Winnipeg Free Press

by George Siamandas

On November 9 1872, the first edition of the Free Press hit Winnipeg streets. It started in a classic beginning where a man who wanted to start a newspaper met a man who had the necessary money. William Fischer Luxton had already been Winnipeg's first public school teacher and had gained newspaper experience in Ontario. His partner, John A Kenny was a retired young farmer with $4,000 cash burning a hole in his pocket. In the fall of 1872, before Winnipeg had been incorporated as a city, they launched the Manitoba Free Press.

It was a weekly then, eight pages long and it became the prairie newspaper along with its offshoot the Prairie Farmer. It already had a prepublication circulation of 200 and within three months it boasted a circulation of 1,000. The population was 1,467 of which 448 were women. Advertising began in early 1873 featuring items like sewing machines and grand pianos. By July 1874 the Manitoba Free Press had become a four page daily.

THE NEWS OF NOVEMBER 9, 1872

Ulysses S Grant just been re-elected President, there was flooding in Italy's Po Valley, riots in Chicago, new 31' blade swords had just been instituted in the US Army, and Toronto was ntroducing street name signs. Locally they reported about the settlement of the boundary between Manitoba and the US and that three brick buildings were going up on Main Street one of which was to be a three storey hotel.

ISSUES LUXTON TALKED ABOUT

He talked about muddy streets, the need to incorporate as a city, and urged freedom of religion. He took a stand on many things including judicial items, and got into trouble with a judge when he questioned a verdict. Luxton was brought before court for contempt and had to pay a $200 fine which apparently was paid by 64 prominent businessmen who accompanied him to court. In 1874 Luxton ran for mayor in the first civic election but was defeated by Francis Cornish.

JOHN DAFOE BECAME THE LEGENDARY FREE PRESS EDITOR

John Wesley Dafoe became editor in 1901 and for the next 43 years the Free Press became the voice of the west. It was clearly a Liberal paper owned by Clifford Sifton. But the Free Press under Dafoe was known for its influence nationally and even internationally when Dafoe was invited to the 1919 Paris Peace conference. Dafoe loved his job so much he was quoted as saying he would rather be the editor of the Free Press than be the Prime Minister of Canada. His grandson retired as editor last year and continues to live in Winnipeg.

AN EVEN EARLIER PAPER THAN THE FREE PRESS

The Nor'Wester was founded on November 1, 1859 by William Coldwell and a William Buckingham. They bought their ink, paper and printing plant in St. Paul and it took more than a month to come by OX cart and was published out of a shack near Portage and Main. The typewriter had not yet been invented (was still decades away). Their first edition came out December 28, 1859. To get the news then, they depended on the telegraph and the lines would be susceptible to bad weather. It was an expensive service costing 3 cents a word. The news came through Montreal and then Buffalo and St. Paul before reaching Winnipeg. The Nor Wester was a strong advocate of union with Canada and was suppressed by Louis Riel. It operated till Nov 24, 1869. It was the first in all of the North West. There were other papers like the Manitoban, the Liberal, the Gazette and Le Metis.

The Free Press was the only survivor of more than 20 papers that competed in the newspaper business between 1859 and 1883.

 

WHY HAS THE FREE PRESS BEEN SUSTAINED WHEN SO MANY OTHERS HAVE FAILED?

Apparently it came close in 1980 the year the Tribune closed. I am told that it could have gone either way when the newspapers were being rationalized all across Canada in the 1980s.

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