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Making Good in Canada
Chapter XI - Frontier Journalism

It must be confessed that Canada holds out very indifferent inducements to the representative of the press. Probably it is the one profession to receive the scantiest reward, although the work is far harder than that required to make good in any other field of activity. The free lance or penny-a-liner has a most precarious existence; reporting is drudgery of the worst type, and rewarded with starvation remuneration; while the editorial staff by no means receive princely wages. This is undoubtedly the reason why there are so few accomplished journalists in the Dominion, and why the newly-arriving scribe, who, by the way, is as rare as snow in summer, inevitably shakes the dust of Canada from his feet for the field of operation next door, or else renounces the “Fourth Estate” and plunges into some other and more promising vocation.

If the journalist is resolved to stick to his pencil and notebook, he can succeed only in one way—by establishing his own paper. If he is smart, simultaneously he will lay the foundation of his own fortune. At first sight this seems a tall undertaking, but only so when viewed through the glasses of British practice. In Canada, a capital of £10, a small printing-press, and an average amount of “go” will place the newspaper owner more firmly on the road of success than £100.000 expended for the same purpose in the City of London, or any other provincial centre.

To achieve success in this direction one mast get away from the older parts of Canada, where newspaperdom offers no attraction whatever. One must follow Horace Greeley’s advice, “Go West,” and, moreover, get as far West as possible, where new territories are being opened up every day, where the settlers are pouring in by the hundred to till the land, and where the speculator is running right and left, snapping up every acre that he can find. This is the journalist’s Eldorado, where money is made quickly and rapidly.

A newspaper in the bush, several hundred miles from the nearest town, without railway, telephone, or telegraph communication, appears a hopeless centre for such enterprise; but in one and all of these vortices of hustle a newspaper is as certain to exist as the bakery and the two shilling a meal restaurant down the street. The newspaper arrives on the scene before the foundations of the little community are laid; when, possibly, the town does not number a hundred souls all told; when the only street is tenanted by less than half a dozen shops in tents; and when the opportunities for a news-sheet are about as uninviting to the Old-World eye as a skin-dressing factory. Certainly there is no evidence of a circulation to support the undertaking, inasmuch as probably half a dozen copies would mere than meet the requirements of those in the place.

The chances are a hundred to one that the town has not even a name when the newspaper is planted, consequently the sheet cannot be christened after the scene of its birth for the purposes of identification; but the proprietor rises to the occasion. Trifles such as titles do not worry him. Perhaps there is something or other prominent in the locality after which the newspaper tan be called, and on which the proprietor seizes for his purposes. For instance, at the lower end or the famous canyon on the Skeena River the town of Kitselas sprang up. The inevitable journalist, an Englishman, appeared on the scene in the early days, but the prospect of the Kitsdas Times or some other such commonplace appellation made no impression upon him. He wanted something out of the common, and so he brought the canyon to his aid and forthwith christened his little sheet The Big Canyon, Weekly. When the new port of Prince Rupert was established on the Canadian seaboard, and everyone arriving wad bubbling over with the feeling that the port was destined to become the “roarinist,” place on the Pacific coast north of the Equator, the first newspaperman took up the prevailing note and called his production The Optimist, which, in view of the buoyant enthusiasm, was most apt. Since these early days the place has shaken down into its rut, along which the world’s affairs rumble, and the former title has been changed to the more prosaic Daily News.

The Western Canadian member of the Fourth Estate differs radically from his colleague in the humdrum Old World. Ho is a man who grabs opportunity with a pretty big hard, and regards the publication of a newspaper to meet the public requirements in just the same light as the baker turning out rolls and dough nuts. Maybe ho has never been identified previously with the press, and knows no more about literary construction than a tortoise docs about mathematics. Very often it is his first venture into the troublous waters of journalism, but he has no thought of the obstructions ahead. He will run the paper just as long as it pays him; and when he begins to lose money he will drop it, to bash floorboards down the street, throw in his lot with a pack-train, or go off as chainman or axeman with a survey party. Only so long as anything to which he turns his hand brings in the dollars is he content; he will follow that pursuit just so long as the profit and less account shows a satisfactory by lance in his favour.

The very last thing which these organs of public opinion attempt to publish is news. Information of what the world at large is doing makes no impression upon a community isolated in the wilderness. They do not care if the whole of Europe is at war, or whether the British Islands have been wiped out of existence by a mighty upheaval of Nature. They are engaged in working out their own destinies 'without any assistance from outside, and consequently the latter is left to its own machinations and devices so far as they arc concerned.

How do these news-sheets exist? One may naturally ask such a question if they do not rely upon their obvious raison d’etre and circulation for existence. The solution is not difficult to seek. They come into existence mainly because indirectly they are stimulated by the Government. The law runs that when a person stakes an area of land for his own or anybody else’s benefit, intimation of the fact must be given to all and sundry by an advertisement in the Government Gazette, and also in the paper published nearest the district in which the staked claim is situate. What does the budding newspaper proprietor do to improve his situation and bank-balances? He keeps a sharp eye on the wheels of progress, observes which stretches of the country are showing signs of looming large in the public eye in the near future, where there is likely to be a rush for land, and ere the boom sets in he is established in the heart of the new territory. He is in the van of the stampede of land-speculators, boosters, pioneers, and stokers. He gets his press going, and the first issue of his enterprise is rushed out without delay. Possibly the initial number is now larger than a sugar bag, and of four pages, filled up with clippings of interesting information from other papers, with the lines set widely apart and in big type, so as to reduce the cost and labour of type-Betting to a nominal figure. The chances are a thousand to one that the first issue does not carry a single advertisement, and when the second issue is going to appear well, no one knows; that, depends upon circumstances.

This is the commencement of a bush newspaper, and from that day forward, if the boom in the neighbourhood continues, the proprietor has no apprehensions whatever about the future. Before long the excited speculators and stakers hurry their claims into the Government offices, and the intimation of what they have fenced off is duly advertised in the Government Gazette, and automatically in the columns of the newly-established local paper. The owner and editor does not stir a finger to help himself ; the advertisement revenue is as certain to run into lite coffers as the tide ebbs and flows. As the country goes ahead, the pages of advertisements steadily and persistently increase, until at the height of the boom the local news sheet heart, a greater resemblance to an issue of the London Gazette than to a newspaper. The news items ere difficult to discover; they are probably tucked away here and there in vacant spaces among the advertisements. The proprietor as a rule will endeavour to justify his position by writing a glaring leader under the title of “What we Think”—the editorial plural is religiously upheld by the single handed editor and owner, even in the bush—but this leader invariably will take the line of boosting the possibilities and glories of the surrounding country in such a flamboyant manner as to cause a stranger, picking up the paper in a distant town, to conclude that he has a chance to enter paradise at last.

Enterprise and aptitude to seize the opportunity are the only requirements for the journalist in the West. A little capital will carry him a very long way. He will take in a small hand or foot press, a compact assortment of types, and a sufficient supply of paper. He will get this outfit into the new hive of industry by hook or by crook, and upon arrival at once either will establish himself in a tent, or, if there is time, will run up a small timber shack to accommodate his stock-in-trade, with the printing-plant installed in ono cupboard, and a smaller box to servo as the editorial sanctum.

At first ho will have “to kick cut his paper” as best he can by himself, since probably lack of labour and dearth of capital will militate against the employment of assistance. A printer in a frontier town is a delightful luxury. The chances arc that he will decline to pick up his stick for less than £1, and more often than not will command £1 10s. per diem. The founder of the Prince Rupert Optimist related to me that he came into the port almost with the first boatload of settlers. The boxes contained his plant, and he rushed them to the spot ho had selected for his premises, hurriedly get it going, and within a few hours was busy bustling out his first issue, alone and unaided.

The journalist under such conditions must be conversant with every phase of the handicraft, from the wielding of the editorial per and blue pencil to the setting of copy and the actual printing of the sheet. Needless to say, the newspaper does not assume the proportions of those to which the Old World is accustomed. As a rule, it measures about 10 inches by 12 inches, and in its infancy is merely a folded paper of four pages. But as the advertisements respecting the land claims roil in, the number of pages increases rapidly. Ore paper, which I have in my possession, extends over twenty-four pages of the above dimensions, and it contains merely one column of news on the front page, following a piece of the editor's mind in the form of a leader of thirty lines.

Although the newsy side of the paper is so meagre, it is very doubtful if that small contribution ever is read. The office generally is thronged on publishing day by townspeople and others, and they read the advertisements with the greatest avidity. Everyone in the community is probably land mad, and the chances are a thousand to ore that each one cither has staked already a tract of upland country, has an eye upon a favourable stretch, or is interested in a speculation. The advertisements inform the one whether his claim has been filed, or if the land had been staked previously ; the second learns whether the area he covets is still open; while the third is kept au fan regarding general land-sales and developments.

I met one young fellow who bad just struggled 160 miles up-country with a mad press, cases of type, ink, and paper. He was not really a journalist, he said ; in fact, ho did not quite know what his real occupation was, because he had tried his hand at so many things. However, this was not his first experience in newspaper enterprise. He had started a “rag” some four years before nearer the International Boundary. That was founded quite by accident. He had pushed into the district just when the boom was commencing, and in the course of idle conversation learned that the absence of a newspaper was deplored by those in the town, as they had to wait two days before they could get the Government Gazette, to read the land advertisements. The fact gave him an idea: he would fill the blank. He hurried off to Vancouver, bought up a small second hand printing outfit cheap, and in less than a week the new community, sighing for a local news-sheet, had its ambition fulfilled. From thin humble beginning the property grow and thrived, until at last it attained the proportions of a dignified newspaper, fulfilled its legitimate sphere, and published the latest news in extension with about eight pages of advertisements of a varied orthodox description: in short, became an established property of great value. When another town loomed above the firmament of commerce some 150 miles farther north, the young proprietor trekked once more with his portable printing outfit, and within a few weeks his second newspaper was born, and likewise was set upon such a firm foundation that it prospered rapidly.

It is not every news-sheet which is founded that weathers the vicissitudes of Fortune, and is able to feel its feet within a few months. The town may hang fire; instead of becoming an “riser,” as the westerner terms a new community which is fogging ahead to occupy a prominent position upon the map, it may rot into a “washer,” signifying a town which has missed fire almost before it was torn; or the land boom in the country around may “peter out.” Then the news-sheet, which appeared with such a flourish of trumpets, dies a sudden death; the proprietor, with what shekels ho can rake together, closes his shack, and steals away to try his hand at some other more promising occupation. If he is a journalist to the manner born, ho will simply slaughter his publication, pack up his stock in trade, and he's off as fast as he can go to the next community which is commencing to rise in the bush. There he will plant himself, and another news-sheet will be born.

Editorial life in the wilderness is entirely free from that physical strain and constant “watching for scoops” which is so characteristic of the profession in the teeming city. The famous sanctum in the wooden shanty is vacant for many days of the week, and the moulder of public opinion may be seen lounging in his shirt-sleeves around the bar of the saloon (if the community is not in the dry district) or killing time at some other more or less harmless occupation. He may even be out fishing, hunting, or staking land either for himself or other interests.

There is no hustle to get the paper out in time; an hour, or even half a day, late make no difference.

Under such conditions journalism is rather pleasant than otherwise, free from nerve racking anxiety to be first in the field, and with no Damoclean sword in the form of dismissal if a contemporary gets ahead. The action of the Government concerning the procedure in regard to land-staking advertisements appears somewhat as a method of subsidizing the press indirectly, and it pays the enterprising spirits settling down miles from anywhere to wield the mighty pen, though it must be confessed that the pen does not perform a very serious mission in life.

As the town grows and the surrounding bush becomes opened up, the responsibilities of the local newspaper increase proportionately. If the journalist rises to the occasion, he profits accordingly. The residents, shaking down to the normalities of life, and having survived the first boom of speculation, evince a growing interest in what is happening beyond the limits of their little world. The change, in the demeanour of the townsfolk is at once reflected in the newspaper. Items of outside news appear in the columns in the form of brief telegrams. Here conciseness is made manifest in its more approved form, mainly because the telegrams are expensive, and the proprietor is not inclined to assume too big a financial risk in the acquisition of telegraphic information. But as the development becomes appreciated, he opens out, and gradually the news-sheet emerges from the chrysalis form into a publication of the familiar type. By this time probably it will have become firmly set on its feet, and henceforward will continue the even tenor of its existence upon conventional lines. On the other hand, the transition may prove fatal, and before the languishing idea can run away with very much money to no advantage, the proprietor “cuts out and quits,” and the Yorkton Yeller comes to an undignified, unostentatious end.

Many of the most powerful papers holding sway over the affairs of Government and men in the Dominion to-day started from such humble beginnings, especially in those flourishing towns and cities which have been created during the past half-century. Personality has considerable influence upon the success of such a news-sheet in its earliest days, and so long as the founder is connected intimately with his charge, so long will the latter flourish. Somehow or other, a newspaper which starts with the growth of a new town, and maintains a firm go-ahead policy, never loses its grip upon the citizens among whom it was born. It becomes one of the traditions of the town. It may change its title as time goes on, and may assume a new garb ; but so long as the fundamental characteristics are retained, the first-comer has little to fear from competition.

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