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Celebrating the community newspaper

National Newspaper Week is Oct. 6 to 12

Childhood habits and a desire to be connected to the community are behind one Okotokian’s passion for the newspaper.

As a child, Oliver Hallmark read the newspaper in Kimberley, B.C., daily to find stories and headlines for school.

“We didn’t have iPhones or anything like that, so we would go home and read the newspaper every night just so we could get our homework for news flashes,” said Hallmark. “So that created a habit back then.”

Now, the Okotoks hair stylist reads the Western Wheel weekly to keep up-to-date on events and happenings in town, as well as to find his clients in the pages of the local paper.

The Wheel is one of more than 800 publications in Canada celebrating the 79th annual National Newspaper Week from Oct. 6 to 12.

For Hallmark, part of his connection to the community is reaching out to people he knows when he sees them in the newspaper and sending them a quick message to acknowledge their quotes or photos, he said.

“Because I live in a small town I want to keep engaged with everybody who supports me, so I try to watch what they’re doing, too,” said Hallmark. “Because of my job, I see a wide spectrum of people, so I watch for everything. I read right down from advertisements to community events, to politics, sports, everything.”

He said he also appreciates reading newspaper stories rather than relying on blogs and social media to get his news.

“I like to hear a story from both sides, where with social media you usually only get one side of the story,” said Hallmark. “I find the Western Wheel does an excellent job on being impartial and has a habit of being unbiased, so I like that. It’s difficult to do in a small town.”

Reader David Rourke, a former resident of Okotoks who now resides just outside Black Diamond, has been reading the weekly paper for the past 30 years.

“When we decided to move to Okotoks (from Calgary) in 1988 the first thing we did was pick up a copy of the Western Wheel and I read it with great interest, paying particular interest to anything historic,” said Rourke.

He said he’s always believed in knowing what’s going on in any place he has lived or visited, and reading the local newspapers is a great way to get that information.

Today, he never misses an issue of his local paper.

“It’s always on our kitchen table and I always read it, although I typically only read the articles I’m interested in, which there is always something,” said Rourke.

For Okotoks Mayor Bill Robertson, a self-proclaimed “news junkie,” the local paper serves many purposes. An avid reader of both the Calgary Herald and the Western Wheel, Robertson said the weekly paper serves the municipality well.

“It’s a valuable tool for citizens to gain information about their municipality, and in particular with the Western Wheel to get information about the region,” said Robertson. “So it’s a valuable resource.”

He said while he pays particular attention to Town business, he appreciates features on local people and groups in town – good news stories telling about initiatives and accomplishments of Okotoks and Foothills residents, he said.

Bruce Masterman, a former Calgary Herald reporter and journalism instructor at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), said local newspapers have a great impact.

“It’s a huge benefit to the community,” said Masterman. “It really affects the community, or should affect the community. In a vibrant community where there’s lots going on, then the paper should reflect that and acknowledge that.”

He said it’s more than just looking for your child’s photo in the paper – it is also about communicating with residents and neighbours and keeping the entire town informed and up-to-date on important issues.

Papers like the Western Wheel differ from their daily cousins (like the Herald) because they tend to focus on the day-to-day business missed by the larger media outlets, he said.

“They’re there for the smaller events and the major news stories as well, whereas the dailies are really coming into a smaller community whenever something really big happens,” said Masterman, who came to High River in 1980 as the one-person Herald news bureau for all of southwestern Alberta.

“There was a general feeling of, why is the Herald interested in this?” he said. “It was weird because I would show up at council meetings and different things.”

The rural news bureaus closed in the late '80s, and small towns outside Calgary once again relied on their local papers, he said.

Regardless of where the news comes from, Masterman said it’s important to trust the source, and newspapers lend a factual way of looking at stories.

“To me there’s journalism, and then there’s blogging, and then there’s fake journalists who don’t have the credentials,” he said. “They don’t try to get all the facts, they don’t present things in an interesting and well-written way.”

He said even with a move toward more online publication, some people still just want to hold a physical newspaper in their hands, which is possible with community weekly papers. It’s a way to stay connected, he said.

The local paper is a great resource for its residents, he said.

“If I lived in the County or Okotoks, I’d feel really well-served by the Wheel and that doesn’t happen accidentally,” said Masterman. “It’s making sure that people matter, and that communities matter.”