Mark Rendell

Last Days of the Northern Journal

After a decades-long run, the venerable Fort Smith-based paper is set to shutter (or move) next month

By mid-March, Fort Smith will be without a newspaper for the first time in nearly 40 years, when the Northern Journal either closes down or moves to Yellowknife.

“I would say we have to make a business decision to shut down in the coming weeks,” says Don Jaque, owner and managing editor of the paper which started its life as the Slave River Journal in 1977.  “We can’t continue to operate profitably in Fort Smith.”

He’s in discussion with one potential Yellowknife buyer — “it’s not somebody currently in publishing” — who is supposedly thinking of moving the weekly publication to the capital. If that doesn’t work out, the paper’s long run will come to an end “by the Ides of March,” says Jaque.

The news of the paper’s imminent demise (or relocation) isn’t entirely unexpected; the 67-year-old publisher has been trying to get out of the publishing game for over five years.

It’s always been a labour of love, and at a certain point you have to say the time has come.

“When you reach 60, you start to think about retirement, travelling the world, things like that. Running a newspaper is really hard work.”

If the desire for retirement wasn’t enough, the territory’s economic situation, combined with more general changes in the media landscape, aided his decision as the paper continued to bleed revenue.

“We’re facing a perfect storm of problems, there’s definitely a change in the way people see media and value journalism,” he said, noting a decline in circulation and challenge monetizing online advertising. And “there’s been cutbacks in GNWT advertising as they’ve moved a lot of their expertise internally.”

Moreover there’s the challenge of operating a newspaper in a town the size of Fort Smith.

“There’s a small commercial market here… only around 2,450 people in the community. And it’s very difficult to operate a business not based in Yellowknife that relies on the GNWT.”

To get the lucrative government advertising that’s the bread and butter of most Northern publications, “you have to be based in Yellowknife and know the administrators in charge of the budgets. If you don’t know them personally it can be a challenge,” says Jaque.

Although the coming sale or closure of the paper marks the end of Jaque’s nearly four-decade career in publishing, he seemed relatively upbeat when EDGE spoke to him over the phone in Fort Smith, where he was copyediting what will likely be one of the paper’s final editions.

“I’m proud of the writers I’ve worked with and the stories we’ve published. We’ve done a lot of really positive things,” he says. “It’s always been a labour of love, and at a certain point you have to say the time has come.”