Anvil salute endures as New West’s quirkiest tradition

This photo essay was published originally on Tenth to the Fraser

Photos and story by Mario Bartel

The first time I was assigned to cover the Hyack Anvil Battery’s annual Victoria Day salute to the Queen, I heeded all the precautions from my photo colleagues; wear earplugs and keep my mouth open to help dissipate the concussion from the gunpowder blast. And prepare for the cacophony of car alarms from around the neighbourhood that answers every concussion.

The event itself perplexed and captivated me.

Any time people gather to blow things up, there’s the potential for great photos. Dress in bright red historical costumes, repeat the explosions 21 times and, well, that’s a good day for any photographer.

Over 25 Victoria Days at the NewsLeader, I missed only a handful of anvil salutes; usually when the spring holiday coincided with my own vacation.

The anvil salute is the perfect New Westminster tradition; steadfastly rooted in the city’s history, quirky in a modern context. Its origin was an improvised solution by the city’s fire brigade when a cannon wasn’t available for the annual salute to be fired on Queen Victoria’s birthday. One of the members, a former Royal Engineer, recalled seeing gunpowder placed between two anvils to create a cannon-type concussion.

Blacksmith Thomas Ovens, who would go on to become Mayor, donated a pair of anvils and members of the brigade set to work experimenting with the amount of gunpowder needed to create the desired explosions without blowing off anyone’s head or hands. The ceremony has endured ever since.

And while attendance in the grandstand at Queen’s Park Stadium waxes and wanes according to the weather, witnessing the anvil salute has become a kind of rite of passage for new residents to the city; every year when emcee Archie Miller asks how many people are seeing the ceremony for the first time, about half the hands go up.

I may no longer be employed by the local media, but it somehow feels wrong to walk away from the tradition of the anvil salute. There’s familiarity in seeing the same old faces of the Anvil Battery, a twinge of sadness when one of those faces is no longer there. There’s comfort in the event’s rhythm and Miller’s annual history lesson. And when the first blast ignites, its concussion punching my chest, I still feel the thrill of being a part of something uniquely New West.

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Is journalism school still relevant?

It’s a three-peat!

For the third year running, newspaper reporter is the worst job in America, as determined by careercast.com .

The job hunting website looks at a job’s environment, income and employment prospects as well as stresses like stability and danger, to rate 200 careers. According to the survey, newspaper reporter ranks lower than soldier, logger or pest exterminator.

With such a dismal assessment, along with an ever-shrinking job market as traditional media like newspapers and broadcast shrink newsrooms, consolidate or shut altogether, serious questions are being asked about the relevance of journalism schools that continue to pump thousands of grads every year into a career that can no longer sustain them.

It’s not much fun being a journalist these days. Reporters are perpetually haunted by the scythe of unemployment swinging ever lower as traditional media outlets struggle to reinvent themselves in the digital era of social media and instant messaging. Mostly that reinvention consists of cutting costs as much as possible, then cutting some more, in a desperate attempt to maintain profit levels.

Instead of trading war stories from in the field, we gather in the lunchrooms and around the bulletin board to trade rumours about impending buyout offers, looming layoffs.

Even after eight months since my own paper closed, and my 30-year career as a photojournalist and multimedia journalist was cut down at the knees, I don’t miss that daily dose of gloom and doom.

But I don’t regret the education path I took to launch that career.

Time and again, as I search for meaningful work that will fuel my creativity as a storyteller as well as recharge my bank account, I see “Journalism” pop up in job ads as a desirable education or experience attribute.

The tools of journalism: curiosity, empathy, the ability to ask questions, gather information, find context, get to the core of a story and then convey that simply and succinctly in either words or photos, transfer to many careers. And, if my experience scanning job ads daily is any indication, the range of those careers is only growing.

Smart companies and organizations are realizing the best way to connect with their audience of customers is emotionally, by building a relationship. The foundation of that emotional bond used to be slick, intelligent campaigns borne from market research and devised by ad copywriters. Social media eliminates the need for that middleman.

Companies and organizations can communicate directly with consumers, wrest control of their story away from the suits on Madison Avenue.

But it can’t happen off the side of someone’s already full desk.

And so whole new job titles and classifications are being created every day: digital content manager; engagement specialist; even marketing journalist. Almost all those jobs are looking for someone with journalism education or experience. But they’re also seeking a background in marketing, branding, search engine optimization, communications strategy. Those are skills you’re likely to learn in business school.

Journalism school is still relevant and valuable. Prospective journalists heading into post-secondary education need to look past the increasingly obsolete career path as a reporter for traditional media and guide their storytelling skills to very specific outlets that value a professional telling their story.

Complement those basic reporting courses with subjects like marketing and communications. At the very least, if you do land a rare gig at a newspaper or broadcast outlet, you’ll make a heck of a business reporter. But you’ll have a lot more job prospects, security and growth potential outside that rut.

Adding and subtracting in the FRF peloton

The following piece was originally published on The Big Ring

The peloton giveth. And the peloton taketh away.

The most well-attended FRF ride thus far rolled out from River Market powered by 13 pairs of legs. Over the course of the planned 85 km route, we were joined by four more, bringing our peloton to 17. But it’s the 18th rider who wasn’t there that brought us all together for a special Saturday outing.

It’s the one-year anniversary of the passing of John Lee, our peloton’s missing man.
John was a devoted family man who made it one of his life’s missions to instil his love for cycling into his daughter.

He brought her along to local races to share with her the excitement of the pack rounding a corner at speed, pedals and spokes whirring, the breeze generated by its passing blowing hair and hats askew.

During our group rides John told us of his cycling adventures with his daughter. Often, if our planned route was a long one, he’d veer off and head for home for an afternoon ride with her.

When word spread through our peloton last year of his sudden passing, we were all in disbelief; John seemed fit, a strong rider whose calves tirelessly pumped like pistons up hills, through the countryside, along the urban bike routes.

Sometimes the clock of life operates on its own schedule.

John made our group stronger in its formative seasons; he was ready to ride in all weather. He wasn’t caught up in cycling’s fickle fashion foibles; he loved his classic steel bicycle and eschewed modern clipless pedals for old-timey toe clips and leather straps wrapped snugly around his vintage lace-up shoes.

But he’d be proud of the group’s growing dynamic and the new kit that turned heads as we rode into the turf of other established groups like Glottman-Simpson on their traditional riding day. It was as if the FRF was announcing its official arrival on the local road riding scene.

It’s fitting then, that our John Lee Memorial Ride was also a bit of a coming out celebration for the Fraser River Fuggitivi.

Filmmaker’s Storyhive project hits close to home

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Photo by Mario Bartel Joel McCarthy, right, and Nach Dudsdeemaytha are two-thirds of the creative force behind This Is A Spoon Studios on Auckland Street. The New Westminster filmmakers just won a $10,000 Storyhive grant from Telus to produce a pilot for a possible tv series.

Joel and Rachel have just discovered they’re pregnant.

The only problem is – well, actually there’s several problems: Joel is an ambitious young filmmaker who’s not sure how fatherhood will fit into his career plans. And Rachel prefers the company of women.

If that sounds like the set-up for a primetime sitcom, it could soon be.

It’s also Joel McCarthy’s real life.

McCarthy, 25, is a New Westminster filmmaker. His friend, Rachel Kirkpatrick, is pregnant with their child. And as they kept explaining the nuances of their non-traditional relationship to friends and family and planned to navigate their impending parenthood, they realized they had the seeds for a pretty funny story.

“I’ve got the ability to find things before they’re funny,” said McCarthy, a Capilano University film grad. “I realize when life is funny.”

McCarthy operates This is a Spoon Studios in New Westminster with two of his fellow grads, Nach Dudsdeemaytha and Charles Chen. They pay the bills by shooting corporate videos and travel documentaries in places like Peru, Morocco, India and Panama for non-profit organizations.

But their passion is turning their own personal adventures into crazy narratives.

Their first feature, a documentary called Taking My Parents to Burning Man, followed the foibles of a colleague, Bryant Boesen, as he took his parents to the Burning Man festival, an annual ritual of debauchery, music , mind-altering substances and fire in the middle of the Nevada desert. They endured a broken-down RV and party-hearty travelling companions. They were rewarded with accolades on the festival circuit.

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Photo by Mario Bartel Joel McCarthy’s first feature success was a documentary about an unconventional roadtrip to the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

Their second feature, Shooting the Musical, is a no-budget mockumentary about a group of film school grads trying to produce the most offensive film of all time. It was shot with a crew of volunteers on the sly at local schools after McCarthy submitted fake scripts to gain approvals from administrators. It’ll be released in August.

“I’m not exactly proud of how we got it done,” said McCarthy, smiling. “But it’s hard to sue people with so little.”

McCarthy, Chen and a couple of buddies also produced a web series called Average Dicks and they recently participated in the Crazy 8’s competition that challenges filmmakers to deliver a finished project in just eight days.

But Inconceivable will be their most ambitious effort to date. It’s also the first time the’ll have a budget they didn’t have to beg, borrow or crowd-fund.

That’s because they just learned their pitch for Inconceivable won a $10,000 grant from Storyhive, an initiative by Telus to help up-and-coming filmmakers get passion projects off the ground. The money will allow them to hire real actors to play the autobiographical parts as well as give them the freedom from financing concerns to develop, write  and produce the script for the 10-minute pilot by July 27, which could evolve into a five-episode series or more.

“It’s going to free us up to get access to the things we need,” said McCarthy.

Their entry into the competition almost didn’t happen. McCarthy and Didsdeemaytha didn’t create their one-minute video pitch until just before the deadline. Once submitted, they spent a solid week on social media getting out the vote.

Now that their project has been green lit, McCarthy faces the reality of spinning his own awkward life situation into comedic gold.

“It’s going to end up hitting close to home,” said McCarthy. “It’s going to be about the pressure a lot of creative people feel between having security versus keep creating to push their career forward.”

Hopefully, he said, his own life will follow the latter path. After all, he’s got a lifetime of fodder to fuel his ideas.

“It’s easier when you have so much source material,” said McCarthy. “We’re just a group of nerds. A lot of what we do is like summer camp.”

Life cycle

Mario Bartel storyteller blog cyclist photographer communicator
A Chopper bike from Canadian Tire that looked a lot like this one, was my first memorable ride.

Cyclists can  define the stages of their lives by their bikes.

The first significant bike I remember was an orange Chopper-style bike from Canadian Tire that arrived under the Christmas tree when I was 7 or 8 years-old. It was a sweet, tricked out ride, with an elongated black seat supported by a low-rise “sissy bar,” a three-speed “stick” shifter mounted on the wide top tube and, of course, the obligatory hi-rise handlebars which I occasionally adorned with streamers. It was a bad-ass ride; apparently I liked to channel my inner Easy Rider when I was a kid.

When I outgrew that, I convinced my parents to spend $89 on a Shields road bike from the Consumers Distributing catalogue store with proper curved handlebars and a four-speed internal hub gear system. It weighed a ton; I think the tubes were cast from iron. But it took me on adventures to distant parks, gave me my first taste of freedom on the road.

In high school, I started to get more serious about my cycling endeavours. I saved my allowance money and eventually accumulated enough to purchase a real Peugeot road bike from a real bike shop. The grey steel frame was accented with chromed forks. The downtube shifters connected to a bonafide 10-speed derailleur. It weighed about a third of the clunky Shields, but it was no thoroughbred by any means.

When I caught the occasional glimpse of the Tour de France highlights on TV, hosted by John Tesh, I cheered for the riders on Peugeots.

I rode far, and tried to go fast on that bike.

In university I kicked my bike game up another notch.

A chance visit to a local Italian bike shop to kill time while getting new tires put on my dad’s car introduced me to a beautiful Rossi stallion. It’s chromed Columbus Aelle tubing glinted in the sunlight. The Campagnolo Nuovo Record group sounded exotic, but was renowned for its simplicity and durability. The Mavic wheelset gave it racing cred, although I had no intentions of testing my legs in that way.

The $900 price tag was a major kick to my meager student finances; but I was in love. The next Saturday, she was mine.

Astride the Rossi, I was a “serious” cyclist. She took me on epic 100 km rides. She carried me on cycling dates. I upgraded parts, affixed a fancy set of red Look clipless pedals.
She was my ride and joy for about 10 years, although I hung onto her long after she was retired. Her lithe silhouette had a place of honour in my bachelor apartment, a piece of gleaming chromed kinetic sculpture leaned against a living room wall.

When I moved west, the Rossi and my Kona mountain bike mounted on the Thule roof rack upon my red Toyota Tercel, I rewarded my assurance of a new job by heading to the nearest high-end bike shop. I picked out a sweet Cramerotti frame with a red, white and blue fade paint job on the Columbus SLX tubes and, of course, chromed stays and fork. I cherry-picked the groupset, brakes and wheelset to build her up. She was practically a custom bike, my dream machine.

The Cramerotti carried me up and down the local mountains with ease. She took me out to the countryside and navigated busy city streets. And when I signed on for a cycling tour to accompany the 2003 Tour de France, she was to transport me through the streets of Paris, up the legendary Pyreénean climbs of Col d’Aspin and Luz Ardiden.

That was the plan, at least; until a fateful detour after a visit to the bike shop to get her pedals removed in preparation for packing her into a travel box took me under an overhang that was too low for the Cramerotti mounted on the roof rack of my car. The thud was sickening, the damage heartbreaking. And terminal. My flight departed in 36 hours!

A panicked visit to the bike shop set me up with a Specialized Allez Comp. Not my first choice, especially the wild and crazy zebra-stripe livery; but it fit, and the shop could have it set up for me by the end of the day.

The Allez performed admirably in France, turned heads even. My attachment to her stiff, responsive ride and assured ascending grew. But ours was an ill-fated relationship; a week after returning from France I was hit by a car turning left and the bike was bent out of alignment.

Insurance set me up with my next ride, a bright orange and blue Orbea.

I was enamoured with the Spanish brand after watching their bikes perform for the small Basque team, Euskaltel-Euskadi. They were a plucky bunch, scrapping their way up mountainsides amongst the best climbers, then faltering miserably against the time trialing machines like US Postal and ONCE. They were a regional outfit playing in the same sandbox as multinational big boys. And Orbea is a co-op, where the workers each own an equal share in their employer.

The Orbea’s bright colours caught admiring glances, her unusual brand sparked conversations. Her light aluminum frame climbed like a demon and she descended on a rail.

Orbea and I spent more than 32,000 kms together. I knew her every quirk, her every squeak and squeal. She carried me to my wedding. She was my ride of choice on my first Gran Fondo.

She would have been my forever bike, until my heart was stolen by a sassy French Lapierre.

Each of my bikes (well, I’m not so sure about the clunky Shields department store bike), or at least parts of them, went on to another life. The Cramerotti’s pedals were ported over to the Specialized. When it’s short life ended, it’s components were installed on the Orbea, which is still being ridden by a friend.
The beloved Rossi, after years of collecting dust interrupted by occasional service as a winter trainer bike, became a throw-in when I sold an old mountain bike to another buddy; it sparked another’s love for the road.

The chainring of life…

The pursuit of weird

This travelogue was originally published on The Big Ring

There’s something about Portland.

Yeah, it’s weird. But in a comfortable, endearing way.

Portland’s weirdness is fun, not threatening.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer writer blog communicator Portland
There’s no shortage of wonderful weirdness at Portland’s Saturday market in Old Town.

My first visit to Stumptown was a respite from a camping road trip down the Oregon coast with a buddy. We’d secured tickets to They Might be Giants at the Crystal Ballroom, so a night in the city, bunked in a motel room was a bit of a break from sleeping in a damp tent.

The city’s network of geographical streets and avenues is confusing; the first place we alighted after exiting the interstate was a leafy part of town called Nob Hill.

We booked into a cheap motor hotel called the Carriage Inn that seemed stuck in the 1960s. The linoleum was worn, the bedding threadbare; but it was  reasonably clean and all the rooms had fully-equipped kitchens.

We explored the neighbourhood, populated with old, well-kept Victorian homes and apartment blocks. People sat on their porches, chatted in manicured courtyards. Nearby 21st Avenue was alive with people enjoying dinner or a beer on tables in front the numerous restaurants, bistros and pubs. Two blocks away, on 23rd Avenue, couples and families strolled past shops and boutiques.

In the opposite direction, Powell’s Books and Portland’s downtown were only a 10-minute walk away.

But mention Nob Hill to an outsider, and they usually just shrugged; they never heard of it.

Nob Hill became my go-to district for subsequent visits to Potland, for the GI Joe’s Indy, for journalism conferences.

Then, the Carriage Inn closed.

When it reopened it had been funkified into an eclectic boutique hotel with chartreuse walls, lime green and orange furniture, tubs of colourful saltwater taffy and Starburst chewies in the lobby. It was renamed the Inn at Northrup Station, after the new tram line right out front.

It was time to share my love for Portland with Princess of Pavement.

She immediately took to the city’s friendly folk and their slightly off-kilter vibe.

We went there for part of our honeymoon. We went for her first marathon. We went just because we felt a need for a little dose of Portland.

Last week we went to celebrate the conclusion of another grueling semester in the Princess’ transformation from journalist to science geek.

As always we had no set plan.

I was hoping to catch an exhibit by American photographer William Eggleston at the Portland Art Museum. The Princess wanted to visit her favourite boutiques on 23rd. We both wanted to explore some new neighbourhoods. And, of course, renew our allegiance to Salt and Straw ice cream.

The Eggleston exhibit was brilliant, the Art Museum quite fine with a bold collection of contemporary works.

We used Portland’s transit network of trams, streetcars and buses to get to the Hawthorne/Belmont area and up to Williams/Mississippi on the city’s north side where we popped into Hopworks’ Bike Bar. Sadly , other than some frames hanging from the ceiling and taps adorned with repurposed hubs and stems,the cycling vibe was somewhat lacking in this bike-themed bar. The Flandrian it is not.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer writer blog communicator Portland
Sure, the Bike Bar has bikes; but it lacks a cycling atmosphere.

But our visit did connect us with one of the guys behind another recent addition to Portland’s craft beer taps, Labrewatory. One of its owners was visiting Bike Bar and recognized my Steel & Oak hoodie as he’d done some consulting work to help them set up their brewing system. He invited us to stop by.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer writer blog communicator Portland
Beer + science = great taste at Labrewatory in Portland.

Labrewatory doesn’t just help other brewers get off the ground, they also serve up some pretty fantastic beers in their stylish tasting room; their Golly G Porter and Abuelita Stout are outstanding.

In our eternal quest for a great sandwich, we time-travelled back to the 1970s in a cluttered hole-in-the-wall counter called Bunk, where their excellent Cubano was served up by a guy rockin a ‘fro to ELO on the sound system. But Lardo’s pork meatball Banh Mi, so beloved on the foodie blogs, was a letdown; it just doesn’t compare to the light freshness of Freebird’s at our own River Market.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer writer blog communicator Portland
The Princess of Pavement time travels to the 70s at Bunk sandwiches.

As for Salt and Straw; we visited every day during our time in Stumptown. Let’s just say their chocolate gooey brownie may be my most favourite ice cream, ever.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer writer blog communicator Portland
Salt + Straw = Joy!

Modern touches honour the past in heritage home

The following story was originally published on Tenth to the Fraser

Kathryn Matts grew up in a heritage home on Queen’s Avenue. So when she and husband Brian decided in 2009 to move their family back to New Westminster from Burnaby, she knew she wanted to surround herself with walls that breathed history.

Finding the George and Delina Reid House on 10th Street was love at first sight, said Matts.
The Craftsman house was built in 1911 and still features the original shingles and clapboard siding on its exterior. Inside, the hardwood floors, wooden ceiling beams, dark fir panels, leaded glass doors and 17 stained glass windows are all original, as are some of the art deco lamps.

“It’s pretty amazing when you think of everything that survived,” said Matts.

The house was occupied by CPR warehouseman Joseph H. Method from 1925-26, and then by rancher Alex McPhail and his family until 1963.

Subsequent owners made some changes, like building an illegal suite in the basement; but the bones, the home’s character, endured.

Matts knew they’d have to respect that legacy as they modernized their new home to accommodate  her family and their contemporary lifestyle. Electrical and plumbing systems were updated, a music room was converted to a laundry room and powder room. But the biggest change was to the kitchen, which was moved to the opposite side of the house, enlarged and opened up to a family room.

A fireplace was sacrificed, but other details were painstakingly honoured.

“Some things had to go,” said Matts. “We wanted to keep elements that were really important.”

Each piece of dark wood moulding was removed, numbered, restored and then put back into place, like a puzzle. A pair of stained glass windows from the old music room were given new frames and a new home in the family room. The oak floor was matched to the finish of the original floors elsewhere in the house. New pocket doors between the kitchen and dining room were patterned and finished after the originals, still in place between the dining room and front parlour. An original archway in the front entrance was recreated at the hallway’s other end, leading into the family room.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” said Matts. “I want people to see they can have the kitchen of their dreams with an open concept feeling, but still hold onto the heritage value. Living in a heritage home isn’t all creaky floors and drafts.”

The Heritage Homes Tour has been a New Westminster tradition for 37 years. This year’s tour will be held Sunday, May 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

When we were kids (again)

This story originally appeared on Tenth to the Fraser

This fall, Sunday Morning Road Hockey will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

I was there when it started, back in 1991.

That’s when I rounded up a few buddies in the local media business to rekindle our childhood passion for road hockey.

We gathered on the old tennis courts in New Westminster’s Queen’s Park, put down some spare boots and jackets for goalposts and had at it. Just like when we were kids.

Because as much as ice hockey is our national obsession, the street game is our national pastime.

Pretty much every kid who grew up in Canada has played road hockey. They know the sting of the evil orange ball on a cold day. They understand the unique skill of shooting that ball with a plastic “Superblade” worn down by the hardtop to the thickness of a toothpick. They’ve scowled at insensitive drivers with the temerity to drive through their game to get home. They’ve delayed dinner just to play a little longer. They’ve played out the thrill of winning a Stanley Cup between the curbs.

It’s that spirit we wanted to renew with our little impromptu pickup game.

Our one-off game was a lot of fun. So we played again the next week. And then the week after that. Friends invited friends. Soon enough someone acquired proper nets.

Tired of always chasing balls on the expansive courts, we eventually moved the game to a lacrosse box next to Cariboo Secondary School in Burnaby.

But when the New West school district rebuilt Herbert Spencer elementary with two enclosed hockey courts and a basketball court atop its underground parkade, we quickly repatriated the game to its hometown. We claimed the middle court and never left.

By now the founding media contingent was outnumbered by teachers, engineers, students, a social worker. Some of them shared the same first name, so we started doling out distinguishing nicknames, a tradition of old-time hockey that’s largely been lost as the game and the media that cover it has become more professional.

Every week the game started with the same routine; everyone threw their sticks into a pile at centre court and someone was designated to randomly divide it into the two teams that would compete.

Equipment was haphazard at best; one legendary goalie eschewed protective leg pads for years, relying on fearlessness and quick reflexes instead to make dazzling saves.

One spring someone showed up with a broken hockey sticked wrapped in tinfoil and declared it the prize for the season’s final game, the Stanley Stick. Eventually it became a proper trophy with a bowl for chugging champagne.

Other traditions evolved; the Shrimp Ring Bowl to welcome the new year, a midsummer game to renew acquaintances during the off-season.

The early games were chronicled in a photocopied newsletter, then a rudimentary website on Geocities, then finally a proper website with its own domain. After all, isn’t it the dream of every Canadian kid to see their hockey exploits documented in print?

Over the years generations of players have come and gone. Some succumbed to time pressures from growing family obligations. Some lost interest or invested their energy in other sports. Some moved away to pursue their education or new job opportunities: the legendary goalie is now a sports reporter for the Association Press in Buffalo; another charter player, Sweater Vest, is the communications director for the Mayor of Los Angeles; a more recent recruit was elected to Parliament in the last federal election.

Some years attendance has been better than others. When the commitment of players flags doubt creeps in about the game’s continued existence. But then a new recruit shows up; he tells a couple of friends and renewed life has been breathed back into Sunday mornings.

It’s hard to say how many people have played Sunday Morning Road Hockey over the years; some stopped by just once and moved on before they could ever be bestowed a nickname, a few have been chasing the evil orange plastic ball for two decades or more. Most all of them found at least a momentary connection back to their childhood, a brief escape from the responsibilities and expectations of adulthood.

When we were kings

Twenty-five years ago, I became a British Columbian.

Of course I didn’t realize it at the time.

On May 2, 1991 I was just a young news photographer looking for work. A recession had displaced me six years into my first full-time gig at Oshawa-Whitby This Week, a large tri-weekly that was part of TorStar’s Metroland chain in Southern Ontario. I’d had a good run: I covered two Memorial Cup national junior hockey championships as well as the frenzy around a young hockey wunderkind named Eric Lindros; I shot several elections, some big fires, car racing in Toronto and Montreal, Rick Hansen’s epic roll through town.

But I felt I still had a lot of great photos in me and I was willing, and  able, to go anywhere to have the opportunity to shoot those photos.

A connection through the Canadian News Photographers Association recommended I talk to Craig Hodge, the chief photographer of the Metrovalley News Group, a burgeoning chain of community papers in Vancouver’s suburbs. I called him; there was no internet then, no email. He happened to be headed to Ontario to speak at a conference, he said. A few weeks later we met; he reviewed my portfolio and told me there was work out west, although he couldn’t make any guarantees it would lead to permanent employment.

In the early 1990s newspapers still ruled the media landscape. Getting a staff photographer gig at one was like winning a lottery; many tried but very few succeeded. Usually it was shooters with the fortitude and persistence to hang around picking up freelance or scrap shifts, or to chase ambulance in the middle of the night, who were eventually rewarded with a business card and a steady paycheque.

But the poor economy had diminished even those opportunities in Ontario. And when the occasional morsel of a newspaper shift did become available, it was immediately besieged by any number of talented, more experienced freelancers and displaced staffers hungry for work.

So at the end of April I loaded some clothes, provisions and camera gear into my trusty red Toyota Tercel, mounted my road and mountain bikes in the Thule rack on the roof and headed west. Other than a family friend who’d offered to let me couch surf for awhile, I had no idea what the future held.

Mario Bartel storyteller photographer journalist communicator blog
Looking pensive as I wear my stylish vintage camera that didn’t really work, but looked oh so cool!

The Metrovalley News Group was comprised of papers from Burnaby to Chilliwack. Many started as independents and then came into the Hacker Press fold until the whole lot was acquired by a large British publisher, Trinity, whose flagship paper was in Liverpool. They also owned the Red Deer Advocate, a small daily in Alberta.

Trinity was a big, rich company, and the situation I walked into was on par with many small or medium dailies elsewhere in the country. Our staff of four photographers, a chief photographer and an office administrator/darkroom tech, plus an assortment of freelancers as assignments demanded, covered seven communities out of a central office.

We were connected with two-way radios and pagers (!). We had a full colour darkroom, a B&W darkroom with three enlargers, a film processing room, a studio with lights and a cove wall.

Mario Bartel storyteller communicator photographer journalist blog
When the studio wasn’t in use, it became a table hockey arena.

It was a tight crew, always pushing each other to do better as we gathered at the light table at shift’s end to review negs then shared stories of the road in the red glow of the darkroom safelight. Like the time one of our photographers, a former university football player, got into a punch up with a clown who was giving him a hard time at a routine assignment. Or when our chief was thrown into the back of an RCMP cruiser to prevent him from working the perimeter of a police takedown at the end of a car chase.

The communal coverage ensured most everything in the communities we served got attention; if assignments were light in one area, the photographer could be moved over to help out where it was busier. And when big news happened it was all hands on deck to get the story, then get film back to the darkroom so editors could start building pages.

The papers may have published only twice a week, but we operated, and thought, like a daily.

We got to travel out of town occasionally to provide coverage for the chain of regional events like high school sports championships, provincial summer and winter games, the Canada Summer Games, even the Commonwealth Games when they were in Victoria. We covered local racers participating in big time events like the Molson Indy and I was sent to cover the debut of one racer, the late Greg Moore, when he first climbed into an Indy Car in Florida.

Mario Bartel storyteller communicator journalist blog photographer
In the 90s we were able to cover some pretty big stories, including the emergence of local racer Greg Moore to Indy Car.

There was professional development. The company paid for us to attend conferences; when the National Press Photographers Association’s old Flying Short Course alighted in Spokane a group of shooters from around the chain were flown down in a chartered plane. We were the only attendees who could boast at lunch that we couldn’t stick around for happy hour because our plane was warming up on the runway!

The communities responded; the papers were thick with ads and flyers; classified ads comprised 10 or 12 pages at the back of some editions. There was space for extended photo features.

Of course there were complaints; we wouldn’t be journalists if we didn’t gripe after all. The hours were long, the volume of assignments could be overwhelming, the driving between communities was arduous, the constant blurting of instructions from the two-way radios could get annoying, destroying some few moments of peace and solitude between the fund-raising tea at the seniors centre and the high school football game across town.

We didn’t appreciate it at the time but it was a bit of a golden age.

It didn’t last.

Frustrated by Canadian media ownership laws that prevented it from acquiring even more papers, Trinity decided to get out, selling its holdings to David Black, a regional publishing baron who cut his teeth in the hinterlands of the province’s interior and on Vancouver Island. We feared his spendthrift reputation, but for the most part not much changed; the Lower Mainland was a competitive environment with rival papers in every market that demanded we at least keep pace.

The first cracks appeared when editors, tired of having to deal with a remote office to vet photo assignments, lobbied successfully to have their own photographer, assigned exclusively to their newsroom. The department was broken up, some jobs were lost, the ranks of freelancers thinned.

And while the move did improve lines of communication between the newsrooms and the photographers, the camaraderie of the team was diminished, as was the commitment to ensure everything was covered.

Meanwhile, a little thing called the Internet was starting to get some attention; imagine being able to log onto a desktop computer to get news from anywhere in the world, mostly for free!

In those early, naive days, access to the web in most newsrooms was restricted to one computer. Nobody thought it important for the papers to have a website, and when we all finally got one, they were seen as a way to build a following for the printed paper. Some editors were reluctant to post stories before they appeared in print.

Little did we know…

A quarter-century later most of the photographers who worked the community scene in the 90s are out of the business, many not by their own choice. Papers have amalgamated or closed altogether, newsrooms have been downsized. The classified ads at the back of papers now barely fill two pages.

The job of photojournalist is almost extinct; we now have to prove ourselves as “multimedia journalists,” able to shoot photos, produce video and write stories, often all at the same time. And the quality of photos we used to sweat over at the light table before presenting them to editors has been diminished to “at least it’s in focus.”