Publishing a small town newspaper is one of the best things one can do in life, said David Black, chairman and founder of Black Press, the largest private newspaper publisher in Canada.
“It’s an awful lot of fun and you get to know a lot of people,” Black said during a phone interview from his office in Victoria, where at 72 he continues to work 40 to 50 hours a week.
Originally from Vancouver, Black started his newspaper career with the Toronto Star.
After completing a Masters of Business Administration, he was hired by the Star in corporate development, doing mergers, acquisitions and investments.
“I enjoyed the business and learned a lot about weeklies,” Black recalled. “I enjoyed the media game and the newspaper business.”
When Black decided he wanted to “run his own show,” the time was right.
His father, Alan Black, had managed operations for eight community papers in B.C. and in 1969 invested in the Williams Lake Tribune with Clive Stangoe.
“Dad was keen for me to step in to take over for Clive Stangoe, who was departing as the paper’s publisher,” Black said. “Dad was a fabulous marketing man who was smart with business.”
By 1975, Black and his wife Annabeth were living in the lakecity, and they had purchased the Tribune from his father.
“We thought of our time in Williams Lake as a stepping stone, and expected that we would stay for two years. But we fell in love with the place and the surrounding area and stayed for 10,” he said, noting as his birthday is April 9, it was always interesting to see if the ice would be off the lake by then.
During his time at the helm as publisher, Williams Lake was a busy place, Black recalled.
Gibraltar Mine had got going in and there were five or six mills in town and the place was rockin’, he added.
Being the publisher ensured he got out into the community and whenever some group or somebody in town wanted to do something, they would come to the newspaper and talk to him.
“I got involved in all kinds of committees. It was all about giving back and helping make the town a good place.”
Despite being “up to his hips with the paper,” he wanted to go see all the places where the paper was sold and made a point of travelling out to Bella Coola a few times.
“In those days we used to drop the paper by air in a lot of the small areas. Initially trucks and buses couldn’t get down the hill to Bella Coola when I came on in 1975 because the switch backs were too tight and it was steep.”
Black said his dad told him one time when a bundle of newspapers was dropped too close at Gang Ranch, it ended up smashing the post office and knocking it down.
“That was the end of our air drops for quite awhile,” Black said, chuckling.
By the mid-70s, the Tribune had gone from publishing once a week to two times a week and the press was printing other community newspapers as well.
“As people wanted to retire and get out of the business or move on to other ventures they would approach us to buy them out,” Black said.
One of the first papers they purchased was the Ashcroft Journal when the owners, who were in their 70s, approached Black.
“There were no other buyers,” he recalled.
At first they couldn’t figure out how they were going to run the Ashcroft paper when it was 150 miles away, but eventually they realized buying other papers was a good thing to do, he explained, noting the company was able to set up a cluster of papers and presses.
“We couldn’t really share sales or editorial because they were very local, but we could share all the other costs and that is what we discovered.
“Our accountant could do their accounting as well as ours. Our presses could print their papers as well as ours and so on. You were able to take out some of the costs and that’s what made it worthwhile.”
Newspapers in Burns Lake, Houston, Smithers and Vanderhoof were added to the list.
“Rick O’Connor was running the Vanderhoof paper and that brought him into the company. Then he moved up to running the whole company as the CEO,” Black said.
Eventually some Vancouver Island publishers approached Black about purchasing papers from them and he decided it was time to move away from Williams Lake. He was spending less and less time at home because he was busy building another cluster.
Black and Annabeth moved to Victoria so their twin sons Alan and Fraser could go to university and Black wouldn’t have to be away from home so much.
From that start in 1975, Black Press has expanded to a company that includes 75 titles in B.C. as well as in Alberta, Ohio, Sound Publishing in Washington State and Honolulu, Hawaii.
Black has served as president of the British Columbia and Yukon Community Newspaper Association, a director of the Canadian Community Newspaper Association, a governor of the Canadian Newspaper Association, and as director of the American Press Institute.
Looking back on his career, Black said the business of weekly papers has remained the same.
“Papers dominate their own small town and there is usually not a competitor because it doesn’t pay.”
Outgoing Black Press – B.C. North president Lorie Williston said she’s always admired Black, what he’s done and continues to do.
“He still genuinely cares about the business and is constantly finding ways to make changes and is always on the cutting edge,” she said.
Periodically Black will write an opinion piece, but editorials are up to each paper’s editor, he insisted.
“I think that’s important as I’m not there,” he explained.
“If I am going to do something I tend to do it as an op-ed instead of an editorial and it’s on a topic that’s of some interest or importance across the province as opposed to just one of the markets.”
As he has watched the technology of printing newspapers evolve, Black said computers have changed the business and the world so much in the last 30 years.
“My theory is — the next big thing will be robots,” he added. “I think they will be even a bigger change for us than computers.”