Fond memories of the Free Press

The Prince George Free Press will cease publication after its Friday, May 1 edition, it was announced today. Below, the Citizen's Frank Peebles, one of the earliest employees of the Free Press when it began in 1994, shares some of his memories of the people that made the newspaper such a great place to work and learn:

The wet November snow pelted, the icy wind felt like a teacher's ruler across the hands from olden days, but we grinned and trit-trotted from house to house. Our arms cradled heavy bundles of newspaper - very thick newspapers.

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It was too early in the morning for civilized people who'd just worked until midnight, it was too cold for pleasantries, and it was a surprise rousting from our self-satisfied sleeps, but there we were - the entire newsroom staff of the upstart Prince George Free Press - getting in on one more level of the ground floor.

We had all just finished the mad late-night scramble to write the paper - the very first edition of the ambitious new weekly in Prince George - but every big startup has its Day 1 issues and in this case the army of paper carriers was not yet advancing with military precision. Everyone connected to the paper, including we weary reporters and photographers, got conscripted right out of our beds.

They weren't that far apart. Founding editor Shane Mills, sports editor Jim Swanson, news reporter David Heyman and graphic designer Andrea Walker all lived at 325 Cedar St. I would move in there soon, too, but that morning I was still living in the basement straight across 15th Avenue in the home of the Siddall family. (Sports writer Chris Simnett, photographer Rob Byron, graphic designer Vince Scott - all lived nearby and were pressed into delivery service, too.)

Kathy Siddall had taken me on as a business partner of sorts, and let me crash in the family basement for a few months rather than send me back to my hometown of Burns Lake. Before there was a Prince George startup crew in place by parent company Black Press, she and I were the only staff that company had in this city.

Black Press had newspapers in many of the surrounding towns but only Kathy was in Prince George to sell ads from here into those papers. Dribs and drabs of writing needed to be done, so she would hire me for that. It started with the 1994 edition of the Salmon Valley Music Festival, the Queen's visit to open UNBC, the Cougars moving from Victoria, and things like that.

I was therefore the first Black Press reporter in Prince George, but paradoxically was not hired as part of the full-time editorial team at the upstart Free Press, nor was Kathy hired onto the sales team. Nonetheless, she really was the Free Press's founding mother on the ground, establishing the business foundation the parent company needed to open a viable paper to challenge the venerable and ages-old Citizen.

I was taken on as a country music columnist due to my extensive background in that field, and wrote other things as needed even if I had no background in those fields.

That was a substantial amount of copy, it turns out, because in those early days of 1994 and '95, our little project was heaving with success. Whenever the paper hit 100 pages of revenue, the boss, Bob McKenzie, would take the whole staff out for dinner. We had several of those parties in the early years.

In short order, I was hired full-time to cover arts and entertainment. And by full-time, I mean full-time. I was a cub reporter. I was only a few months out of journalism school - the radio broadcast program at BCIT, so not even print journalism. If I were founding editor Shane Mills, I wouldn't have hired me either at first. I was 22 years old, cocky and scared, smart and stupid, in a state of battle between my mouth and my ears (not sure I've made a truce even yet). I would tape record all my interviews and transcribe them later, then paint the quotes into stories. It was drastically inefficient and kept me up until the wee hours. Mills was impressed by my work ethic more than anything, and my ability to produce copy while drunk - a prerequisite of all reporters there, then.

We felt like we could slay any journalism beasts. The awards soon piled up to serve as proof, but even more pleasing was the admission by a senior reporter at The Citizen that when Black Press announced a competitor paper they hardly considered it a threat, but when they saw those first few editions loaded in advertising and passionate prose "there was a silence over in our newsroom and someone whistled and said 'oh shit.'"

Of course we were no threat to The Citizen, a well resourced and well staffed daily. But we had our fun and we were motivated by a youthful urge to be the best. That was echoed by new staff as we cycled staff. The best of those in the newsroom were Cam McAlpine, John McKenzie, Jason Peters and best of all Michelle Lang who became like a beloved sister to me (and all). I still weep over her death on the job in Afghanistan alongside the Canadian soldiers she was there to depict for the Calgary Herald. So, too, do I still get blue over the loss too soon of our mentor Jerry MacDonald based in Quesnel but always our best professional development source.

The Free Press got off to such a great start because of the people assembled to lead her. While Bob McKenzie was considered a terror at other papers he ran, we absolutely loved the man. So, too, did we work hard for his successor publishers Curt Duddy and Lorne Doerkson, out of sheer love. We were even warm to the company president, Bob Grainger, who paid us too little and worked us too long in the day, but instead of resent that, we accepted his sincere appreciation and invested our sincere best effort. We were in it together, whatever "it" was.

There's no perhaps about it, I loved those people because they took a big risk on me and I wanted them to know it paid off. I adored the work and made the people my family. Many of them are still that way in my heart. Shane Mills is, without question, and you can ask anyone, one of the greatest community news editors in Canadian history. A book ought to be written about this enigmatic and gifted human being. Mills went on to be press secretary to B.C. premiers while Heyman went on to be press secretary for Alberta premier Ed Stelmach.

Weird.

Swanson, meanwhile, is now the owner of a semipro baseball team in Victoria and living his sports dreams. And I'm exactly where I want to be, too, still writing about the community I fell in love with hard and fast more than 20 years ago. I am more than a little sad to see the Free Press's fate turn out like this, but there is also a season for all things and our industry is no exception. And so, with great affection, we must turn that page.

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