The Newspaper Man: A Perseverance Against the Odds in Print Media and Life
When Connect Weekly newspaper discontinued in December 2016, a part of the community’s voice was lost. The announcement occurred one month after the Fort McMurray Today reduced its print schedule from a daily publication to twice weekly.
Tim O’Rourke has served as the publisher for both papers. And though he saw the inner works of the threshold taking place for over a decade before, the fate of the dying local newspaper publication has ended for one, and quite possibly the last standing will soon follow.
According to News Media Canada’s ‘Newspaper Industry Year in Review for 2016’, Connect was among several other print discontinuations, including: Nanaimo Daily News (BC), Northeast News (BC), Northern Journal (NWT), Redvers Optimist (SK), Similkameen News Leader (BC), The Guelph Mercury (ON), The Rainy River Record (ON), and Yorkton News Review (SK).
“I do not see a bright future for the print industry because everything has moved to online,” O’Rourke discussed. “As Fort McMurray is a young community, it does make sense that social media platforms and online news sources are replacing print. However, the big picture is viewers wanting good content and credibility. The only way I see a local publication surviving is with having a credible online subscription at reasonable prices.”
Turn back to 1978, O’Rourke was a young man growing up in Burnaby, B.C. He watched his private school classmates regularly compete on the court, as he was manager and statistician of the St. Thomas More Collegiate Knights men’s basketball team.
It’s where his leadership qualities and journalism skills began to mold into what they are today. He kept track of the basketball reports and sent them off, along with team quotes, to the Lower Mainland media for news coverage.
Around this time, the ‘modern period’ (1900-1980) of Canadian newspaper history was ending and transferring into what is known today as the ‘current period’ (1980-Present).
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the growth of radio and television broke the print monopoly over advertising through the 1930s to 1950s. Print media withheld its place, and as the beginning of the ‘current period’ started; “daily newspapers were a diminished, but still a major part of the Canadian mass-media industry.”
“I dabbled in radio,” O’Rourke said on completing the broadcast journalism program at British Columbia Institute of Technology. “But, the newspaper industry was more my calling. And, my first newspaper job was as a sales representative at a weekly paper in Penticton in 1987.”
Once again, it was a diversifying time for media as new electronic print mediums were quickly coming to the forefront of receiving news and information.
In 1990, O’Rourke had since moved on from his advertising position in British Columbia to publisher for The Camrose Canadian in Alberta.
Two years following, O’Rourke arrived in Fort McMurray to take on his position at the Today, which he remained until 2009 making him the longest-serving publisher in the local paper’s history.
During the 1990s, the industry faced new competition due to the evolving development of the Internet. Though, it came with its benefits. Global and national content were easily accessible with available newswire services, and technology adaptations were becoming better established within the newsroom.
O’Rourke knew the changes were gaining headway. However, he soon learned of other challenges unique to the city, ones where competition didn’t remain in the virtual and broadcasted media industry.
“A challenge was the shortage of qualified staffing as we struggled to compete with oil sands wages,” he said. “I had to be creative in hiring, and managing, to survive to put out a daily newspaper. I always looked for reliable people whom were adaptable to an ever-changing industry and job demands.”
He reflects on his best days at the Today was working with “great people at the paper and in the community. The friendships I gained over the years are irreplaceable. And because of those people I was able to produce a quality daily newspaper.”
O’Rourke said the hardest challenges he faced were beyond business, “overcoming the deaths of two managing editors Darrell Skidnuk (who passed away in April 2004 due to cancer) and Michael Hall (who died of a heart attack in August 2008). They both contributed to a strong newsroom.”
In late 2008, new initiatives were taking place within the publication’s press agency – Quebecor Inc. (QMI Agency). And while O’Rourke was working hard to retain staff from another oil sands boom, the newsprint business was seeing a continued economic downfall.
The Agency made cutbacks in their print segments across Canada and put profits into their ISO programs acquired from the takeover of Osprey Media.
According to a press release issued by Quebecor in May 2009, an analysis indicated revenues increased to $896.2 million, up $19.1 million (2.2%) from the first quarter in 2008.
“The restructuring initiatives in the newspapers segment, launched in late 2008, are progressing according to schedule and generated estimated savings of $7.0 million in the first quarter of 2009… we will continue exploring other cost reduction opportunities, while we search for new revenue streams,” Quebecor’s President and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau stated in the release.
At the Today, cuts dissolved classified representatives’ positions, which were replaced by an automated call-in service. And when an employee left or was terminated, their positions weren’t filled but amalgamated into an existing one.
On August 31, 2009, O’Rourke put his last day of work in at the Today after 19 years as publisher, to join his wife Barbara in Chemainus, B.C. She had moved to Vancouver Island a year before to pursue a career in owning her own floral business.
Four years of retirement later, the O’Rourkes made their way back to the city in the summer of 2012.
“The economy was weak on Vancouver Island, so we decide to close our shop and move back to Fort McMurray since my contacts were still here,” O’Rourke explained.
It was an easy transition for O’Rourke. He found his seat back at the Rotary Club of Fort McMurray (which to-date, he has been a Rotarian for almost 30 years starting in Camrose in 1990).
The weeks following, he made a rewarding career change and took on the manager of communications and fund development position at the Fort McMurray Family Crisis Society – now known as Waypoints.
Playing a key role in the ‘Stop the Hurting. Start the Healing’ campaign – which its goal was to fundraise $10,000,000 in capital to build local long-term housing for those affected by domestic violence, O’Rourke found himself more in the news, than behind it.
Two years into his position at Waypoints, O’Rourke was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Shortly after, he received a Whipple procedure (a surgery only around 20% of pancreatic cancer patients are eligible for). He remained working while receiving chemotherapy for six months, following. At the time, his surgery and treatments were successful.
In the summer of 2015, O’Rourke was celebrating three years working at the social profit agency, along with his first cancer-free anniversary. At summer’s end, he received a proposition from the president of Star News Publishing Inc., and third-generation printer and publisher Roger Holmes. Holmes had crossed paths with O’Rourke in the past, due to his involvement in the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association.
Holmes had just recently purchased Connect Weekly from local resident and previous owner Andryia Browne. Holmes wanted to ensure the publication would receive strong representation from a local knowledgeable and weathered publisher.
“The Connect sounded intriguing as I remember when it started more than a decade ago, and I thought it would be fun to get back into my newspaper roots,” O’Rourke reminisced on accepting the position. “I knew the newly hired managing editor*, and we had worked together before. I thought it would be a good fit for the two of us.”
The revamp was underway when O’Rourke started. Former freelance writers were retained to continue, as well as an additional number of regular writers and contributing photographers were hired to work. However, the months preceding were another economic tailspin. As oil prices plummeted, the domino effect took action at ground zero – Fort McMurray.
By December 2015, O’Rourke had to deliver the hard news of cutbacks for Connect Weekly. The result let almost a dozen of local freelancers know the paper could no longer afford their services. Only two Fort McMurray residents remained employed with the publication – O’Rourke, and his managing editor, with the assistance of a graphic designer based at Star News Inc.’s headquarters in Wainwright.
According to a Maclean’s Magazine article published on January 13, 2016; ‘Life at $20 a barrel: What the oil crash means for Canada’ stated, “the oil patch shed close to 40,000 jobs, 2016 is expected to bring even more layoffs. That is having a knock-on effect across the province in real estate, auto sales, and other business activity.”
The months following the cuts unraveled a series of conflicts for Fort McMurray, as well as for O’Rourke. Being a three-year post-chemotherapy patient, he learned a week before his Abasand home burned down in the 2016 Fort McMurray Wildfire that his cancer had returned in May.
During the wildfire evacuation, he resumed chemotherapy treatments. Unlike previously, treatments were performed to prolong his life and not cure the cause.
The double disaster hit, however, didn’t refrain O’Rourke from his dedication to the community. And, his tireless efforts placed him among the first media crew to have a direct look at the wildfire’s destruction.
On May 28, 2016, Connect published its first edition post-fire. The staff pushed for its online presence and distributed print copies of the ‘Special Edition’ to evacuation centers, as well as in gas stations on-route to Fort McMurray.
Two days following, Star News Inc. announced the purchase of 13 newspapers in Saskatchewan from Transcontinental Inc., and a CBC News Saskatoon article quoted Connect’s owner speaking to its new business venture.
“We think Saskatchewan is the new Alberta… All of us are struggling a little bit in the west, but we think Saskatchewan is going to come back, and we think this is a very good opportune time to invest in Saskatchewan,” said Holmes of Star News Inc.
Connect continued publishing and distributing copies outside of the community until the re-enter. When residents returned, there was an increase in advertising from local and outside businesses announcing their rebuilding efforts.
However, a new challenge surfaced for O’Rourke’s managing editor* as her daughter faced multiple health concerns throughout the summer, and she was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood cancer on August 18, 2016.
Now Connect’s only local employees were regularly traveling to hospitals for cancer-related purposes in Fort McMurray and Edmonton. Strategies came into place, and fellow freelancers were called to help with editorial to keep the weekly paper running, but budgets were still strictly set in place.
When November arrived, the managing editor went on a leave of absence from work. The month following Connect discontinued. Its last edition was published on December 22, 2016.
“Due to the economic downturn that currently affects so many industries across our province, we have had to accept that we can no longer sustain the financial commitment required to continue this publication,” as stated in an announcement advertisement on behalf of Star News Inc.
Shortly after Connect closed its doors, O’Rourke utilized his public relations background and continued working in the community through a variety of platforms for local businesses and social profits.
By August 2017, the chemotherapy treatments had begun to take a toll on O’Rourke physically, and numbness in his feet made a major impact on his mobility. Because of this, new medications and medical equipment were required.
With family and friends wanting to offer financial support, one of O’Rourke’s most-trusted friends initiated a GoFundMe page to raise $5,000 for his medical fund. As of November 2017, the goal had exceeded to $24,060.
Recapping the last year and a half, O’Rourke said his hardships were made easy because of the love from his wife Barb and three children Adam (35), Becky (29) and Lucas (28), as well as their dear friends Dan Sorensen and Debbie Hahn. He values the support from his friends and the community.
“I don’t believe I felt like this was more than I could handle. I don’t think it ever crossed my mind,” O’Rourke said about having a breaking point. “Life is tough, but having a sense of humor, spirituality, and the support of my wife, friends, family, and community have made life easier.”
December 2017 will mark the one-year anniversary of Connect shutting down. And though O’Rourke has closed his chapter as a newspaper publisher. He explains the importance for local media to exist – however their platform - because it’s how people learn about their community.
“It’s important for local media to have a presence,” O’Rourke said. “It acts as a community watchdog and brings the community together. It’s also a great source for local information that national media wouldn’t pick up on. National media covers more sensationalized stories and lacks the much-needed identity of a community.”
To the local youth who prosper in a journalism career, the 56-year-old offers advice from his close to four decades of experience.
“Follow your dream… even if that means starting off in a lower position, like the once-classified representative, when you have the education and determination to be a journalist. Don’t be afraid of setbacks and not getting your favored position,” O’Rourke said. “Become IT savvy, be patient, open your mind, and take everything in, as one day it will be beneficial.”
Editorial Disclosure: Dawn Booth worked with O’Rourke at the Fort McMurray Today as the former special features editor and at Connect Weekly as the managing editor.
When Tim O’Rourke was publisher at the Fort McMurray Today, he wrote a regular business/gossip column - known as ‘The Birdie’.
The column featured highlights on community happenings, new business announcements, and rumors popular amongst locals. While keeping his sources confidential, he humorously referred to them as the famous Birdie, Raven, and Marty the Canine.
O’Rourke revisited the column while at the Connect, but since its discontinuation, there has been no news from the famous three.
“They have retired to Sicamous as they are big houseboaters,” O’Rourke shared of his long-time friends. “I’m sure they would be discussing Red Lobster looking to open somewhere downtown in the summer of 2018. They would also tell us that Sears Canada is closing and the former spot on Franklin Avenue will have a new tenant SRAES – a home appliance and mattress store.”
Photo by Dawn Booth.
The graphic photo features the popular Birdie column written by Tim O’Rourke for the Fort McMurray Today’s - Saturday Edition on February 14, 2009.
Tim O’Rourke headshot, Connect 2015.
Longtime friends, fellow Rotarians and local residents Tim O’Rourke and Dan Sorensen at a fundraiser for Waypoints in February 2016.
O’Rourke with his wife Barb and daughter Becky in December 2014.
O’Rourke was his with wife Barb, sister Maureen and brother-in-law Dave Hample when he met with fellow Rotarians at the Rotary District 5370 Conference on September 30, 2017 at MacDonald Island. One month before, O’Rourke received the prestigious Service Above Self award from the Rotary Club of Fort McMurray’s President Dan Sorensen.