Vive Le Canada

Journalism with clear-eyed dedication!
Date: Tuesday, October 25 2005
Topic:


Oct. 22, 2005. 01:00 AM [Toronto Star]

Newspaper carries a big stick in a small town
New Brunswick biweekly says it won't be pushed around
Some of its stories picked up by big U.S. media outlets


KELLY TOUGHILL
ATLANTIC CANADA BUREAU

ST. STEPHEN, N.B.—It's like this, see. No one pushes Kathy Bockus around: not the town doctor, not U.S. border agents, not the minions of the Irving empire. No one gets to dictate the news to Bockus and the rest of the crew at the St. Croix Courier, not even when the dog show comes to town.

There are few places where journalism is practised with such clear-eyed dedication and so little pretense. This paper with its tiny news crew broke two stories that played across the continent this summer, and was among the first in print with news of the London bombings. It has a batch of awards crowding the beat-up desks and scratched filing cabinets of its battered newsroom, and a Rolodex with every important number in town.

The Courier is an anachronism, a throw back to an era when most people got their news by reading a piece of paper and newspaper barons competed fiercely for readers.

The Courier is the only English-language newspaper in New Brunswick that is not owned by the Irving empire, a vast, $4 billion conglomerate of pulp mills, trucking companies, potato fields, hardware stores, gas stations and oil refineries that completely dominates the Maritime economy. Some pundits say the Irving papers pull their punches on news items that affect Irving interests, but others disagree.

That isn't something that Courier editor Jim Cornall thinks about much. Mostly, he thinks about how to fill the pages that must be printed every Tuesday and Thursday.

"We're good," Bockus, the paper's senior reporter, says unabashedly. "I've been in the business 30 years, so I know. We don't compromise morals or anything else. You can't, in a small town."

Think the Watergate scandal put pressure on reporters at the mighty Washington Post? Try this one:

When a local doctor's wife was charged with drunk driving, the doctor threatened to close his practice and leave town if the Courier printed news of her conviction — this in a community where the chronic shortage of physicians periodically forces the emergency room to shut down.

What did they do?

"We printed it of course," Bockus says with a snort. "What else are you going to do? We had to."

This summer, Bockus broke the story of how Gregory Allen Despres, a man accused of murdering two elderly neighbours in New Brunswick, was allowed into the United States despite showing border agents a bag full of swords, brass knuckles, an axe, chain saw and a knife. That story was picked up by newspapers around the world.

Just last month, the paper wrote a story about an American who tried to swim across the St. Croix River into Canada to meet his sweetheart and drowned. The story was picked up by television in his home state of Tennessee and carried by CNN.

Then, there was the terrorist attack in London, a bit off the regular beat for most small-town newspapers in North America.

The St. Croix Courier is one of the last newspapers in Canada to be printed in the afternoon, something that gave it a huge advantage on July 7, 2005, when bombs began to explode in crowded subways beneath the streets of London.

Cornall's staff tracked down a local boy, the son of a provincial politician, who happened to be right next to one of the subway stations. He gave them an eyewitness account over the phone, and the Courier had it on the streets the same day.

Papers like the Toronto Star and The New York Times had to wait until the next morning to report that news.

All this while following the saga of the new hardware store. The biggest story in St. Stephen this summer was the controversy over whether Kent Building Supplies could move and expand. A handful of neighbours objected, but hundreds wanted it. The council was divided. Courier reporters covered every angle, went to every meeting, devoted hundreds of person-hours and newspaper inches to the debate.

The St. Croix Courier newsroom is not exactly a marvel of modern technology or design. Key features are the radio squawking police communication in the corner (that's how they found out about the body on the river bank) and the windows overlooking the main drag (they saw the alleged murderer stroll by on his way to the border).

So, when a new flashbulb recently arrived for the newspaper's lone camera, it was a big day. Cornall shuffled a little dance as he hefted it out of the box and the youngest reporter beamed.

"It really is like Christmas," the reporter said.

They are almost as excited when Bockus brings out fresh raspberry squares baked for her son's upcoming wedding, the smell of butter and jam filling the air.

"The pay's not much, but the bonus system is great," she jokes, handing out warm desert squares to her colleagues.

Cornall is a former botanist who fell into newspaper work while following love from his native Yorkshire in England.

"Like the pudding," Bockus interrupts. "Like the terrier," he counters.

You can tell it is an old and affectionate joke between them.

"We have too much fun here," Bockus explains. "We really do."


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