online presence and that’s why there is discussion to revamp the website and have more content available. But to him, establishing the paper first was very important.

“Putting a standard printed paper in the marketplace is what I believe is required to grow a product,” says Brin. “The print edition is the foundation. You first have to get the readership, the production recognition and the name”.

To achieve this, the Express circulates to 55,000 households in the Saskatoon area and hands out roughly 4,500 copies to over 150 drop-off locations such as restaurants and hotels. Brin also thinks that having staff participate in the community — such as playing in golf tournaments and attending awards nights — is a way to gain readership.

“We think that our relationship with the community is reciprocal. We have to earn it; it’s a two-way street where we give back to the community.”

If the paper were a human, the people of Saskatoon are the heart — right at the centre of it all — the veteran staff are the bones keeping it sturdy and the community is the blood that keeps everything flowing.

Growth and finances

The Express is ambitious: Both Hutchinson and Brin want to publish a bigger newspaper. Regular editions now run around 24-32 pages (although their first anniversary edition ran 44 pages) but Brin has an appetite for more.

“I’d like to be publishing 56 pages in a year from now so we can give back to the community,” he said, adding that he’d like to double the amount of content that is currently in the paper.  

But more growth will depend on advertisers. The Express’ revenue is completely dependent on ads and after one year Brin says they are very close to profitable. They can thank the robust economy in the province.

“The economy is very different here in western Canada,” he says. “It’s very, very clear to us that newspaper advertising dollars are flowing freer in Saskatchewan than they are in even British Columbia and Manitoba.” He adds that Alberta is also “pretty sound.”

***

The Express is a paper that means something different for the people who are a part of it; for Tomlinson it’s the start of her career where she can really hone her skills, for Brin it’s giving back to the community and for Hutchinson, it’s about ending his career where he feels the most comfortable.

“When I left The StarPhoenix I thought I’d be here until I retire,” he says of the Express. “And I still believe that.”

 
*Joelle Tomlinson is a friend of Angelina's from journalism school at Ryerson University. 

Angelina King is a freelance journalist who works as a reporter for CTV News Channel in Toronto. She previously reported for CTV in her hometown of Saskatoon and is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Angelina has a special interest in court and justice reporting, but is always grateful to share a human interest story. You can reach her at: @angelinakCTV.