Arts & Life
Canstar Community News
Every story has a beginning and an end, and for the Winnipeg Tribune, the end came abruptly and painfully 40 years ago.
For 90 years, the paper had been a willing combatant with the Free Press for local news supremacy, its staff pushing itself beyond its means to rankle authority in a competitive market. The Trib was an underdog — a paper that documented Winnipeg life with the spirit of the city itself bleeding through its pages in black ink.
But on Aug. 27, 1980, the presses came to a screeching halt.
A day earlier, the paper’s editor-in-chief Dona Harvey, the first woman to hold that role at a metropolitan daily newspaper in Canada, was summoned to the Winnipeg Inn to meet with the president and vice-presidents of Southam Inc., which owned the Tribune.
Harvey, who recalled the circumstances in a 2018 talk at the University of Manitoba, wasn’t sure what to expect. Over the previous five years, the Tribune had mounted a remarkably successful self-reinvention, increasing circulation from 70,000 to 100,000, matching the Free Press. The paper had created a massive television ad campaign, a comic book and a weekend magazine. To the outside world, the Trib was thriving.
In a room at the Inn, Southam president Gordon Fisher broke the silence. "I am sorry to be gathered here together like this to tell you this bad news," Harvey recalled Fisher saying. "We are going to close down the Trib, and tomorrow will be the final day of publication."
Harvey sat, bewildered. For all the paper’s steps forward, it was in a financial bear trap. Despite increased readership, the Free Press numbers didn't drop off, and the lion’s share of ad revenue stayed on Carlton Street. Plus, the growing Tribune circulation meant its presses were maxed out; new facilities were estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million.
"My attitude was that the Tribune was part of the infrastructure of the community." ‐ Former Tribune reporter Dave O'Brien
The Tribune's closure came on the heels of the Thomson Newspaper's shuttering of its Ottawa Journal, and led to the Sen. Tom Kent-chaired Royal Commission on Newspapers, created in response to growing concerns over concentration of media ownership in the country.
Harvey left the Inn around 1:30 a.m., and then wrote a draft of the story that would run on the front page of the next day’s evening edition, a post-mortem of her workplace. The staff had yet to find out.
Tribune reporter Dave O’Brien was planning to start his shift late on Aug. 27. He’d stayed in the office until the wee hours the previous night. His phone rang; his mother was calling.
"She’d heard on the radio the Tribune had folded," recalled O’Brien, who later worked as a reporter and editor at the Free Press. "I said that’s like city hall folding. It couldn’t have happened. She had to be wrong.… My attitude was that the Tribune was part of the infrastructure of the community."
At 9 a.m.,Tribune editorial staff assembled in the newsroom at 257 Smith St. Fisher started talking. The newsroom was large, so Harvey suggested he stand on the city desk, where he proclaimed that day’s edition would be the last.
"I was the labour reporter when the paper shut down," recalled Chris Smith, another staffer who went on to work at the Free Press. "That was one story I missed."
Bart Jackson, a summer reporter, was supposed to be hired full time the following Monday. "I got to work and there were news folks from CBC in the elevator," he said. "I finally walk into the newsroom and there’s a guy standing on the table talking to the troops." Jackson put the pieces together.
The suddenly jobless 375 employees were given generous severance packages and were told they’d maintain benefits through the end of the year. But the scene was still dour, and worse, there was no time for sobbing — deadline beckoned.
The staff mocked up a front page, with Arthur "Kit" Kittney suggesting the headline, "It’s been 90 great years."
Quoted in the story on the closure, columnist Val Werier, said, "I guess I’ll have to start looking for freelance work." Columnist Vic Grant was blunter: "I’m going to get drunk. I’ve been here for 16 years and I thought I was going to die here.
"I don’t know what I’m going to do now," he added.
“I’m going to get drunk. I’ve been here for 16 years and I thought I was going to die here." ‐ Columnist Vic Grant
"It was a combination of panic and sadness," recalled Murray McNeill, who went on to a 36-year career at the Free Press. "Some of these people, we’d never see again."
Once the paper was put to bed, many staff ambled down the street to the Winnipeg Press Club at the Marlborough Hotel, where liquor, tears and stories were poured in equal measure.
When the paper closed, its archives were purchased in their entirety by the University of Manitoba for $1. In 2018, the archives were put up free on the internet, where the striking photographs of Frank Chalmers and Jon Thordarson, the sports musings of Vince Leah and Jack Matheson and nearly a century of Manitoba stories are preserved in digital format.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.
The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.
Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.