As community papers struggle, one island news outlet thrives by sticking to shoe-leather tactics

It’s almost hard to imagine. An island community of 13,000 in the Canadian waters of Lake Huron still supports two newspapers at a time when bigger American cities like Oakland and even comparable sized ones like Biddeford, Maine, have lost theirs.

A recent front page of the The Manitoulin Expositor had stories about a drinking water crisis in the native community; a plan by a nearby factory to create a tough paper alternative to plastics; and a plan to evaluate the future of the swing bridge — the road that connects Manitoulin Island to the mainland in Ontario..

The Manitoulin Expositor and The Manitoulin West Recorder are owned by 73-year-old Rick McCutcheon. Established in 1879, the Expositer recently celebrated its 140th anniversary, and McCutcheon is the longest tenured owner in the paper’s history. 

Rick McCutcheon (Photo by Bob Chiarito)

So how he has defied the odds in an island community the size of St. Augustine, Florida, which, by the way, has just one newspaper, the St. Augustine Record?

His two papers are independent and not beholden to a big media corporations, McCutchoen said. 

“I think it’s the same in rural areas,” he said. “The independents seem to do better, the ones that are mom and pop-ish.” Other papers are “among 50 in a stable,” McCutchoen added.

Manitoulin Island is the world’s largest fresh water island and has a heavy native population —  half the island belongs and lives in the native Indian Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve. While The Manitoulin Expositor covers most of the island with a weekly circulation of 6,000 (which drops to 5,000 in the winter), the western part of the island is covered by The Manitoulin West Recorder, circulation 1,500, which McCutcheon bought in 2001 and which is largely run by one staffer, editor Tom Sasvari.  

(Photo by Bob Chiarito)

The Recorder is about as old as the Expositor but there were a few years before McCutcheon bought it that it wasn’t printed, said 37-year-old Alicia McCutcheon, Rick McCutecheon’s daughter and now the publisher and editor of the papers. She added that the two papers were never merged because “there’s so much news on Manitoulin that it requires two newspapers.” 

In 2018, The University of North Carolina published a study about news deserts that noted “there are simply not enough digital or print revenue to pay for the public service journalism that local newspapers have historically provided.” 

A year later, the New York Times printed a special section headlined  “A Future Without the Front Page” that highlighted the North Carolina study and noted that weeklies are bearing the brunt of the news die-off. Of the 70 percent of the local newspapers that have closed or merged over the last 15 years, all but 50 were weeklies, which most distributing less than 10,000 copies at the time of their demise. Both papers McCutcheon owns  have a circulation of less than 10,000. And yet he is still here, defying odds against him in American and in Canada.

While the study did not include Canada, Jeffrey Dvorkin, lecturer and director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, said the state of local newspapers in Canada is “terrible” and actually more challenging than in its southern neighbor. 

“I would say they are similar and in some ways more challenging because there isn’t the variety of sources in a smaller country, in a less-populated country like Canada. In a way that makes it easier for a small newspaper on Manitoulin Island to have the loyalty of its readers because people aren’t going to be able to easily go to another source,” Dvorkin said.

McCutcheon said sales are down nonetheless, hovering around 10 percent inead of the 15- to 20- that it once pulled in. 

“That’s because overhead is higher,” McCutcheon said. He explained that one large increase happened a couple years ago when the local printer that they used seized operations, forcing them to have their papers printed on the mainland and transported to them. Most newsprint in the US comes from Canada, making it more costly. But McCutcheon said any savings he might get from being in Canada  is wiped out because he is on an island.

McCutcheon said the independence of his papers is one key ingredient to their survival.

“In our experience, the community chain papers that are owned by corporations are anchored by a large daily and the corporations sucked up all the community papers over a period of years until they control everything,” McCutcheon said. “By and large, this papers, the ones associated with a big daily, have not fared well, whereas the independents have… There are some exceptions but those papers have a duty to the head office, not so much to the community.”

Dvorkin agreed. “They harmonize their editorial content by putting the same stories in several newspapers in the chain. That serves the interest of the shareholders but not the interest of their readers.”

Crime is low on Manitoulin Island, with maybe one murder every other year, a few people who drown every year and the occasional drug overdose, McCutcheon said, but his papers are looked at as more than a news source — they also are pillars of the community that give back. In May, to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the Expositor, the company created a tourism website for Manitoulin Island and currently is in the fourth year of hosting a month-long salmon fishing derby, which features five weigh stations around the island where the grand prize winner will take home $12,000 for the largest salmon, $5,000 for the largest lake trout, and $200 for the largest daily fish. 

Tourism websites and fishing derbies are helpful in maintaining community loyalty, but McCutcheon said the main reason his papers have thrived over the years is because they aren’t afraid to lead the way.

In 1982, The Manitoulin Expositor beat out media giants Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Toronto Starr to become the first weekly to ever take home the coveted Michener Award for a series of stories about a suicide epidemic on the island. The Michener Awards are Canada’s highest distinction in journalism and given to organizations rather than individuals. According to McCutcheon, it was during a period of high interest rates and bad farming weather on the island.

“Young people had farms and we’re losing them, I know some were related to the high interest rates. We drew attention to the phenomenon and a teacher used our stories with her class. The students wrote letters to the editor expressing their concerns and some people started a helpline phone line and actually saved a couple lives. That was essential to winning the award — showing cause and effect,” McCutcheon said.

It wasn’t the first time the Expositor wrote about a suicide epidemic. Years before, in 1975, the paper published a series of stories about another spate of suicides that sparked a coroners inquest, this time in the native community. McCutcheon said the stories his paper put out then drew more attention than anything else in his tenure, and were followed up by daily newspapers in Detroit and Toronto and on CBC.

More recently, The Expositor was the first media outlet to cover microbeads, tiny manufactured solid plastic particles that were commonly found in personal care products such as toothpaste and cosmetics that have polluted the Great Lakes in high concentrations. Products made with the beads are now largely banned. 

This past spring, the Expositor won an award for best news story from the Ontario Community Newspapers Association for what McCutcheon described as an exhaustive local #MeToo piece as well as an award for the best website, which includes a paywall. 

Now semi-retired,Rick McCutcheon has turned  the day-to-day duties of publisher and editor over by his daughter. Alicia McCutcheon first worked on the production side of the paper eight years ago but switched to the editorial side when two people left within two weeks of each other.

“She kind of stepped into the role expecting it to be temporary. I said, ‘Why don’t you keep the job for a couple of years and she’s still doing it,” Rick McCutcheon said. Assisting Alicia McCutchoen is a staff of two full-time reporters, two production people, and one person each for circulation, advertising, and accounts. As for Rick McCutcheon, his name may now be gone from the paper’s masthead, but his influence is still present.

“I realize that I need to get out of this in order to let him fully retire because we still need him quite a bit.. I’m sure my mom would appreciate that,” Alicia McCutcheon said.

Rick McCutcheon isn’t sure what else he would do.

“I’ve been in this business so long, I really don’t have any hobbies. I don’t play golf. I don’t sail, the sort of things people do around here in their spare time. You work so hard for so long, you really don’t develop those other things. I’m very happy to remain involved and not be a nuisance,” he said. 

Going forward, both Rick and Alicia McCutcheon believe the papers will survive if they continue to break big stories that affect their readers and have wider implications, and continue to change with the times.

While she doesn’t envision herself running the Expositor in 20 years, Alcia McCutcheon said she expects the paper to still be around.

“I would say that’s a pretty safe bet in some shape or form. Manitoulin is a newspaper kind of a place and I think we do a good job of telling the stories of these people. We have a good relationship with our readers. We have a strong social media presence and a strong, award-winning website. We keep up with the times and that’s pretty important for community newspapers.”

Bob Chiarito is a freelance journalist based in Chicago who reports regularly for The New York Times and Reuters.

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