The phone doesn't ring for small-town stringers anymore
They were the lifeline between the city papers and the small rural communities across Ontario. Individually, they were mail carriers, housewives, teachers and journalists; collectively they were called stringers.
They could be counted on to report on events happening in their area. Some would call with tips and names of people to contact, while others were talented reporters who conveyed exactly what was happening with enough skill and style to rival the best international correspondents.
For the ambitious reporter, stringing provided the opportunity to be published in a larger newspaper, which sometimes led to a lucrative job offer at that paper, or one of equal size. For the non-journalist, stringing was a chance to participate in the newsgathering process. Along with it came a sense of importance, pride and perhaps a bit of cash.
But all this is a thing of the past. Stringers, for the most part, are a distant memory, replaced by wire copy and freelancers. Papers of all sizes across Ontario have virtually phased out the stringer, marking the end of a long-standing tradition in journalism.
The Kitchener- Waterloo Record is a prime example. The Record revamped its stringing system in 1978, doing away with all non-journalist stringers. In 1981, there were about a dozen stringers who contributed regularly. Today, there are four.
The same holds true for since it was never updated. By 1980, there were eight or 10 left, and today there are none. Judy Creighton, a correspondent at Canadian Press, worked at the rewrite desk at The London Free Press in 1967, when the paper still had a full roster of stringers.
There are stories that leap to the mind of anyone who has worked at a paper during the days of the stringer. Judy Creighton has stored away her fair share of those stories. One of her classic recollections is of a stringer in Listowel who called with news of a tornado approaching the town. When Creighton asked her to cover the story, there was a pause and she replied, “Oh, I couldn’t do that. I’m hosting a dinner party.”
And there was always excitement around the newsroom in the days before Christmas when one of the stringers, an elderly woman, would bring in bags of baked goods for all the staff. The amateur stringer’s devotion could also be profitable for the paper that employed their services. Creighton called them “circulation magicians,” because they ensured that every store in town sold “their” paper, and would encourage everyone they knew to read it. “They were the paper’s representatives in the town and everyone knew it,” says Creighton. This also stopped larger city papers like The Globe and Mail from gaining a foothold in the community.
Some of to day’s most prominent journalists got their start stringing from small towns. Toronto Star Chairman Beland Honde rich started his career stringing for the KitchenerWaterloo Record in 1935 from Baden, Ontario. His beat was “anything that happened in the area” that may have been of interest to the Record. He received 10 cents per inch of copy for every story he submitted.
But the money was secondary to the chance of being noticed by a larger paper. That avenue is now closed to journalists writing for small-town papers. The modern stringer is likely to have worked at a paper in the past, and become a stringer afterwards.
The Toronto Star is the only major Toronto daily that still uses stringers. Its four most prolific Ontario stringers are experienced journalists, who file their stories using computers linked by modem to the Star.
Paul Kidd, who covers Hamilton and the surrounding area for the Star, has a distinguished background, including stints as a bureau chief for Southam News in Buenos Aires, New York and Toronto. He has won several awards, including the prestigious Nieman Fellowship to Harvard. The other three Star stringers in Ontario are Paula Adamick in London, Chris Conway in Keewatin, near the Manitoba border, and Mark Bourrie in Midland. They contribute regularly to the Ontario page of the Star, but as Mark Bourrie points out, “there is so much that goes on in and around smaller towns that is never brought to the attention of people in the larger cities.” In his view, there is still nothing to compare with having a person there, on the scene, working only for one paper when something of major importance happens in the area.
Why are stringers a nearextinct species? Some think it has to do with the lack of interest in small-town news by anyone other than the residents of the town. There is also an increased interest in foreign news, especially televised news, which makes local events seem boring by companson.
John Ogilvie, district editor at the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, works with the paper’s four surviving stringers, and cites more tangible reasons-space and competition. Because space in the paper is “at a premium,” he has to be more selective with the news he pulls from the 17 communities the paper covers. As a result, most stringers found the quest for space in the paper too competitive and quit.
Smaller local papers also sprang up to provide news for their populations, reducing the need for the Record to do it.
While many editors, publishers and reporters say they miss the days of the stringer and lament their passing, most seem to feel it is no great loss to their papers, as they focus more on trends, and less on daily news from surrounding areas.
But London Free Press clusters editor Gary May says, “It would still be nice to have more eyes and ears to identify trends in small towns across our regions.”
It is difficult to dispute that kind of logic. There are things happening in Ontario that should not go unnoticed, such as what life is like on the eight native reserves near Keewatin, where Star stringer Chris Conway lives. He wishes the Star would devote more than one page to provincial news so he could communicate to readers what life is like on those reserves.
The stringer provided readers with the opportunity to hear concerns shared by people in towns across Ontario, and added touches of individuality and colour often absent in generic stories sent over the wire. As we edge closer to getting all our news from the same sources, and the stringer fades further into the mist, it is unlikely we will ever find that individuality or sense of community again.