Shucking Oysters: The First Edition with a Balsamic Reduction

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Shucking Oysters: The First Edition with a Balsamic Reduction

By Alex Allen

Full disclosure: I am editor of the iconic monthly Hornby Island paper, The First Edition. 

It is no easy task being the editor of a paper, let alone an editor of a small community paper. People have no issues calling you up and giving you shit about something someone else wrote. Or accosting you at the local grocery store because you didn’t publish their article. There are no boundaries in small communities. If someone has a beef, you are most definitely going to hear about it either from the horse’s mouth or some other aperture.

It’s a thankless job. No matter how much you try to please one and all, and print the paper without any noticeable glitches, there will always be some curve ball tossed your way. The gig is not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure. Criticism is long and praise sparse. For every compliment we receive, there are dozens of complaints. I often think that I must enjoy the abuse or just a little. 

It always surprises me that someone can come up to you in public, face-to-face, and tell you how terrible they think you are, just because they don’t like something you wrote. It’s even worse when you, Gawd forbid make a mistake, which we all do from time to time, because we’re human. Thankfully, I am not on social media, so I remain blissfully oblivious and protected from the other unruly mob. 

I’ve lost count how many times I’ve received angry phone calls and emails from individuals because their submission was not in the paper. The occasional email, yes, I may have somehow humanly missed, but when I get reamed out because someone had the wrong email address, sorry, that’s not my problem. But, apparently it is very much my problem. In my eight years as editor, I have published every article submitted except for one because it was horribly written. Another time, I had to edit out a Nazi analogy in an article, because it upset our printer. Other than that I have been fairly mellow in my role and most readers have been generous in compliments.

Our masthead reads, “Ingredients of articles and letters do not necessarily represent the tastes of the editor, nor is their accuracy guaranteed or true meaning often understood. We do, however, encourage diverse opinions that may or may not represent your views, but do reflect the content of our very diverse community.” In other words, the First Edition is not some homogenized version of our community. We don’t all love our neighbours, but we certainly tolerate them. 

Underneath my desk I have a pile of First Editions dating back to the 80s and 90s (that someone graciously unloaded on me). Randomly reading a few the other day, the obvious thing was the amount of advertising. In the old double-sided legal version, a 30-page 1994 First Edition had a colossal 53 ads (many full page ads). The masthead indicated there were 25 individuals involved in getting the paper out, from typesetting (before computers) to collating. 

The February 2024, 32-page First Edition? Twenty-four ads, mostly business card size and only four individuals at the helm. One to edit and do the layout, two to collate, one to bill, and one to print. At one point, the editor and printer were paid. Then just the layout person and printer. Then the editor and printer. And during my time, only the printer is paid. It’s a labour of love, obviously.

And now, every paper is struggling with the clusterf*ck of social media. Just last week, our local credit union (a regular advertiser for years) announced that they will no longer be advertising in The First Edition. Instead, they will be “pivoting their marketing strategy towards digital channels that enable them to better measure results.” I think that’s a polite way of saying, “You’re so old-school.” 

In 2028, it will be the First Edition’s 50th anniversary. Like a 99-year-old holding on for dear life for the milestone, we are hoping we can at least survive until that time. Our printer and billing person are retiring this year, which is another change of the times. The volunteers are getting old; we’re all getting old. Are newspapers as well? Last year, 29 local community newspapers shut down in Canada and I’m sure more to follow. 

The closure of local news outlets has left a significant communication gap in many small communities, making it challenging to inform those who are not active on social media. In the First Edition, we have community news, from our ratepayers’ reports to emergency preparedness updates and every other group in between. Some excellent writer’s contribute their thoughts in poem and narrative. There are calendars of events from theatre to quilting. And there is always a local group or person highlighted in some way. We are community.

As one former staffer of the now deceased Kamloops Weekly said, “We all care. That’s why we do this. We’re not in it to get rich. We care about our communities. And we think what we do is important, so that’s why we’re doing it.” 

But the reality of small newspapers is they’re basically ads with stories in them. In the end, as Jeff Benziger wrote, “your work ends up in scrapbooks or for wrapping fish or lining bird cages.” Or fire starter.