Free Press passes 150-year milestone with eye to future
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On this day 150 years ago, in a rented shack on Main Street, a long run began with a rickety hand-turned press that had arrived via ox cart at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers.
That first edition of what was then known as the Manitoba Free Press wasn’t much to look at by today’s standards. There were no pictures. No colour. No real layout or attempts at design. There was no way to scroll, share or tweet.
At that time, when Manitoba had only just become a province and Winnipeg was not yet a city, there was a pressing problem that needed to be addressed: a scarcity of information.
Filling that void by addressing a fundamental human need created the foundation that over time would allow the Free Press to stand tall as the oldest newspaper in Western Canada.
A century-and-a-half later, there are no such constraints on the amount of information we can access. If anything, there’s too much, coming at us all the time from all over. Increasingly, the challenge we face is what information should we trust and how to ensure we don’t fall victim to the clickbait, falsehoods and vitriol served up by algorithms in a constant bid for our attention.
What has become scarce in the digital media age are locally owned, independent newspapers like the Free Press. A newspaper written by Manitobans for Manitobans.
That is something worth celebrating today — and preserving for tomorrow.
If not for the Free Press, would there be reporters at the Manitoba legislature every single day, serving as the eyes and ears so critical to democracy?
If not for the Free Press, would we have the relentless news coverage of civic affairs, the courts and police so critical to the public interest?
If not for the Free Press, where would our local arts scene be, without a team of critical writers providing a record of what was staged, performed and created?
If not for the Free Press, would there be any coverage of local sports beyond what happens to the Jets and Blue Bombers?
I ask these “if not” questions because the legacy of the Free Press, as well as its future, is rooted in service to the common good.
As the Shattered Mirror report noted earlier this year in an update to its examination of the state of Canadian media: “A community without a way to inform itself about itself is just a population of unempathetic strangers.”
The record the Free Press has built since 1872 is one that has established it as an essential part of the fabric of an informed community.
The Free Press takes pride in doing the heavy lifting of journalism — a critical role other media either can’t or won’t.
Let’s be clear: Facebook, TikTok and whatever Elon Musk ends up doing to Twitter simply cannot match what’s produced by a newsroom like ours, focused on what matters in the Red River Valley instead of the bottom line in Silicon Valley.
The history of the Free Press is one filled with courage and characters, wisdom and wordsmiths. Our newsroom will be forever grateful to those who came before us, the journalists who built a reputation of trust that is the core of the mission we deliver each and every day.
To mark this milestone, we could think of no better way than by celebrating with 150 readers tonight at a reception at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Without readers, there wouldn’t have been a Free Press for long in 1872, or one in 2022. Readers have been central to our past, present and — increasingly — the future we are building.
After sharing a toast to our 150th, the invited cross-section of our audience will get a sneak peek of the gallery’s new show commemorating the Free Press anniversary, Headlines: the Art of the News Cycle.
As part of that tour, they’ll have a chance to see that historic first press, whose ink began an indelible tradition, which we hope will continue to leave a mark on this city and province for another 150 years.
Paul Samyn has been part of the Free Press newsroom for more than a quarter century, working his way up after starting as a rookie reporter in 1988.