By Jim Cunningham
Roger Holmes is busy man these days.
The personable 65-year-old publisher of the weekly Star Edge in Wainwright, Alta and owner of Star News Publishing spent the first week of July in Moose Jaw, Sask., overseeing the re-launch of his newly acquired newspaper properties in that province, including the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, the Prince Albert Daily Herald, and 11 weeklies.
“I’m having all kinds of fun,” Holmes said in a phone interview July 5 from the Times-Herald office, which will be the administrative hub for the Saskatchewan papers under the Star News banner.
Holmes, who had built his Alberta business into a regional powerhouse by printing 65 to70 other weeklies at the Star News’ plant in Wainwright, about 200 km southeast of Edmonton, had been starting to think about retirement.
He said that last spring, he had told staff he was prepared to go three days a week, instead of full time. That, plus his work as president of the Canadian Community Newspapers Association, looked to be enough to keep the third-generation weekly newspaperman occupied.
But out of the blue, Transcontinental, a major national printing and publishing firm, signalled it wanted to shed its newspaper properties in Saskatchewan. And Holmes, who already was in that market with titles in Lumsden and White City, in the Regina area, was interested.
By the end of May, the deal was struck. Star News would be acquire the two dailies and their weekly supplements, along with papers and supplements in Swift Current, Coronach, Grenfell, Broadview, Oxbow and Radville.
According to Transcontinental, the dailies had a circulation of 7,700 copies per day last year. The weeklies totalled 110,991 copies, including about 90,000 for their supplements. The largest circulation weekly acquired in the deal was the Southwest Booster in Swift Current, with a total of 17,357 copies per edition.
Holmes won’t say how much Star News paid for the papers.
As part of the takeover, Transcontinental shuttered its printing facility in Saskatoon, laying off 30 employees.
The papers, including the dailies, will now be printed in Wainwright, and trucked to their home markets, and advertising design will eventually be handled from a central site, as well.
But editorial and advertising sales will continue to be handled in the local communities, Holmes emphasized.
“They (the news reporters and ad sales people) need to be close to the communities,” he said. “We need boots on the ground in those communities.”
Pulling the whole thing together is a big job, one that Holmes is finding he likes better than an easy chair.
Holmes’ family started in the publishing business in Provost, Alta. He worked in the commercial printing business in Medicine Hat and Calgary, before buying the weekly in Wainwright in 1990.
“I’ve been preparing for this job all my life,” he said, his voice brimming with enthusiasm.
Steve Nixon, executive director of the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspaper Association, believes the deal has given the community newspaper industry a shot of new energy, at a time when it needed exactly that.
“It has put a ripple all the way around the industry on the Prairies,” said Nixon, in a phone interview from the association’s office in Saskatoon.
Holmes is well known and the quality of his work is superb, said Nixon, adding that the Wainwright businessman “understands community newspapers.”
While the acquisition might look like a gamble, at a time when the newspaper industry across Canada has been going through hard times, it doesn’t look like a long shot to Nixon.
He says that despite the flagging health of many big-city dailies, community newspapers in many parts of Saskatchewan are doing just fine.
Anywhere the local economy is healthy, newspapers can thrive, said Nixon, citing areas of the province where oil and gas exploration, or potash operations, are located.
Those conditions can change, however. Papers in communities that are heavily reliant on agriculture and have seen a decline in the number of locally businesses are struggling, said Nixon. His association now has about 80 members, half of what it represented back in the 1920s and ‘30s.
However, with a rebound forecast for the oil business in the next few years, the outlook for community news was positive enough to take the plunge, according to Holmes.
Mark Taylor, a print instructor at the University of Regina School of Journalism agreed that the deal is a sign of confidence in the weekly newspaper industry.
Community papers are important, not just for their markets but for journalism, he said.
“That’s where I started,” said Taylor, who worked at the Times-Herald in Moose Jaw prior to coming to U of R. “That’s where a huge majority of our graduates get started.”
It is too early to say whether the Star News might seek more acquisitions in Saskatchewan, or elsewhere. “We need to digest this first,” said Holmes.
Both Holmes and Nixon also are tuned in to the long-term picture, as well.
The dramatic decline in the fortunes of the daily papers in Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton has had an impact on the way smaller newspapers are perceived by readers and advertisers, Nixon said.
But there is a difference between community newspapers and the ‘media,’ he believes. Readers of small town newspapers seem to be more in touch with their communities and want to know what is going on, Nixon said. Local papers serve as the voice of their communities and if that voice is stilled, “who’s watching out for democracy?”
Holmes, whose father and grandfather were weekly newspaper publishers also believes in the role good local papers play for their readers.
“We want to pay people well and do good work for our communities,” he said.
“I believe in ink on paper. Ink on paper is going to be around forever.”
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to the Canadian Community Newspapers Association as the Canadian Weekly Newspaper Association. We apologize for the error.