Reflections on the history of newspapers

On Jan. 29th, the Guelph Mercury, one of Canada’s oldest newspapers, published its last printed edition. The news was received with dismay, not only in Guelph, but across much of south western Ontario. Moreover, given the many other closures and cutbacks seen across the nation in the past months, many are wondering if an end to the traditional daily newspaper in Canada is at hand.

While the developments the Guelph Mercury has attracted a fair bit of current national attention, what many likely do not realize is that there is a strong historical link between the Guelph paper and newspapers in Red Deer.

In November 1906, Francis W. Galbraith, a former part owner and editor of the Guelph Mercury, purchased the weekly Alberta Advocate in Red Deer. Almost immediately, he changed the name of the paper to the Red Deer Advocate. Over the succeeding decades, he laid the groundwork for what was to become Central Alberta’s leading daily.

However, Galbraith was not the only significant link between the Mercury in Guelph and the Advocate in Red Deer. Equally important to the success of the Advocate over the decades was his longtime friend and colleague from the Mercury, Fred Turnbull. Turnbull joined the Advocate in 1907 and was both a part owner and the business manager in the firm for many decades after that.

Just before he died in March 1934, Galbraith wrote a series of autobiographical articles, which were posthumously published in the book, Fifty Years of Newspaper Work. It provides a fascinating insight into Galbraith’s life, but also half a century of history of the early Mercury and Advocate newspapers.

Galbraith began work for the Guelph Mercury in January 1884. Initially, he got a position as an unpaid apprentice. However, this soon turned into a full time, paid job at $8 per week. He was put in charge of circulation, before becoming a junior reporter.

Galbraith proved to be a very enthusiastic reporter, sometimes so enthusiastic that he got himself and the paper into trouble. However, he was also a highly talented writer of opinion pieces. Eventually, he was making $16 per week as an editor.

In 1898, Galbraith had saved enough money to buy a partnership in the Mercury. He also became the paper’s senior editor. However, in 1905, the Mercury found itself in need of significant investments in new printing equipment and other improvements. Galbraith did not have that kind of money. He therefore had to give up his partnership, but remained with the Mercury as a staff editor. In 1906, he moved to Red Deer to purchase the Advocate.

By his own admission, Galbraith was an excellent journalist and editor, but was not a particularly good businessman. In fact, the first set of pay cheques he issued as the new owner all bounced. Hence, shortly thereafter he asked Turnbull to join him. Turnbull became the head of the printing department. In 1909, he became a full business partner.

Galbraith and Turnbull became a great team in building up the Advocate. In 1926, they were able to buy out the other weekly paper in the community, the Red Deer News.

After Galbraith’s retirement shortly before his death in 1934, his position as part owner of the Advocate was taken over by his son Philip Galbraith. That new business arrangement continued for 25 years.

In 1959, Phil and Turnbull decided that they did not have the financial resources to modernize the Advocate and to transform it into a daily newspaper. Hence the paper was sold to the Liverpool Echo, making it one of the few foreign owned dailies in Canada.

The move was controversial to some, but it reflected the changes necessitated by shifting economics and new technologies. Moreover, the new editor who was brought in to the Advocate, Pat O’Callaghan, became one of the storied figures in Canadian journalism.

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