Community journalism is a long-established tradition in the area, with a number of publications setting up shop in Elmira as far back as the late-19th century.
Several newspapers started publishing, merged, or went out of business over the years, but the one thing that has been a near-constant in this field: competition. Acting as watchdog, demanding transparency from public officials, fostering ideas, and informing residents can attract a fair amount of opposition within communities. Any perceived slight in the pages of the newspaper can be the impetus for launching a new publication, even in a small market like Elmira.
Taking a walk through the historical record, you’ll find the Maple Leaf was one of the first recorded newspapers starting in the late-1800s. The German-language newspaper Elmira Anzeiger (Indicator) dates back to 1873. The Elmira Advertiser began in 1883, the same year the Elmira Signet was founded by George Klinck and Lloyd Jansen.
By 1913, the Advertiser and the Signet merged and later sold to WV Outlet, who had threatened to start a rival newspaper. The Elmira Fair Dealer made a short-lived appearance in 1959.
The Elmira Signet was sold several times before being bought by Baulk publishers in 1966. Baulk became Fairway Press, a division of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. In 1971 the paper relocated to 4 Arthur St. S., where Sweet Scoops ice cream shop now operates. By 1974, the Signet faced competition from the Elmira Independent, eventually ceasing publication in 1982 after a bitter eight-year rivalry.
The Independent started three weeks after the then-editor of the Signet was fired for insubordination. Championing editorializing and vilifying local politicians, industries and community people, the Independent found an audience of readers who enjoyed the weekly venting at the perceived misdeeds of politicians. The Independent business thrived as a publishing company that included several titles, including the KW Real Estate News, The Farm Gate and a National Independent. The Independent earned a 1990 Michener Award for its coverage of the water crisis that enveloped Elmira in 1989.
By 1996, three young entrepreneurs saw the market as ripe for another newspaper, launching The Observer. They found readers receptive. Two months earlier, a short-lived newspaper cobbled together by former disgruntled Independent employees trying to make a run at their former boss. That publication literally went up in flames as a late-night cigarette started a fire that destroyed the operation.
Unbeknownst to The Observer’s founders at the time, a rival newspaper company out of Fergus was also looking to enter the market in retribution against the Independent for starting a competing newspaper in Fergus. They stopped short of signing a lease, waiting to see if The Woolwich Observer had staying power.
Twenty-five years later, it’s clear The Observer did have legs, but there was a strong rivalry with the Independent in the early days. The Independent’s owner sued The Observer, its employees and contributors for libel in 1997, forcing legal costs on the small start-up. A public legal-defence fund raised $30,000 from the community to pay The Observer’s legal bills. The Independent’s nuisance suit never made it to a courtroom, but in the court of public opinion, it was the beginning of a shift in support towards The Observer.
In the early 2000s the Independent owner sold out to the Toronto Star, which was interested in purchasing the KW Real Estate News. The Independent found its new home in the Metroland Media portfolio with a hundred-plus other titles. The Observer, too, was approached to sell, but declined the offer.
After a decade of decline in the Metroland fold, the Independent ceased publication suddenly on July 31, 2015.
The Observer’s owners, brothers Joe and Patrick Merlihan, credit the community support for the paper making it to its 25th anniversary this month.
“The Observer started as a fresh voice for the community, committed to upholding the tenets of journalism and working in the public interest. Coverage of relevant news, events, local sports and entertainment, and an opinion section is curated weekly just for local readers,” said Patrick Merlihan, the paper’s production manager.
From its humble beginnings, The Observer has become a leader within the newspaper industry. In the past 25 years, The Observer has earned some 135 industry awards, including best community publication in Ontario and Canada in multiple years. Observer staff have garnered awards in every facet of newspaper production, writing, commentary and design. The website consistently ranks in the top in Canada for more than a decade, he notes.
“We look forward to many more years of serving our readers,” said Merlihan.
With files from The Elmira Old Boys and Girls Reunion, 1973, KW library archives.